Six Best Wildlife Sightings in Antarctica

The book of ice that is Antarctica unfolds the driest, coldest, windiest, and least-explored pages of our planet. Its lack of sunlight in the austral winter, its overabundance of sunlight in the summer, and its largely inhospitable conditions throughout the year are what also make the polar continent so ferociously alluring — and the creatures that thrive here even more so. With a terrain 98 percent covered by ice, it is the sea, not the land that supports Antarctica’s abundant animal life — one of the richest bio-diversities in the world. If your sense of adventure takes you to the Antarctic, you’ll have a chance to see some of the world’s most extraordinary wildlife.

Six Best Wildlife Sightings in Antarctica

1) Emperor Penguins

They say the answer to every question is penguins. Antarctica is home to six of the 17 species of penguins in the world and, among them, the emperor penguin reigns supreme. These flightless fowls win the superlatives in almost every category. They are the tallest and heaviest of all the penguins, towering over four feet high and weighing up to 100 pounds. They can dive deeper (1,700 feet) and survive longer without eating (4 months) than any other bird. With bold black and white coloring and distinctive yellow patches on their chests and ears, they are the most recognizable penguins as well, landing starring roles in movies like March of the Penguins and Happy Feet.

But perhaps the most impressive category the emperor penguins win is in personality, for their gallant camaraderie on the polar battlefield. When the bitter winter ambush begins, these avian behemoths look out for each other, relying on a community-minded strategy to survive the Antarctic cold. Huddling together in a layered circle for warmth, they take shifts standing on the outside, braving the glacial squalls. This way, everyone has a fair chance to get toasty at the warmest spot deep inside the huddle — an egalitarian system that benefits all. A statesman observer might say, “This is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Where to see Emperor Penguins

Six Best Wildlife Sightings in Antarctica

2) South Polar Skua

These piratical seabirds have a notorious reputation as aggressive hunters and opportunistic scavengers. With a lengthy criminal theft record, these kleptoparasites often chase and bully other birds into surrendering their crop and lurk around penguin colonies for unguarded eggs or weak chicks to prey upon.

Excellent fliers, they are often spotted hundreds of miles from land, and many are seen following ships at sea. The highly migratory skua and I are alike in that we share an incurable sense of wanderlust; during winter, these birds pack their bags and leave Antarctica, traveling north across the equator and reaching as far as Alaska and Greenland.

Six Best Wildlife Sightings in Antarctica

3) Blue Whales

Weighing more than 150 tons, the blue whale is the largest animal ever to have lived on Earth, out-weighing even the heaviest dinosaurs. To gain some perspective, this colossal whale’s tongue alone can weigh as much as an elephant — its heart, as much a car. Despite its gargantuan size, blue whales are often elusive and difficult to spot, which adds to their mystery. They are fussy eaters and surprisingly only settle for a feast of the ocean’s tiniest critters — krill — consuming an astounding 4 tons of them every day.

Explore whale-watching in Antarctica.

Six Best Wildlife Sightings in Antarctica

4) Leopard Seals

The leopard seal is a magnificent creature, sharing a name with the wild cat not only for its spotted coat, but also for its ferocious nature. The corners of a leopard seal’s mouth are permanently turned upward, giving the impression that they are always smiling. But make no mistake — this seal is vicious. It is the second-most deadly predator on the polar continent (after the orca whale), with a large, snake-like head, streamlined body, powerful jaws, and long teeth for hunting fish, squid, penguins, and even other seals. In contrast to the blue whale, the leopard seal is not picky and will hunt and eat virtually anything that moves.

Six Best Wildlife Sightings in Antarctica

5) Weddell Seals

Weddell seals are cute and cuddly looking creatures with big, glossy black eyes and barrel-shaped bodies. They live the furthest south of any mammals, preferring to congregate on floating glaciers and pack ice. They are also the most proficient divers in the Antarctic, plunging to depths beyond 2,000 feet and spending as long as 80 minutes underwater.

Interestingly, Weddell seal pups have proportionally the largest brains at birth of any known mammal. Many researchers posit that this advanced brain is necessary for their survival, as a certain level of precocity is demanded of Weddell seals at a very young age. They must start swimming in Antarctic waters just one week after birth and their mothers leave them to fend entirely for themselves after only six weeks.

Six Best Wildlife Sightings in Antarctica

6) Orca Whales

Orcas are the largest living mammals of the dolphin family, and are known for being exceptionally intelligent, sensitive, and social creatures. Their methods of communication are remarkably sophisticated with a social structure comparable to that of humans. Preferring to live within a community, orcas travel in tight-knit matriarchal pods, often breathing and diving in a coordinated fashion, and remaining close to the other members of their pod for their entire lives. They can travel up to 100 miles a day and are the most widely distributed mammal, inhabiting every ocean on the planet.

Cetaceans like orca whales are expertly attuned to long-distance hearing and they are terrifically vocal creatures. From Antarctic waters, you might be lucky enough to eavesdrop on orca conversations and listen to their melodic calls—a mesmerizing experience.

Six Best Wildlife Sightings in Antarctica

7) Not Polar Bears

You might remember a certain Coca-Cola TV ad in which a family of polar bears is woken by the sounds of penguins partying to the Beach Boys’ Christmas album. While the family is peering down at the revelers below, a baby cub inadvertently slides down a snow-covered hill into the middle of the party; the music stops, suspense builds, and then a tiny penguin offers the cub a Coca-Cola in a gesture of hospitality.

If you thought that penguins and polar bears sipping soda was the most fantastical part of this commercial, you’d be wrong. Despite many misleading children’s books and advertisements that depict polar bears and penguins interacting and inhabiting the same environments, these species have never actually met in real life. And they never will. They live at opposite ends of the world; polar bears dwell in the Arctic and all penguins reside in the Southern Hemisphere. A trip to Antarctica reveals many fantastic beasts, but polar bears are not among them!

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