Antarctica Wildlife

Antarctic Wildlife

Antarctica is a continent of extremes. It holds the title of coldest, driest and windiest location on earth. Temperatures have been recorded as low as -129 degrees F, with winds blasting along the coastline at speeds up to 200 mph. Its average interior precipitation is less than a couple of inches per year, making Antarctica a peculiar and brilliant frozen desert of snow. But even in such harsh conditions Antarctica remains the home of a large variety of extraordinary wildlife.

Wildlife in Antarctica is most active in the austral summer months. During this time seals, whales, penguins and a large diversity of other seabirds migrate to the continent to breed and feed on the virtually unlimited supply of krill, crustaceans, and fish. Each summer month has its own unique wildlife viewing opportunities not to be missed.

Antarctica cruises offer amazing wildlife viewing opportunities and the following tables can help in planning your Antarctic travel.

Antarctic Birds

Millions of seabirds breed along the coast and offshore islands of Antarctica. To survive in the biting environment, Antarctic birds have waterproof plumage, and large compact bodies with a dense layer of fat under their skin. There are nineteen species of seabirds that breed along the continent. Due to the shortage of snow-free nesting regions, most seabirds tend to procreate in large, impressive concentrations making for ideal viewing conditions for the bird enthusiasts. The birds will migrate north as the summer months come to an end, spending the winter in more temperate climates.

Species Population Breeding Month Birthing Month Characteristics
Albatrosses
(various species)
750,000 pairs Dec - July Feb - Oct Capable of flying 550 miles per day at speeds of 50 mph
Snow Petrels 1,000 pairs Oct - Nov Dec. Will desert their eggs if nests are overly disturbed
Cormorants 10,000 pairs Aug - Oct Nov - Feb Shore-feeding birds, rarely seen out of the sight of land
Antarctic Fulmars Several 100 thousand Oct - Dec Jan Capable of spitting foul smelling oil up to 5 feet if nests are threatened
Gulls Several 100 thousand Nov - Dec Jan Aggressive; robbing other bird's nests of eggs
Sheathbills 100,000 pairs Sept - Nov Nov Scavengers; only Antarctic bird that does not have webbed feet
Skuas Several 1,000 pairs Oct - Dec Dec - Jan Southern most bird; sightings have occurred at South Pole

Penguins

One of Antarctica's most familiar wildlife, penguins are considered by many to be the continent's signature species. They spend over 75% of their lives as sea where they are most comfortable. Their bodies are designed for swimming. Powerful paddle muscles and a compact hydrodynamic body shape allow penguins to swim up to 25 mph. Impressive and elegant in the water, by contrast penguins awkwardly waddle and hop once ashore.

While seventeen species of penguins can be found in the subantarctic regions - including coastal islands - only four types of the flightless birds breed on the continent itself: the Emperor, Adelie, Chinstrap, and Gentoo penguins.

Species Population Breeding Month Birthing Month Characteristics
Adelie 2.5 million pairs Sept - Oct Dec In winter, remain at sea, resting on pack ice and iceberg groups
Emperor 200,000 pairs Winter months Sept Permanent habitants of Antarctica; the only bird that breeds in winter
Chinstrap 7 million pairs Oct - Nov Jan - Feb Can only dive a max. of 230 feet, lasting no more and a half a minute
Gentoo 300,000 pairs Sept - Oct Nov The least abundant penguin species on the subantarctic islands

Antarctic Seals

Much of the early exploration of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean was do to the search for new seal communities. During the 19th and 20th century, many seals were hunted for their valuable skins and oils. Entire populations of species were driven to the brink of extinction. Thankfully, today, the seals are protected by a collection of agencies, and their numbers have continued to thrive. Because of the nutrient-rich feeding regions, and the lack of polar bears, the Antarctic has a much larger seal population than the Arctic. Most of the their life is spent in water, but seals must return to land to breed. The best locations to view their breeding grounds are on the pack ice surrounding Antarctica, or along the coastal shores of the northern islands.

Species Population Breeding Month Birthing Month Characteristics
Crabeater 30 million Austral spring Dec - Jan Largest consumer of krill, consuming 20-25 times their body weight a year
Fur 4 million Nov - Dec Nov - Jan Their valued fur led to much of the early exploration of Antarctica
Leopard 250,000 Austral summer Nov - Dec Only seal that eats its other seals
Ross 200,000 Austral spring Nov Has a siren-like call
Southern Elephant 700,000 Aug - Sept Austral summer Can dive deeper than 3200 ft., up to 2 hours
Weddell 800,000 Dec Sept - Oct Lives farther south than any other mammal, inhabiting waters just 800 miles from South Pole

Whales

Whales are divided into two main groups: toothed and baleen. The only toothed whales found in the Antarctic are the Orca and the Sperm whale, while a variety of baleen whales have been sighted: Blue, Fin, Humpback, Minke, Sei, and Southern Right. Unlike the other wildlife of Antarctica, whales do not breed in the region. However, they do take advantage of the nutrient-filled waters in the austral summer, traveling great distances from their temperate breeding waters in the north. Like seals, several species of whales were hunted until near extinction in the mid-1900s. While regulations have been placed on whaling activities, these magnificent giants have not seen their populations recover as well as the seals. Today, the entire area surrounding Antarctica is recognized as a whale sanctuary.

Species Population Size Diet Characteristics
Blue 11,000 85-100 ft. long Krill, other crustaceans Largest whale and the largest animal ever to live on earth
Fin 100,000 80-90 ft. long Squid, krill, fish Fastest of the baleen whales
Humpback 20,000 40-50 ft. long Krill, fish Very vocal, their complex songs can last 20 min. and be heard 20 miles away
Minke 500,000 30 ft. long Krill, fish, squid Only whale still hunted commercially by Japan and Norway
Orca Several 100,00 thousand 25-30 ft. long Fish, birds, marine mammals Hunt in packs; don't make the long seasonal migrations as other whales
Southern Right 4,000 50 ft. long Plankton, krill, crustaceans Slow and easily hunted, they are only beginning to recover from extinction
Sperm 750,000 50 ft. long Giant squid, fish, octopus, skate Swim in schools of 20-25; deepest diving mammal - up to 1 mile