Etched at the bottom of the world, Antarctica is as far south and remote as you can get. The seventh continent, as some call it, is covered in icebergs, glaciers, mountains and thick layers of snow. At first glance, Antarctica appears vast and empty – with expansive ice fields stretching for miles without anything or anyone else in sight. In reality though, Antarctica is far from being empty.
The islands and slopes of Antarctica are home to hundreds of species of animals, ranging from tiny krill to mammoth whales. An expedition to Antarctica will bring you closer than you can ever imagine to the wildlife. While traveling with G Adventures on the Antarctica Classic in Depth voyage, we saw wildlife every day and almost everywhere — from the comfort of our ship, on the zodiacs, and in close proximity on foot. These wildlife encounters were so intimate and personal they almost moved me to tears.
For all the fellow wildlife buffs out there, here is a list of animals you can expect to see in the Antarctic Peninsula:
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Gentoos are the most common type of penguins in Antarctica, and we saw hundreds of them almost every day. These orange-beaked penguins are incredibly adorable, especially when they’re tobogganing down the slopes on their chest. Most of them are really curious about people. When I sat down to observe them, one of them even walked towards me as if to say hi.
We hardly saw any Adelie Penguins as they’re not too common in the península, though we did find a lucistic one floating alone on an ice floe. Lucisim is a type of albinoism and a lucistic penguin tends to be brown instead of black. We were very lucky to find one since they’re extremely rare.
As its name implies, the chinstrap penguin has a black line across it chin. I was really looking forward to seeing this species of penguin because of its unique appearance and we finally saw them on our landing at Arctowski Station.
This is quite a common species of seal in the Antarctic Peninsula. We saw plenty of Weddell Seals in the photogenic Lemaire Channel and also in Penola Strait; most of them were lounging on ice floes when we approached. This one in particular was sleeping at Jougla Point, next to the water’s edge when we landed. He didn’t wake up or move at all as we tiptoed our way around him. It was amazing to watch him so close.
While cruising in Penola Strait, we came across a group of over 11 crabeater seals all lying close to one another on a big ice sheet. Our zodiac guide got as close as a few inches from them but they barely moved or looked disturbed. These are definitely my favorite type of seals – just look at their big shiny black eyes and shimmering velvet fur.
Another creature I’d really wanted to see was the leopard seal. These are the biggest predators in Antarctica, next to the orcas. They are known for their ferociousness and their sheer size (up to three meters in length). We came across this mother seal with its pup at Cuverville Island; you can see its snake-like head from this image but it’s hard to imagine just how big it actually is.
With its obscure-looking nose and big blobberish body, the elephant seal is quite distinctive in terms of its features. As compared to the other members of the seal family, it is a lot more hostile. On our last landing at Turret Point, we finally found an elephant seal haul out site and saw dozens of them huddled together in one biomass. As we watched from a distance, they started hooting at us with a noise that resembles car honking.
At the end of our voyage, as we sailed near King George Island, we spotted the humpbacks circling our ship. Cautiously, they approached slowly, surfacing closer and closer to us each time. We could hear them gently breathing and making shallow dives. By the time everyone had their cameras ready, the show was in full swing as the whales displayed giant flippers and flukes, and swimming under the bow.
Minke whales tend to be very shy and elusive, but we were fortunate to catch a glimpse of them feeding on the krill that were jumping above the water surface just around the bow of our vessel in Lemaire Channel. We followed closely and saw them peeking at us above the water surface from time to time. Our expedition leaders immediately led us out on zodiacs to watch them in closer distance. They disappeared almost right after we started our engines but I was lucky enough to snap this photo before they left.
Note: This article was originally published on G Adventures’ Looptail blog.
Disclaimer: I traveled with G Adventures on the Antarctica Classic In Depth (XVAESX) trip as a Wanderer In Residence, but all opinions expressed here are entirely my own. Read more about my journey through these Antarctica blog posts.