These inquisitive, endearing birds can be found in huge numbers across the Antarctic continent. The Antarctic Peninsula harbours adelie, chinstrap and gentoo in great numbers and macaroni’s in smaller numbers. Some of the penguin colonies number into the hundreds of thousands and any voyage to Antarctica will allow for visits to these colonies to watch their clownish antics. In South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, there are vast colonies of king penguins, along with gaudy rock hoppers and in the Sub Antarctic islands you can see a number of endemic species including the Snares crested, erect crested and royal penguin.
All whale species found in Antarctic waters migrate long distances to feed in the cold, nutrient-rich Southern Oceans during the austral summer before heading to warmer northern waters to breed and give birth to their young during the winter months. An Antarctic Peninsula cruise will inevitably encounter humpbacks and minke whales as they are often very curious of the ship and also the zodiacs. Previous cruises to Antarctica have also encountered orcas (killer whales) that patrol the waters hunting seal pups and penguins. Southern right whales and sperm whales are visitors to the region, migrating south from Latin America and South Africa. On voyages with a long sea crossing you may encounter fin and sei whales, and if you are very privileged a rare sighting of the largest species of all, the blue whale. The best time for seeing whales in Antarctica is towards the end of the season - February to March - when the whales are usually full of krill and in a more playful mood.
Of the six Antarctic seal species, four are ice habitat specialists, breeding on the sea ice in spring. Leopard and Ross seals tend to be solitary, whereas Weddell and crabeater seals form loose breeding aggregations. The leopard seal is Antarctica’s top penguin predator, growing up to just over 3 metres. Antarctic fur seals and elephant seals are both found north of the pack-ice zone and breed in dense colonies on beaches. Here dominant males (bulls) maintain harems of females (cows) in territories. In constantly defending these, bulls will not forage at sea, relying instead on blubber reserves laid down in the previous winter. All seals breed annually and the timing of pup production and associated behaviour is linked to habitat and ecology. Mating occurs after pupping, though a fertilised egg will not implant in the uterus until later in the year.
Albatross & other Birds
For birders, other than the penguin colonies, the islands around Antarctica offer some spectacular opportunities to get close to many species. The wandering albatross is the largest of seabirds, with a staggering wing span reaching 3 metres and a body mass of 8 –12 kg. They arrive in South Georgia in November to breed in loose colonies on flat grasslands. The chicks hatch in April and are reared throughout the winter, and then they fledge during November and December. The Falkland Islands are home to 65% of the world’s black-browed albatross population, while South Georgia hosts grey-headed and the light-mantled sooty albatross. Petrels, prions, fulmars and shearwaters constitute the majority of species that habitat the region. You may also see cormorant, sheathbills, skua and petite Arctic terns who migrate from the Arctic each year, the longest migration of any bird.