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Antarctica Wildlife & Polar Travel Guide

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It's time to break the ice (literally) on that long-awaited trip to the white continent, Antarctica! Here, you'll find some helpful information for planning your trip, including everything from where to start planning to the more specific Antarctica travel FAQs & which ship to choose. The highlight of most Antarctica tours is seeing the tough Antarctic wildlife like penguins, seals, seabirds, and a variety of other whale species, among others. Of course, a trip to Antarctica could also feature stops in South Shetland Island & the Falkland Islands or even Chile and Argentina, and our staff has put together some great resources for those destinations as well. 

Wildlife & Animals of Antarctica

All Antarctica Travel Articles
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. 
 
Antarctic Wildlife Fun Facts
  • You will see wildlife everywhere, yet Antarctica is the least biodiverse continent on the planet
  • Antarctica is the coldest and driest continent and all creatures that venture upon land are considered extremophiles due to the extreme climate.
  • Very few animals or plants live on land, and most that do are partially terrestrial and heavily dependent upon the ocean for food.
  • The only truly terrestrial animals are tiny invertebrates like nematodes (tiny worms), microscopic mites, and lice. The largest is a flightless midge measuring 6mm (1/4 inch) 
  • Only primitive plants like algae, fungi, mosses, lichens and liverworts have evolved to survive in the cold, dry climate
  • Only 0.34% of its area is ever free of ice or snow leaving a tiny amount of soil for terrestrial ecosystems. No or limited light during the winter months puts further stress upon plants.
  • Marine life is rich and abundant fueled from a food web based upon phytoplakton, krill, squid and fish 
  • 90% of the world's ice, which represents 70% of the world's fresh water is on the Antarctic continent, yet one of the major factors limiting life here is lack of water.
  • The ice depth averages 1 mile (1.6km) thick, and if the Antarctic ice shelf melted the world's oceans would rise approximately 200 feet (60 meters)!
Penguins

Penguins spend over 75% of their lives as sea where they are most comfortable, as their bodies are designed for swimming, or more precisely, flying through the water. Powerful paddle muscles and a compact hydrodynamic body shape allow penguins to swim up to 25 mph. By contrast penguins awkwardly waddle and hop once ashore.

Seventeen species of penguins can be found in the subantarctic regions only four types of penguins breed on the continent itself: the Emperor, Adelie, Chinstrap, and Gentoo penguins.

Read more about the penguins of Antarctica.
Antarctic 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 are regularly sighted: Blue, Fin, Humpback, Minke, Sei, and Southern Right. The Southern Bottlenose, Arnoux's beaked whale and even the southern hourglass dolphin are also present but very rarely spotted.

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.

Read more about whales in Antarctica.
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 46 species of birds that inhabit Antarctica including penguins, albatrosses, cormorants, petrels, bitterns, shearwaters, herons, egrets, ducks, geese, swans, sheathbills, skuas, jaegers, and gulls.

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.

Read more about Antarctic birds.

 
Antarctic Seals

Six species of seals live in the Antarctic: The Weddell, Ross, leopard, crabeater, fur, and the giant elephant seals, which weigh up to 4000 kg, almost 9000 pounds! 

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.

Read more about Antarctic seals. 
 

Live It! Our Favorite Antarctic Wildlife Cruises

More Antarctica Cruises
Trip NameFromDaysNext DepartureSummary
Antarctic Small Ship Expedition$599511Mar 16, 2021Embark on this 11-day Antarctic cruise aboard Magellan Explorer. Sail the Beagle Channel from Ushuaia and across the infamous Drake Passage to the …
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Solar Eclipse, South Georgia and Antarctica$1699517Nov 26, 2021Experience the first solar eclipse in Antarctica in 18 years set for December 4, 2021! Enjoy the close-up encounters with the marine animals, nature …
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Classic Antarctica Air Cruise$129958Jan 2, 2021Embark on this 8-day Antarctic cruise with Hebridean Sky Air Cruises. Fly over the Drake Passage from Punta Arenas to King George Island where you …
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Classic Antarctica$486010Nov 3, 2021This classic small ship cruise to Antarctica lets you follow in the footsteps of the early Antarctic explorers like Shackleton, Cook & Ross. Explore …
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Antarctica Express Air Cruise$49956Dec 15, 2021This 6-day Antarctic adventure aboard the small luxury cruise ship Hebridean Sky sails to Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands. As you cruise, …
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Solar Eclipse, South Georgia and Antarctica$1400015Nov 26, 2021Enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime 15-day Antarctic cruise aboard the Ocean Victory to see a total solar eclipse in December 2021. Follow the path of the …
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Antarctica Solar Eclipse$1199514Nov 29, 2021On December 4th 2021, a total solar eclipse will be viewable only from some of the Earth’s most southern latitudes – an exclusive and unique …
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Journey to Antarctica - The White Continent$1494012Dec 9, 2020This 12-day classic Antarctica cruise delivers huge tabular icebergs, sculptural bergs floating in pools of turquoise blue melt water, mountains …
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Arctic vs. Antarctic - Differences and Similarities

Differences Between the Arctic and Antarctic

The term "Polar Opposites" surely originated from the North Pole and South Pole, but besides being on opposite sides of the planet, there are many other less-obvious differences between the poles.

Geography - Antarctica is a land mass, a continent. Whereas the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents.

Climate - OK, they're both cold, but Antarctica is much colder, windier, and much, much drier. 

Travel - Both the Arctic and Antarctic are accessed by expedition cruises. Antarctica is accessed primarily from the southern tip of South America, while most in North America and Europe have quicker access to Arctic cruise ports.

