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Animals of Antarctica - a comprehensive guide

Read about all of the wonderful wildlife you can see in the Antarctic Ocean



Operations & Marketing Exec
Published on

09 Feb 2024

Updated on

16 Apr 2024

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The icy continent of Antarctica holds incredible wildlife. As you sail the Southern Ocean, look for majestic whales like the Blue Whale gobbling up krill with its massive mouth or the curious Antarctic Minke zipping through waves. If you’re lucky, witness the stealthy Leopard Seal darting between ice floes, showcasing why it’s Antarctica’s top predator.

When you reach land, explore bustling penguin colonies. Regal Emperor Penguins huddle together against the cold, caring for chicks while noisy Adélie Penguins squabble as they rush to sea. Also keep watch for seals lounging on ice sheets, like huge Weddell Seals with saw-like teeth maintaining breathing holes. The animals of Antarctica harbor amazing adaptations that let them thrive in this magnificently extreme environment.

Wedell Seal
Young Weddell Seal
Young Blue Whale
Young Blue Whale


Few animals epitomize the harsh yet beautiful Antarctic region like its seals. Exquisitely adapted to the extreme cold, these marine mammals thrive in the icy waters and on the frozen shores of the southernmost continent. Several species of true seals and fur seals inhabit the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica. Their unique presence contributes to the majestic biodiversity of this remote polar environment. Hardy and resilient, the seals play a vital ecological role in this dreamlike icy wilderness.

To see the seals of the Antarctic, check out our Antarctic Explorer trip idea.

Antarctic fur seal pups
Fur seal pups

Antarctic Fur Seal

Antarctic Fur Seal
Antarctic Fur Seal

The Antarctic fur seal is a robust marine mammal with a dense, waterproof fur coat, making them well-adapted to the icy environment. Males showcase a distinctive mane, earning them the name "fur seal." Breeding colonies form on subantarctic islands during the summer, where these seals give birth and nurture their pups. Antarctic fur seals narrowly avoided extinction from historical overhunting, but now climate shifts in Antarctica’s fragile ecosystem pose fresh threats, making their preservation an enduring priority.

Southern Elephant Seal

Southern Elephant Seal
Male Southern Elephant Seal

The Southern Elephant Seal is the largest seal species, boasting colossal males with inflatable proboscises, which resemble an elephant's trunk. Inhabiting the subantarctic and Antarctic, these massive marine mammals engage in epic battles during the breeding season to assert dominance and claim territory. Remarkably adapted to oceanic life, they embark on extensive migrations and deep dives, reaching impressive depths. With an astounding size difference between males and females, these seals also exhibit a fascinating social structure.

Leopard Seal

Leopard Seal in Antarctica teeth
Leopard seal showing it teeth

The formidable Leopard Seal is recognisable by its sleek, spotted coat and serpentine form. This apex carnivore boasts unparalleled aquatic prowess, armed with powerful jaws and sharp teeth. Leopard Seals exhibit a diverse diet, preying on krill, fish, and even penguins. Their curious nature and acrobatic displays make them captivating subjects for wildlife enthusiasts. Despite their fearsome reputation, interactions with humans are rare, and these majestic marine predators play a crucial role in maintaining the delicate balance of the Antarctic marine ecosystem.

Weddell Seal

Weddell Seal Pup lying on mother
Weddell Seal pup

The Weddell Seal is known for its distinctively marked coat and prominent, forward-facing eyes. Thriving in the extreme cold, these seals create breathing holes in thick ice using their specialized teeth. Exceptional divers, they can plunge to impressive depths in search of prey like fish and squid. Weddell Seals exhibit unique vocalizations and form dense colonies during the breeding season, showcasing their social nature.

Crabeater Seal

Crabeater Seal
Crabeater Seal

Despite its name suggesting a diet of mostly crabs, the Crabeeater Seal predominantly feeds on krill. Found throughout the packed ice surrounding Antarctica, these seals have a sleek, silver-gray coat with dark spots. Known for their agility and efficient swimming, they use their finely serrated teeth to filter krill from the water. Highly social, Crabeater Seals often gather in large groups on ice floes during the breeding season.

Ross Seal

Ross Seal by Mike Cameron
Ross Seal photo by Mike Cameron

The elusive Ross Seal, with its distinctive dark-coloured face and spotted fur, hides along the refuge of the Antarctic pack ice's edges. Their diet primarily consists of Antarctic silverfish and squid, showcasing their specialized foraging skills. Renowned for their haunting vocalizations, these seals play a vital role in the Antarctic marine ecosystem.


The Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica teems with an array of whales, dolphins, and porpoises uniquely adapted to this icy seascape. These marine mammals all have specialized fins, blubber, and behaviors to withstand the year-round chill. The cetaceans of Antarctica form a distinctive part of its rich biodiversity, living in harmony with their frigid, yet abundant, environment.

For the best chance of seeing an abundance of different whales have a look at our Odyssey across the South Atlantic cruise idea.

Humpback Whale Tail Antarctica
Humpback whale tail

Blue Whale

Blue Whale Wikimedia Commons
Blue Whale

Reaching lengths of over 100 feet and weights exceeding 150 tons, the blue whale is the largest animal ever documented to have existed on Earth. In the nutrient-rich waters surrounding Antarctica, blue whales feast on dense swarms of tiny krill, consuming up to four tons daily. Blue whales are identified by their mottled blue-gray coloration and extremely long spray when surfacing to breathe. Their voices are the loudest of any animal, capable of reaching 188 decibels.

Antarctic Minke Whale

Minke Whale underwater
Minke Whale underwater

The Antarctic minke whale is one of the smallest and most abundant of the baleen whales in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica. Reaching lengths of about 30 feet, they have pointed heads, streamlined bodies, and a gray and white coloration with a distinctive white band on each flipper. Feeding primarily on krill, they use their baleen plates to filter huge volumes of water for the tiny crustaceans. Curious and playful, minke whales often approach boats closely, displaying their acrobatic playfulness.

Humpback Whale

Humpback whale breaching ocean
Humpback whale breaching

Known for its haunting and complex songs, the humpback whale makes an epic annual migration between frigid polar feeding grounds and tropical breeding areas. These medium-sized baleen whales reach lengths of up to 60 feet. Humpbacks are identified by their long pectoral fins, knobby heads, and the humps formed by their dorsal fins when diving. Acrobatic and playful, they often breach entirely out of the water and slap the surface with their pectoral fins and tails. Their friendly and energetic behaviors make humpbacks popular with whale watchers across their global migratory range.


Killer whale orca Falkland islands
Orca near the Falklands

Orcas span up to 32 feet and have sharp black-and-white pigmentation. These highly social animals live in close Antarctic pods, united when hunting seals or penguins by generating waves to wash prey from ice floes. Their sophisticated coordination showcases an intricate adaptation tailored to the frigid ecosystem. This symbiotic rapport between the type C orcas and their polar environment has facilitated an apex role within the Antarctic food web.

Hourglass Dolphin

Hourglass dolphin
Hourglass Dolphin

The Hourglass Dolphin has a striking hourglass pattern decorating its sleek black and white body. Inhabiting the Southern Ocean, and renowned for its playful displays, the Hourglass Dolphin often rides the bow waves of ships and can be spotted in groups. These social beings navigate the frigid waters surrounding Antarctica and are known for their agility and curiosity.

Southern Bottlenose Whale

Southern Bottlenose Whale Wikimedia Commons
Southern Bottlenose Whale

The Southern Bottlenose Whale, residing in the icy waters surrounding Antarctica, are deep-diving whales that sport a distinct bottle-shaped snout. Recognized for their enigmatic behaviours, they engage in lengthy dives, sometimes reaching depths of over 3,000 feet. Social creatures often found in tight-knit pods, Southern Bottlenose Whales emit complex vocalizations. While relatively elusive, these charismatic whales occasionally breach the surface, offering us to see glimpses of their lives and behaviours.

Spectacled Porpoise

Spectacled porpoise illustration
Illustration of a spectacled porpoise

The Spectacled Porpoise is named for the distinctive markings around its eyes, resembling eyeglasses. Generally darker on their topside with a white underside, they are difficult to spot in the dark waters they inhabit. With a preference for cold, deep-sea habitats, the Spectacled Porpoise navigates the Southern Ocean in small groups, making them difficult to spot. Little is known about the Spectacled Porpoise, and they are the least studied among all species of cetaceans. It is possible to spot them around the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Islands, and the Wedell Sea.

