There are still a few places around the world for unique, incredible wildlife encounters. An African safari in Tanzania, spotting the elusive jaguar in Brazil’s Pantanal region and hiking through the jungle to sit with mountain Gorillas feature on many a bucket list. Then there’s the wildlife in Antarctica and South Georgia.
The remoteness and dazzling white wonderland of an expedition in the Antarctica and South Georgia is like nothing else on earth. The wildlife in Antarctica is beyond incredible. Almost all life in the South polar region depends on the ice and sea. Teeny tiny phytoplankton and krill sustain the wildlife in Antarctica; from penguins and seals, to albatross and dolphins and right up to the planet’s largest ever living animal, the Blue Whale!
We spent 3 weeks cruising the Southern Ocean from Argentina to the Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. During the expedition, we had many close encounters with wildlife in Antarctica and South Georgia, especially.
It was a trip we’ll never forget. These are some of our favourite wildlife encounters from Antarctica. Enjoy!
Close encounters with wildlife in Antarctica & South Georgia
Whales of the Antarctica and Southern Ocean
Early in the 20th century, the global appetite for whale oil and other products drove whalers to the Southern Ocean, with disastrous results for whales. In 1994, the International Whaling Commission established the Southern Ocean as a whale sanctuary.
The whale sanctuary isn’t adhered to by all but without getting into the politics and ethics of it all, today the Southern Ocean is mostly a safe haven for our marine mammals.
On our cruise around the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the Antarctica we were lucky to encounter dolphins and whales almost every day. Here are the highlights of those encounters.
Bed watching 3 Humpback Whales
As the zodiac motored through the ice strewn water, the occasional whale blow punctuated the stillness of the bay. While we pined to investigate closer, our morning’s mission was to hike on the Antarctic continent so we continued to shore.
We climbed Spigot Peak to a vantage point overlooking the Errera Channel, Gerlache Strait, Anvers and Brabant Islands. The expedition team had marked a zig zag track up the steep, icy incline. Walking poles were the order of the day to avoid unnecessary mishaps. The Antarctic is not a place for serious accidents because the local medical facilities aren’t too local.
From the summit we could see deeper into the Antarctic mainland, the whiteness of the rocky peaks in stark contrast to the cloudless blue sky and blackness of the bay.
Looking down into Orne Harbour, we had a unique perspective on the wildlife below. A large group of Crabeater Seals cruised the shoreline, circled icebergs and popped up to check out the gang of red coat clad tourists climbing ashore.
Sleeping humpback whales
And there, seemingly motionless, floated 3 humpback whales. The vast mass of their bodies bobbed above the surface as they breathed, the plume of warm breathe loud and clear in the cold air. Lungs filled, they submerged again, fully except for the top of their backs.
We wanted a closer look at the snoozing gentle giants. After descending from our hike, we climbed aboard the zodiac to cruise the bay. The humpback whales remained peaceful, bobbing up to breathe as they snoozed. We drifted toward them. At around 10 metres away, we spent a while simply in the company of 3 sleeping humpback whales!
One of them was probably a juvenile and like most youngsters, a little inquisitive. He awoke from his nap, took an enormous breathe and dived, showing off his fluke as he went. We watched as he gently glided below our zodiac, the whiteness of his enormous flippers clear against the darkness of the icy water. He popped up again between the 2 larger whales, and went back to sleep. We wondered what whales dream about!
A near miss with a Humpback Whale
Leaving the 3 humpbacks to their slumber, we quietly drifted away. As we approached an iceberg another humpback whale made his presence known. He was interested enough to spy hop, raising his head out of the water to take a look at us. That alone was a breathtaking moment but what happened next will live with us forever.
We turned away from the bay to begin a slow cruise back to the ship. As we did, 2 humpback whales surfaced to breathe. They were heading almost directly for us and one appeared to turn in our direction as she submerged. Within the blink of an eye she was alongside the zodiac. She surfaced to breathe again, before beginning to dive.
When a humpback whale dives, much to the pleasure of whale watchers, their flukes lift high from the water. So close, our zoom lenses were pretty much useless and we held our breathe, in an insane attempt to make the moment last a little longer.
One of the most amazing things about this encounter was the almost complete silence. Aside from her breathe, she was quiet. An enormous animal of around 15 metres long weighing upto 30 tons and she made not a sound as she ploughed through the water. You’ll notice from the video, neither did any of us on the zodiac until she’d gone!
