Antarctica: The best wildlife encounters

Way, way south an icy mass twice the size of Australia, home to more penguins than people, makes itself known. Antarctica is virtually uninhabited by humans, providing shelter instead for some uniquely adapted wildlife, from fearsome leopard seals to outsized humpback whales. As a traveller to Antarctica, you must also adapt, first to rough waters cloaked in ice and then to frigid temperatures which drop ever lower the further south you venture. But these extremes become worth it upon approach, the ice sheet stretching out without end, a vast nothing enlivened by frolicking penguins and passionate scientists. Discover more about the region below.

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Things to do in Antarctica

Two of the biggest draws to the continent are getting up close with Antarctic animals and experiencing the vastness of the Antarctic environment. Even layman travellers can get their hands frosty on research missions led by expert scientists, getting involved in volunteer expeditions that track and collect data on wildlife in the region. Discover what else to do on the ice sheet with our guide of top things to do in Antarctica.

Though the Antarctic region was once notorious for scuppering expedition voyages with its harsh climate and ice-blocked passages, today, modern ships and experienced crew allow easier exploration of the region, no frostbite or iceberg damage necessary. Even so, most travellers to Antarctica will have to pass through the 965-kilometre Drake Passage, still known as one of the most difficult passages in the world for its turbulent seas. Generally, however, all that’s needed is some strong seasickness pills and you’ll arrive on the white continent as planned.

Photo: Tam Minton

Photo: Saksham Gangwar

The Antarctica Continent

The only continent with no native population or permanent human habitation, Antarctica is the definition of remote. Making up a large part of the Antarctic region in the Southern Hemisphere, the continent and its island territories (including the Orkney Islands, Shetland Islands, South Georgia and the Balleny Islands) are claimed in part by seven different nations; Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom.

Remarkably, the continent is largely defined by the Antarctic ice sheet, the single largest piece of ice on Earth which extends beyond the continent upon coastal ice shelves in the coldest months. In warm months, the ice measures around 3 million square kilometres but grows to around 19 million square kilometres by winter.

On land, the climate is every bit as dry and bitter as the ice, ranging from -10°C to -30°C in winter. Even in summer near the coast, freezing temperatures are the norm (around 0°C-9°C). For all its unwelcoming front, Antarctica is key for maintaining global climate processes and balancing the Earth’s heat to sustain life on earth. The Antarctic ice sheet serves as the world’s biggest solar reflector, ensuring the Earth doesn’t overheat from absorbing too much of the sun’s radiation. Its importance in the global climate crisis cannot be overstated, because, as this ice cover is increasingly lost, so too is the earth’s ability to balance global temperatures.

Photo: 66 North

What animals live in Antarctica? 

In spite of the harsh environment, life on Antarctica thrives. The Antarctic ecosystem starts out with lichen, moss and terrestrial algae, concentrated in the north and coastal regions. Off the edge of the ice sheet, a process called upwelling – when cold water rises from the depths towards the surface – produces an abundance of phytoplankton and algae; the primary diet for krill. In turn, krill are eaten by bigger fish and mammals, including numerous types of whale – humpback, blue, fin, minke and sperm – which all thrive in Antarctic waters. Albatross fly between these two worlds of land and sea, divebombing small fish from above.

A much fiercer predator also roams these waters. The leopard seal can measure up to 3 metres in length and 400 kilograms in weight and is equipped with super sharp teeth for preying on fish and penguins. The penguins are also key inhabitants of the region, and when they aren’t in mortal peril, they glide through the water in search of squid and fish, coming onto Antarctic land to nest and feed their young in huge colonies. It should be noted that there are no polar bears on the South Pole (that’s the North Pole you’re thinking of) but there are more than enough types of animal Antarctica can offer to keep anyone busy!

Photo: Derek Oyen

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The majority of Antarctica wildlife tours depart from Ushuaia, Argentina’s most southernmost city, and venture by ice-class vessel to the long arm of the Antarctic Peninsula

Antarctica Wildlife Cruises

The polar version of a safari, an Antarctic cruise is the most convenient way to see the animals of Antarctica up close, with as little environmental impact as possible. The majority of Antarctica wildlife tours depart from Ushuaia, Argentina’s most southernmost city, and venture by ice-class vessel to the long arm of the Antarctic Peninsula. Alternatively, to avoid two days of choppy sailing through the Drake Passage, travellers can take a flight from Chile’s Punta Arenas direct to the peninsula.

Having arrived in the region, most visitors will switch to a smaller cruise ship for day tours, such as an RIB (rigid inflatable boat) or Zodiac, to get as close as possible to the animals in Antarctica. It’s at this point you’ll get the chance to ride alongside scientists, conservationists and expert guides who all work hard to ensure the protection of local wildlife. You may also wish to join a cruise around the Falklands, Malvinas archipelago and South Georgia.

