Antarctica may be covered in snow and ice, giving little room for plant life to flourish, but the waters surrounding the continent are a different story. Living organisms found in the oceans are essential for the survival of seals, whales, and penguins that call this region home. Discover Antarctica's complex and fascinating ecosystem.
Penguins of Antarctica
Emperor penguinPicturing Antarctica without the iconic emperor penguin would be difficult. They are the largest penguins in the world and are distinguished by the golden-hued feathers around their face. An additional distinguishing factor is that their bills curve downward at the tip and are pinker in colour than the king penguin. After females lay their eggs, they head off to hunt for food, while the males take care of the eggs. Emperors are the only species of penguins to spend their entire lives in the Antarctic.
Best place to spot: Weddell Sea
King penguinKing penguins are another iconic penguin species tied to the Antarctic. They are the second largest species of their kind and can also be identified by the soft-orange feathers around their heads and necks. The main visual difference between emperor and king penguins is that the latter's coloured feathers reach down the neck. King penguins prefer the subantarctic islands – where they like to live in huge colonies on sloped terrain beside the sea. They have a complex breeding system, lasting 14-16 months including rearing, allowing them only to give birth twice every three years.
Best places to spot: Salisbury Plain (South Georgia), Falklands
Gentoo penguinGentoos are the most common penguin species throughout the Antarctic Peninsula. It's estimated that there are almost 300,000 breeding pairs with around 100,000 in South Georgia and 70,000 in the Falkland Islands alone. Distinguished by a patch of white above the eye as well as their peachy orange beaks and feet, this adorable bird can be observed in colonies made up of thousands. Like most penguins, they may be a little awkward on land but once in the water, they can manage both speed and grace.
Best places to spot: the Falklands, South Georgia, Antarctic Peninsula
Adélie penguinAdélie penguins were bestowed their name from French explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville, as he named them after his wife, Adèle. They are easily spotted up and down the Antarctic coast, and during the winter live at sea. Highly agile swimmers, this penguin species can manage a 298 km (185 miles) round-trip for a spot of lunch, diving up to 0.175 km (575 feet) deep in search of krill, squid and fish. Their eggs hatch in December and both males and females share the responsibility of rearing the chicks.
Best places to spot: Antarctic coast, South Shetland, South Sandwich
Chinstrap penguinChinstrap penguins get their moniker from the distinguishable thin black strap that appears on their chins. They live all over the Antarctic Peninsula, but one of the best times to see them is when their little ones are hatching. From December to January, close to four million pairs can be found keeping a watchful eye over their hatching eggs. In general, this species of penguins are fun to watch, thanks to their eccentric and boisterous behaviour, the unique way in which males attract females during their mating season.
Best places to spot: South Sandwich Islands
Macaroni penguinMacaroni penguins have notably long feathers above their eyes, which almost look like golden lashes. Their nesting patterns are similar to that of other penguin breeds, and they like rocky coasts on the subantarctic islands they inhabit. Their breeding season begins in October, and most pairs are monogamous. Macaroni penguins look very similar to rockhopper penguins which can also be spotted on the Falklands, although they look alike, rockhopper penguins are smaller.
Best places to spot: South Georgia
What is the most common penguin in Antarctica?
Penguins may be the most common bird in Antarctica, but it is the true home of only two species: emperor and Adélie. While others like chinstrap, Gentoo and macaroni prefer breeding in on the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula where the climate is not as harsh, they are the most common penguin species in the region.
How many penguins are there in Antarctica?
According to research carried out in 2017 by Ron Naveen (also known as the penguin counter), 12 million penguins are waddling away in Antarctica.
What do penguins eat?
Penguins eat what they can hunt and catch. It depends on the species, but their diet consists of seafood. They'll eat squid, fish, and small critters like krill and other crustaceans.
How do penguins stay warm?
Penguins have adapted to their environment. To stay warm, penguins gather together and take turns to stand in the middle of the huddle - where it's warm or on the edge of the group, where it's colder. They also have thick skin and lots of fat below their skin to help them stay warm.
Weddell sealWhen you think of cute Antarctic seals, the Weddell species are what most people are imagining. Their population is around one million, and you'll find them throughout Antarctica, as they don't migrate further than a few miles from their birthplace. They can swim up to 600 metres (1969 feet) below the surface, and spend most of their time submerged below the ice to avoid predators such as orca whales and leopard seals. Although during breeding season they prefer to inhabit fast ice (sea ice that is "fastened" to the coastline).
Best places to spot: Common throughout Antarctica
Fur sealYou'll find these adorable fur seals throughout Antarctic and subantarctic waters. A vast majority of the species breed near the coast of South Georgia and other subantarctic islands. They are distinguished by their funny ears which poke out of their heads. By nature, fur seals are inquisitive and love to wander, some individuals have even been seen as far as Brazil! Because of their beautiful furry coats, fur seals were almost hunted into extinction, but today, it's estimated that their population is over two million.
Best places to spot: South Georgia during the breeding season (November-December)
Leopard sealLeopard seals (also known as sea leopards) are named after their coats and fierce predatory tendencies. The pattern on their fur is reminiscent of the black spots that adorn leopards. Unlike other seal species that like to dive deep, leopard seals prefer to stay near the surface, and unless breeding, spend most of their time in the water. Leopard seals are solitary by nature and only live in pairs and small groups while mating. After their pups are born, it is the females who take care of the little ones until the young can fend for themselves.