Read more about the differences between the Arctica & the Antarctic here.



 
Evolution & Migration Between the Poles

Over 235 marine organisms live in both Arctic and Antarctic polar regions. How did these creatures bridge a distance of 12,000 km (7,450 miles) across the equator between the poles?  

Some large animals like whales and birds make the round trip every year, but sedentary sea cucubmers who dwell on the ocean floor, for example, how did they get on opposite poles?

The answer may lie in the surprisingly slight variation of deep sea temperatures between the poles and the Equator of only about 5 °C. Sea cucumbers thrive in the Galapagos Islands, for example, right on the Equatorial line. Additionally, the major ocean currents have been shown to act as a marine conveyor belt transporting eggs and lavae vast distances. 

Antarctica Travel Guide

Antarctica Travel FAQ's

What is the cheapest way to get to Antarctica?

The cheapest way to get to Antarctica is by flying from Punta Arenas (PUQ airport), Chile to St.George Island (TNM airport) one way, then the opposite way taking a cruise over five days. The minimum total cost from Punta Arenas is about USD$5000 on the Antarctica Express Air Cruise.

Do you need a passport to go to Antarctica?

Yes, you need a passport to enter Antarctica in addition to the country you access Antarctica from. Most travelers pass through Argentina or Chile before arriving at the Antarctic continent and you likely will need a visa in addition to a passport to enter those countries depending on what nationality you are.

Can I travel to Antarctica?

Yes, you can. About 90% of all travelers arrive in Antarctica by a cruise ship and the remaining 10% arrive by air. The vast majority of travelers aboard a ship designed for polar navigation in the world's southernmost city of Ushuaia, Argentina. Few highly-privileged individuals have the opportunity to visit the white continent. In the 2018-2019 season, the total number of people who visited Antarctica was about 55,500 with the majority coming from the United States, followed by China, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Germany.

How do I decide what boat to choose?

If you have specific departure dates in mind, these may guide your decision, as availability for Antarctica cruises can be quite limited. If not, then you will want to consider the following factors, among others:

Size of the vessel - Some travelers prefer the intimacy of small group travel that often means more time with the guide, more efficient embarkation/ disembarkation, and a cozier feel on board. Boats with fewer travelers (50 or less) also tend to offer more adventure options such as scuba diving, kayaking, and camping. Other travelers prefer the relative spaciousness (cabins still tend to be small on most boats!) and added facilities (Jacuzzi, gym, pool, etc) of the larger boats. Often, though not always, the larger boats tend to have more luxury amenities and also be more expensive for similar itineraries.

Itinerary - Many of the yachts offer a similar range of itineraries. However, some offer more diversity than others. If you have a special interest such as visiting South Georgia, crossing the circle, or traveling to the Falklands, let our trip coordinator know.

Cost - The cost of Antarctica voyages varies tremendously. If you are working within a specific budget, let our trip coordinators know so that we can match you with the very best cruise. Size of cabins, length of itinerary, facilities on the boat, etc. can all impact the cost. Once we know your priorities, we can help you find the best option!

Special interest - Some vessels offer special cruises for divers, kayakers, climbers, campers, photographers, etc. If you have a special interest, please let us know.

Do I need a converter/ adapter for the electricity?

Each ship has its own type of electrical outlets, depending upon the country where it was built. Many of the ships are originally from Russia and use 220 volts, 50 cycle electricity with two round prongs. Ask your Operations Coordinator for details on the vessel you are taking. 

What are the fitness/ health requirements?

Although you do not need to be in excellent fitness to join an Antarctica cruise, you do need to be in overall good health. These remote areas do not have access to modern medical facilities. You should not join an Antarctica cruise if you have a life-threatening condition or one that requires extensive medical attention. That said the trip does not need to be physically demanding. You may opt-out of the shore excursions and choose instead to view the wildlife and landscape from the deck. Onshore, most vessels offer at least one easy walk that allows participants to experience the destination without going far from the landing site.

What are the typical demographics of other passengers on board?

Travelers come from around the world, though most speak English fluently. They may range in age from children to seniors, with most travelers aged the 30s-60s. Some vessels do not permit children under age 12, and families should not expect many children on any of the departures.

Are these trips suitable for kids?

It depends. Some vessels have minimum age requirements ranging from 6 to 12. Other vessels leave it up to the parents to decide whether or not the cruise would be appropriate. The dramatic landscapes and unique wildlife can be fascinating for children. However, the long voyages at sea can become tiresome for even the most hearty child traveler. It is unlikely that there will be other children onboard for your kids to play with so be sure to bring plenty of entertainment options along - books, arts and crafts projects, etc. You may also want to consider upgrading to a larger room or suite to give kids more room to spread out. Since there is no access to medical facilities, children with chronic conditions such as severe asthma, diabetes, etc are not advised to visit.

Are these trips a good choice for solo travelers?

Absolutely! Most vessels have special single rates or can arrange a shared room at no additional cost. The majority of Antarctica visitors still travel as couples or families so these trips can be a bit lonely for some solo travelers. However, the relatively small groups and long voyages onboard allow travelers to easily meet others with shared interests. Solo travelers should also take a look at our exclusive Solo Traveler Departures.

Do tour rates include international flights?

Tour rates do not include international flights unless indicated. We find that it is usually less expensive for travelers to book these separately and this also allows you the flexibility to choose the schedule and routing that is most convenient for you. You are welcome to book these on your own, or we can certainly help you arrange these flights with an airfare consolidator who specializes in South America flights.

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