Antarctica | Photo: 66 North

Antarctica | Photo: Nitesh Jain

South Georgia and the Falkland Islands

If you’re wondering why you should lengthen your trip to include Antarctica’s outlying islands, the answer lies in the landscapes. Unlike the rest of the continent, these sub-Antarctic islands offer mountain panoramas, fronted by open plains and glaciers, far from the main ice sheet but closer to civilisation. The British-claimed territories of South Georgia and the Falklands both lie east of the southern Patagonian coast, providing some astounding visuals as well as 45 species of birds to colour the skies above, most abundantly in summer. Cruising season runs in tandem with bird migration, between October and late March, when the thermometer may even reach double digits. Though South Georgia is off-limits outside of summer, travellers can fly into the Falklands any time of year, but only if they wish to brave the frigid climate (which dips as low as -50°C in some months).

We advise visiting either island in summer when seabirds, albatrosses and singing pipits are all frequent flyers, and king, macaroni and rockhopper penguins colonise the land, notably on South Georgia’s Salisbury Plain and Saint-Andrews where hundreds of thousands of king penguins come to breed. On the kelp-covered beaches of South Georgia, you’ll also find families of elephant seals and fur seals, squabbling amongst themselves for the best sunbathing spot. In fact, South Georgia is so successful as a breeding ground for seals and penguins that it has earned the nickname the ‘crèche of Antarctica’. For this reason, we recommend coming early in the season to avoid the worst animal smells!

South Georgia | Photo: Paul Carroll

South Shetland Islands

Also claimed by the Brits and hosting world-class wildlife, the South Shetland Islands are another lot to consider. After navigating the Drake Passage alongside albatross and all manner of whale and dolphin species, you can arrive on the Shetlands – directly en route to the Antarctic Peninsula – to discover Antarctic terns, blue-eyed shags and southern giant petrels, alongside chinstrap, gentoo and Adélie penguins. The southern side of the archipelago is the most popular stopping point for cruise ships touring the region, offering a unique landscape where thriving penguin rookeries and seal colonies take over. Here you’ll learn the difference between crabeater, leopard and Weddell seals, also gaining a good eye for spotting humpbacks off the coast.

Of the 20 Shetland islands, Deception Island is perhaps the most famous, located far south in the island chain. Once a whaling station and still a refuge for ships in stormy weather, Deception Island is better known for its healthy colonies of chinstrap penguins which take over spectacular geological sites throughout summer. Besides a fair few glaciers (covering almost half the island!), Deception Island also features a volcanic caldera filled with crater lakes, black sand beaches and inviting geothermal waters such as at Pendulum Cove.

Livingston Island also has a somewhat bloody history as a major player in the sealing trade during the 19th century, but today, the wildlife regains dominance. Chinstrap, gentoo and a few macaroni penguins gather on the rocks at Hannah Point, while the beaches are reserved for elephant and fur seals. For a stroll into the past, Walkers Bay is the place to go, lined as it is with fossils, skulls and minerals and popular among researchers. Turret Point on King George Island is also a hotspot for seals and penguins.

Antarctica | Photo: Melissa

Macquarie Island

A Tasmanian State Reserve since 1978 and claimed as Australian territory some 1,500 kilometres south-east of Tasmania, Macquarie Island is another top choice for Antarctica vacations. UNESCO recognises the island as one of the most significant natural habitats on the planet, owing to its cool temperate climate providing perfect conditions for all kinds of wildlife. Seabirds such as albatross, petrels, prions and shearwaters are fond of Macquarie Island and its surrounding waters, as are marine mammals such as sea lions, fur seals and elephant seals. Penguins are in a majority, with colonies of king, gentoo and rockhopper penguins somewhat upstaged by the endemic royal penguin, 850,000 of which breed here and nowhere else on Earth.

Macquarie Island may be small but the diversity here is unparalleled. The only landfall between Auckland Island and the Antarctic mainland, Macquarie becomes a much-needed refuge for migratory seabirds and horny mammals who need land to mate, give birth and, finally, rest. Every plateau, beach, cave and rock stack on Macquarie Island is a possible home for the two million bird families that flock here each year, often inclusive of multiple generations that have gravitated back to their birthplace to continue the family line.

As well as hosting our winged friends, Macquarie also homes the beastly elephant seal, characterised by whopping (upto 3000-kilogram) males who use a large proboscis to announce themselves and sound off competition. See the males come ashore in September each year, followed by the heavily pregnant females several weeks later. Birthing and mating then continue until winter, when, finally, the elephant seals haul themselves southwards to feed on the rich ice shelves of Antarctica.

Photo: Melissa

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