Best places to spot: Shallow waters around subantarctic islands
Elephant sealThere are two types of elephant seals, north and south. Southern elephant seals are the ones found living in subantarctic and Antarctic waters. They get their namesake from the trunk-like feature that mature male elephant seals develop. While they breed on land, they spend their winters submerged in cold waters near pack ice, and the females give birth in late winter. Nursing mothers and little ones feed off of the energy stores found in blubber.
Best places to spot: Lazing around South Georgia and the subantarctic Macquarie Island
Crabeater sealCrabeater seals have specially designed teeth which help them devour their catch of the day. Despite what their name suggests, this seal species lives off krill. Their teeth structure allows them to suck in water containing krill, and they then expel the water, which causes the krill to become trapped between their jaws. Of all the Antarctic seal species, crabeaters are the most social and when younger can be found living in groups of around 1000. They are one of the most abundant large mammals on earth.
Best places to spot: Crabeater seals spend their entire life in the pack-ice zone surrounding Antarctica
Ross sealRoss seals differ in their looks from other species, their heads are small and wide, their snouts are shorter, and they almost have no neck. The rarest of all species and thanks to their remote and isolated habitats, very little is known about the breeding, social and feeding habits of Ross seals. They have been sighted in Southern Ocean waters around Antarctica, and some have been seen in subantarctic islands such as South Sandwich, South Orkney, and Falklands.
Best places to spot: Extremely rare, they live in remote parts and heavy pack ice that is difficult to break through
What do Antarctic seals eat?
The largest of Southern Ocean seals are elephant seals, and the smallest are fur seals. Seals are carnivores and like to feast on seafood such as fish, squid or krill. Leapoard seals prey on penguins, smaller seals and pups and even seabirds.
How do seals survive in Antarctica?
Seals can survive Antarctic temperatures thanks to their thick layers of blubber which provide them with insulation and work as a food reserve. Many species also have a warm coat of fur.
From December to April, whales can be seen all around Antarctica starting from the Drake Passage crossing – but hotspots include Wilhelmina Bay, and February to March are the best months for spotting these beautiful creatures.
Blue whaleThe largest and loudest animal, blue whales are not exclusive to Antarctica and live in oceans all over the planet. It’s not easy to estimate how many blue whales exist in the wild today as they lead solitary lives in deep, deep waters. While their numbers are recovering, sadly this species is still endangered. Their summer migrations to Antarctica make it one of the best places in the world to catch a sight of these elusive and majestic mammals. They’ve been known to measure up to 30 metres long (98 feet) and weigh in the region of 150 tonnes (150,000 kilograms).
Best places to spot: Surprisingly elusive, sightings are rare
Humpback whalesThis species is best known for their accomplished acrobatic skills and a haunting whale song. Humpback whales can hurdle themselves out of the water and flip over on their backs, quite the feat, given their size. You can spot them by their enormous flippers which measure one-third of their body length and are often seen being waved with enthusiasm in the air. Most cruises itineraries in Antarctica will include a crossing through humpback feeding grounds, where up to 20 individual whales may be seen forming a cluster.
Best places to spot: Wilhelmina Bay
OrcaAlso known as killer whales, orcas are actually dolphins parading as whales. Over two-thirds of the planet’s orcas live in Antartica, which is estimated at around 70,000. This highly intelligent species of predatory whales is understandably famous for their hunting abilities and their prey includes fish, seal and even minke whales. You’ll recognise their black and white colouring, and may also have seen one in an aquarium. But seeing one in the wild is a different experience altogether.
Best places to spot: Lemaire Channel
Minke whaleOne of the smallest whale species, minke whales are curious creatures that have been known to swim up to boats and go out of their way to approach boats. They are usually around nine-metres long and always fun to watch as they like to jump out water, especially while feeding. They are mostly found around open pack ice in the summer and heavy pack ice in the winter, and one of the most common whales sighted on expeditions cruises in Antarctica.
Best places to spot: Lemaire Channel
Fin whaleAfter the blue whale, fin whales are the second largest mammal in the world, and like blue whales, this whale species is also found in waters all over the world. Their heads have an unusual feature: the lower right jaw is bright white, and the lower left jaw is black. Not much is understood about their migration patterns. In the Southern Hemisphere, fin whales migrate south to feed on krill and other plankton during the summer, and north in winter so they can give birth in waters closer to the Equator.
Best places to spot: Antarctic Peninsula, Ross Sea, Weddell Sea, Falkland Islands, South Georgia
Sperm whaleIt’s typically only male sperm whales that are spotted in Antarctica, as they lead lives either alone or in groups away from females and calves who favour warmer tropical waters. Sperm whales can dive deeper than any other whale species, between 400-800 metres, but this number could be closer to 3000 metres as that’s where they can find their favourite thing to eat, giant squid. They have the largest brain of any creature in the wild.
Best places to spot: Usually found offshore and in areas with submarine canyons
What do whales eat?
Some whale species will feed on seals and other whales, but most rely on plankton and krill to sustain themselves.
How long do whales live?
The life expectancy of a whale depends on what kind of species it is. Orcas can live up to 50 years, while a blue whale can live up to 90 years.
How deep can whales dive?
Some whale species can live up to 3000 metres deep.
How long can whales hold their breath?
Sperm whales make the deepest dives and can hold their breath up to 90 minutes before returning to the surface to breathe.