Birds of Antarctica

Penguins waddle over ice and soar through frigid waters, but they share the Antarctic with an array of other remarkable winged creatures uniquely adapted to exploit this extreme environment. Petrels glide gracefully on stiff wings riding polar winds, patrolling the skies and shores as opportunistic hunters. Various gulls, fulmarine petrels, terns, and other seabirds frequent the Southern Ocean and coasts. The birds of Antarctica display resilience and ingenuity carved by millennia navigating unrelenting storms, plunging temperatures, and shortened seasons for courtship and raising the next generation. Their calls resonate with the wild spirit of this remote, demanding frontier at the bottom of the world.

To see a whole host of Antarctic bird species and other animals, check out our Falklands, South Georgia, & Antarctica Sea Cruise

King penguin juveniles Falkland islands
Penguins in the Falklands

Emperor Penguin

Emperor Penguins Antarctica
Emperor penguins in Antarctica

The iconic Emperor Penguin is the largest of all penguin species, standing nearly 4 feet tall. These stately birds are adapted to the extreme cold of Antarctica. They huddle together in large colonies to conserve heat, taking turns on the outside of the group. Male Emperors incubate their single egg on their feet through the brutal winter while females leave to hunt for fish in the sea. Despite having wings, Emperors cannot fly. Their streamlined bodies are perfect for diving and 'porpoising' through frigid Antarctic waters.

Adélie Penguin

Adelie Penguins in Antarctica
Adelie Penguins

Named for the wife of an Antarctic explorer, the Adélie penguin is one of the most familiar Antarctic birds. Their distinctive tuxedo-like black and white plumage stands out against Antarctic ice sheets. Adélies live in huge noisy colonies and build pebble nests for raising chicks. Agile both in water and on land, they forage on krill, fish, and squid. Curious by nature, they boldly investigate visitors or anything unusual near their breeding grounds. The global Adélie population is several million strong.

Chinstrap Penguin

Chinstrap Penguins
Chinstrap penguins

Named for the narrow black band under its chin, the Chinstrap Penguin is a handsome black-and-white bird common along the Antarctic Peninsula. They use their powerful flippers and pointed bills to swim effortlessly and catch small fish and krill. Chinstraps are very social and gather in large noisy groups on land, using their harsh voices to identify their mates and chicks. The rock-lined nests they build help protect the eggs and offspring from Antarctic storms. When not breeding, they live at sea where their all-black backs and white undersides provide camouflage from above and below.

Gentoo Penguin

Gentoo Penguins
Gentoo Penguins

The quickest swimming and most agile of penguin species, the Gentoo Penguin is adapted for life in the subantarctic islands. Their bright red-orange beak and conspicuous white stripe cutting across the top of their heads make them easy to identify. Feeding on krill and small fish, they dive over 300 times a day in pursuit of prey. Lacking an insulating layer of fat like other penguins, Gentoos instead rely on a fast metabolism and circulating overheated blood to withstand freezing air and water. Their populations number in the hundreds of thousands breeding on islands across the Southern Ocean.

Southern Giant Petrel

Southern Giant Petrel
Southern Giant Petrel in flight

With a wingspan of over six feet, the Southern Giant Petrel is an impressive Antarctic seabird. Their large size gives them dominance over seal and penguin colonies where they scavenge for eggs and chicks. In flight, this predominantly brown-plumaged bird is distinguished by a pale patch on its head. Giant petrels have an excellent sense of smell which helps them find food. Their tube-like nostrils inspired the 'tubenose' nickname for this bird and related petrel species.

Antarctic Petrel

Antarctic Petrel
Antarctic Petrel

The Antarctic Petrel’s sharp dark bill helps it snatch small food from frigid southern seas, where it elegantly migrates immense distances to breed. Visitors braving the harsh Antarctic climate can observe the brown-and-white seabird shrieking at nesting sites amongst rock crevices along the icy continent’s coasts. Evolution has molded an avian lord of sea and sky optimally designed for the planet's harshest environment.

Snow Petrel

Snow Petrel resting on ground
Snow Petrel

The aptly named Snow Petrel blends masterfully into the icy whites of its Antarctic surroundings with its pure white plumage. At nesting sites, its ghostly presence is betrayed only by its mournful, witch-like cries. This petite seabird feeds far from land on fish, krill, and squid. The Snow Petrel's toes and claws are adapted to perch on vertical ice cliffs rather than flat ground. Its ability to smell food at great distances and resist exceptionally cold temperatures aid its year-round residence in frigid Antarctic waters.

