Known as “the great white desert,” Antarctica doesn’t provide the most hospitable environment for life forms to survive in; Antarctic animals have to adapt to extreme dryness, high exposure, and bitterly cold temperatures. But that just makes the few extremophile species who do thrive there all the more impressive!
Despite the rising temperatures caused by climate change, approximately 98% of continental Antarctica remains covered in ice, some of which is over two miles thick. The coldest temperature ever recorded on the planet was −128.9 °F, at a scientific research station on the Antarctic Plateau. And some areas of the continent’s interior receive less than two inches of rain per year.
But the Antarctic Peninsula and subantarctic islands are somewhat more livable, with around 35 inches of annual precipitation and milder temperatures that rise above the freezing point in summer. Here’s a look at some of the incredible Antarctic animals that call our coldest continent home, with tips on where you can hope to see them:
Birds of Antarctica
Every spring you’ll find over 100 million birds in Antarctica, breeding around the rocky coastlines of the peninsula and islands. The penguins are, of course, the most famous attraction. But there are numerous other species as well, many of which have waterproof plumage and dense layers of fat that help them survive the continent’s harsh temperatures.
There are dozens of species of seabirds that can be seen nesting along the shore during summer months, often in impressively large colonies due to the scarcity of snow-free areas. These include ten species of albatross, the world’s largest flying birds; 18 species of shearwaters and petrels; three storm petrels; two diving petrels; two cormorants; two skuas; two terns; and the kelp gull.
You may also see two subspecies of yellow-billed pintails (a South American dabbling duck)—the rare South Georgia pintail and the Chilean pintail, which is often spotted in the Falkland Islands. And, keep an eye out for the pink, warty face and white feathers of the snowy sheathbill, which is the only land bird native to Antarctica.
Penguins of Antarctica
The penguins of Antarctica are almost universally beloved, and the up-close encounters visitors are virtually guaranteed to have only make them more so. The continent and the subantarctic islands are home to eight different species, all of which can be seen in fairly large numbers.
The emperor penguin is the tallest and heaviest, averaging around 50 pounds and four feet in height. Although they typically breed on pack ice and shelf ice, several breeding colonies have been found on the Antarctic Peninsula in recent years. Individuals are occasionally spotted on South Georgia, where you’ll also find king (the second largest penguin species), macaroni, gentoo, and chinstrap penguins.
Adelie, chinstrap, and gentoo penguins are all commonly seen on the Peninsula and surrounding islands, nesting on rocks relatively close to shore. Adelies are the smallest and the only ones you’ll see sliding on their bellies. Chinstraps are identified by the distinctive facial markings, while gentoos boast beautiful reddish-orange bills.
The Falkland Islands are home to huge populations of southern rockhopper penguins, the small crested species pictured in Happy Feet, as well as gentoo and Magellanic penguins. Named after Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan (who first spotted the birds during his historic circumnavigation of the Earth in 1520), Magellanic penguins have occasionally been spotted as far as north as Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Seals of Antarctica
Antarctica is home to six different pinniped species, and you’ll likely see them countless times while exploring the continent.
The largest of these is the elephant seal, which can weigh over 8,000 pounds. The smallest, the Antarctic fur seal, can weigh just over 300 pounds. Despite their vast size difference, these species have two things in common: both live north of the sea ice, particularly on South Georgia Island, and breed in harems on beaches there.
Crabeater, leopard, Ross, and Weddell seals can all live on sea ice, hunting for food underwater and breeding on ice or land (where they have no predators). Crabeater and Weddell seals can often be seen in vast breeding colonies on the Antarctic Peninsula, but leopard and Ross seals are generally more loners when they’re not in mating season.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of these seals were hunted to the brink of extinction for their prized skins and oils; but today they’re all protected, and their number shave boomed as a result. In fact, with a population estimated at approximately 15 million, the crabeater seal is one of the world’s most abundant large mammals.
Whales of Antarctica
There are 15 species of whales found in Antarctica, migrating from more temperate waters in the north to feed in the nutrient-rich waters of the austral summer. Spotting these gentle giants from the deck of your ship is arguably one of the most exciting aspects of cruising the continent. If you’re lucky enough to see them surfacing right beside your Zodiac, be prepared for one of the most heart-pounding animal encounters the world has to offer!
Whales are generally divided into two main groups. Toothed whales found in the Antarctic include sperm whales and orcas, the latter of which are referred to as “the wolves of the sea” because they hunt in packs. Baleen whales that are regularly spotted in the Southern Ocean include fin, humpback, minke, sei, southern right, and blue whales (the largest animals ever known to exist at 150-200 tons). Other cetaceans, including the southern bottlenose whale, Arnoux's beaked whale, and the southern hourglass dolphin are also present, but very rarely seen.
Much like the seals, many of these amazing Antarctic animals were hunted to a critically endangered status in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite international regulations on whaling activities, Japan continues to hunt the Southern Ocean illegally, and some species still have not seen a recovery in their overall numbers. But the entire ocean surrounding Antarctica is a whale sanctuary, and organizations such as Sea Shepherd are fighting to protect these beautiful creatures for future generations.
For more information on our upcoming expeditions to the region, visit Antarctic Cruises & Guided Tours.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 24 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.