The Most Fascinating Wildlife Habits in Antarctica

Posted by on March 25th, 2019

Most trips to Antarctica involve a two-day crossing each way of the infamous Drake Passage, the 600 mile long body of water between the tip of South America and the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula where the Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern oceans converge. When you find yourself in the middle of this epic journey, with nothing around you except a gray desolate expanse of water, passing through whipping winds and waves and wondering how anything could survive in such an inhospitable environment, you’ll still be able to spot the massive wingspan and graceful glide of the wandering albatross. They have the largest wingspan of any living bird, up to almost 12 feet, and actually need to take off like an airplane, running until they can get sufficient wind under their wings to lift up. Their “dynamic soaring” flying technique allows them to glide thousands of miles and several hours at a time without even flapping their wings. They are true seabirds that spend most of their lives at sea, up to five years on the water at a time, never touching down on land except to breed.

Albatross following the ship, Drake Passage

So how and when can you spot these special creatures in their nesting colonies? A cruise that includes South Georgia Island is simply unmissable for those who are most interested in birds – there are tens of millions of them here. The wandering albatross can be found during a stop at Prion Island – however, access is heavily regulated and it’s closed completely from the end of November through the beginning of January each year. Sadly, longline fishing has been a major threat to these birds and their South Georgia population is steadily declining each year.

Salisbury Plain in South Georgia hosts almost half a million king penguins, and you can see thousands of them clustering together in one of the largest king penguin cuddles in the world (technically known as a creche). In these creches, adults form a group around their chicks in order to keep them warm and protect them from predators, and they stay there for over a year until they’re old enough to go to sea. King penguins are also one of only two penguin species (the other being the larger emperor penguin) that do not build nests – rather, they carry a single egg on their feet under their belly for the entire two month incubation process. Each pair, which typically mates for life, works in shifts taking turns keeping their egg warm.

Finally setting foot on the White Continent is one of the most exciting parts of an Antarctic adventure. As you coast closer to shore on your zodiac boat, you may start to see pathways of packed snow, like little hiking trails, criss-crossing the hills. As you pull up to shore, you’ll start to see penguins on those pathways, waddling along in single file behind one another. This is one of the most entertaining things to witness there – these networks of “penguin highways” are actually created by the various colonies of gentoo, adelie, and chinstrap penguins so they can easily traverse between their rookeries and the water.

Whales are always a favorite to keep an eye out for in Antarctica. Nothing feels quite so majestic as watching orcas glide gracefully through the water past icebergs, or spotting spumes of mist on the horizon as you realize you’re sailing toward a pod of fin whales.

The most magical thing to witness might be the bubble net feeding of the humpback whales, a true marvel of nature that is unique to this species. Pairs or groups of humpback whales collaborate together, up to 22 hours a day during their summer feeding season, swimming in tight spirals to corral fish inward and upward towards the water’s surface before lunging into the group of fish, catching thousands in one bite. It truly feels like Blue Planet is playing out right in front of your eyes.

You’ll also see plenty of seals during your Antarctic adventure, including the leopard seal, a massive species up to 12 feet long with leopard-like spots and a similar predatory nature, and an almost reptilian face. Because of the way their mouths are curved slightly up, they always look a little like they’re smiling at you.

With a little luck, you’ll spot them napping on an ice floe in the afternoon. During the summers, male leopard seals spend hours each day underwater singing. They hang upside down and sway from side to side while uttering unique vocals that scientists believe are an important part of their breeding and mating behavior. You can hear these eerie vocals here:

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