Wilson's Storm Petrel

Wilsons Storm Petrel
Wilsons Storm Petrel

As the smallest Antarctic seabird, the robin-sized Wilson's Storm Petrel dances lightly across wave crests on fast-fluttering wings while dangling spindly black legs. Their habit of pattering on the water like a dance inspired the name "storm petrel". At remote island breeding colonies, their spooky cackling cries echo at night. They snap up tiny prey on the wing skimming just above the ocean surface, periodically resting on the sea when winds permit. The Wilson's Storm Petrel's unique adaptations allow it to exploit food sources inaccessible to larger seabirds.

Antarctic Tern

Antarctic Tern
Antarctic Tern

No bird undertakes a longer or more arduous migration than the Antarctic Tern. It flies from Antarctica all the way to Arctic breeding grounds annually - a distance of 35,000 miles roundtrip! Their stamina allows Antarctic Terns to experience more hours of daylight for feeding than any other animal. Along the way these elegant flyers dip and glide over waves in search of small fish. True aeronautical engineers, their streamlined bodies and narrow wings slice seamlessly through the air.

Southern Fulmar

Southern Fulmar
Southern Fulmar

Closely related to albatrosses, the Southern Fulmar cruises Antarctic coastal waters flickering its narrow wings. Its salt-and-pepper plumage keeps it cryptic as it strains the water's surface for tiny prey like krill and fish. Tough feet allow it to nest on rugged cliff sides. The Southern Fulmar spends most of its life flying far out to sea, only coming to land to breed in huge, noisy colonies. Its unique tubular nostrils lock out salt spray while still allowing remarkable scenting abilities.


From mighty whales to plucky penguins, Antarctica offers once-in-a-lifetime encounters with unique wildlife living at the edge of possibility. As your ship navigates icebergs and approaches the mysterious White Continent, keep your eyes focused on the horizon for the spray blows of migrating humpback and minke whales feeding on rich krill swarms. Listen for the clicks and trills of curious orcas hunting as a coordinated pod. Brave the chill wind on deck to witness the array of Antarctic seabirds, from petite storm petrels fluttering amid towering albatross and giant petrels. If fortune smiles, sight the peak of a massive blue whale rising from the depths – the largest animal on Earth. On landing, walk quietly among raucous penguin colonies as seals lounge nearby. The animals carved out lives in brutally frigid waters and ice-covered land teach us lessons of endurance. Treat them with respect, move cautiously, and let their behaviors hint at survival secrets forged over millennia in Antarctica’s awesome embrace. The limited yet resilient wildlife of the Antarctic shows how fragile yet wondrous life is to persist in this extreme environment humans have only just begun to fully explore.

When to go to Antarctica

Find out the best time to visit Antarctica with our month-by-month guide.

  • Best
  • Good
  • Mixed
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec


Peak season with near 24-hour daylight. Spot adorable fluffy penguin chicks and explore remote huts used by explorers in the Ross Sea.



Best time for whale watching, including humpback, sperm, and orca whales. Penguins and fur seals remain abundant, and cruises venture beyond the Polar Circle.



As the season winds down, fewer ships visit. Great for whale spotting and witnessing fur seals on the Antarctic Peninsula.



Cruise ships are absent during the winter, with extreme temperatures and darkness dominating the region. Only scientists and film crews stay.



Cruise ships are absent during the winter, with extreme temperatures and darkness dominating the region. Only scientists and film crews stay.



Cruise ships are absent during the winter, with extreme temperatures and darkness dominating the region. Only scientists and film crews stay.



Cruise ships are absent during the winter, with extreme temperatures and darkness dominating the region. Only scientists and film crews stay.



Cruise ships are absent during the winter, with extreme temperatures and darkness dominating the region. Only scientists and film crews stay.



Cruise ships are absent during the winter, with extreme temperatures and darkness dominating the region. Only scientists and film crews stay.



Few cruises visit this early, but it offers lower fares, pristine landscapes, and the potential for great photography. Look for penguins and seals on icebergs.



The Antarctica season begins, and you can witness hatching penguin chicks. Combining with South Georgia allows viewing elephant seal courting and penguin mating. Spring flowers bloom on subantarctic islands, and seabirds soar over the Drake Passage.



Arguably the best time with warmer temperatures, long daylight, and active wildlife. However, it's the most expensive period.


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  • Alistair


    Managing Director

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