For this incredible animal to put on such an amazing show within touching distance of us is likely to be the most wonderful wildlife encounter we will ever have!
Enjoy this tiny bit of footage filmed by a fellow zodiac passenger, Matt. We think you’ll agree, Antarctica treated us to one huge grand finale on our last day on the peninsula.
A wave from a Fin Whale
We saw Fin Whales almost from the moment we sailed out of Beagle Channel. Mostly from a good distance from the ship, their high blows gave their presence away. We’d just about make out their backs and tiny dorsal fin, even from the upper decks. It’s rare indeed to see the flukes or flippers of these enormous marine mammals.
Fin Whales are the second-largest whale species, after the Blue Whale and are around 27 metres long. Because almost 750,000 fin whales were killed in the 20th century, they are classified as endangered.
In Antarctic waters fin whales feed on krill. And to keep their massive figures in shape, they need to eat a lot! What better way than to gorge?
We had the fabulous honour of witnessing this Fin Whale lunge feeding. A hungry Fin Whale dives deep, then with mouth wide open, it accelerates into a dense patch of krill. Each lunge rewards the Fin Whale with around 10kg of krill after filtering a volume of water heavier than its own weight!
Completely awed, we watched as these amazing animals dined almost alongside the ship. Showing off glimpses of their flukes, this one gave us a little wave!
Turning the ship around to watch Orca
The largest member of the dolphin family, Orca can live to a grand old age of around 80! Highly intelligent and social creatures, their black and white forms are icons of the world’s oceans.
As apex predators, Orca’s only threat are humans. Due to their voracious appetites and their place at the top of the food chain, orcas are susceptible to pollution and chemicals. It also makes them a good indication of the health of our oceans.
Orca are fast and the most widely distributed mammal on the planet, apart from us. This makes them difficult to track so their conservation status is unknown because of a lack of data. Most people to see Orca have only seen them in captivity.
So to hear across the tannoy we were being accompanied by a pod of Orca as we sailed toward South Georgia left us giddy with excitement! We packed ourselves into our cold weather gear to join our shipmates on deck to marvel at these wonderful animals.
One of the benefits of Antarctic cruises is the chartered ships have huge flexibility in their itinerary. With no schedule to maintain, the Captain of the Island Sky took the opportunity to enjoy the Orca and turned the ship around so we could spend a little while with them.
Beautiful and majestic, the Orca playfully cruised around and under the ship. Just another incredible wildlife encounter!
Seals of the Antarctica and Southern Ocean
The Southern Ocean is host to Ross, Weddell, Crabeater, Leopard, Elephant and Antarctic Fur Seals. We’d not even heard of some of these before we booked our cruise and we encountered 5 of the 6 species.
Seals can dive to more than 600 metres in search of food; the elephant seal can dive as far as 2 kilomteres! They have specially adapted eyes so they can see well underwater in gloomy light. Seals rely on the ice to breed and raise their young. We often saw seals lounging on ice floes. While underwater, seals call to one another, and this can sometimes be heard above on the ice – we listened to 2 Weddell Seals singing to each other in Mikkelson Harbour.
Watching a hunting leopard seal
Tiny black and white Gentoo Penguins dot the surrounding cliffs. The biting wind whips up the surf but does little to disperse the distinct scent of penguin poop. Approaching close to shore for a better view of the colony, something in the water caught my eye. A huge head, blue grey in colour with enormous black eyes and a serpentine-like grin, popped up from the waves. My first glimpse of a Leopard Seal.
Leopard Seals are the 3rd largest of the seal family after Elephant Seals and Walrus, weighing in at upto 600kg. Imagine that chasing at you at 25 mph!
I’m in 1 of 5 zodiacs cruising the bay near Point Wild on Elephant Island in the South Shetland Islands. The Leopard Seal is curious about who or what we are. He swims to each zodiac in turn, pops up from the water to take a look and even has a nibble of one pontoon to check it out a little further. Possibly a sign of stress, but probably just curiosity, we back off a little to give him space. Bored and unthreatened, he turns away.
This photo was taken by Ryan, a fellow passenger on the zodiac cruise.
A squadron of penguins are porpoising towards shore, returning to their hungry chicks after a feeding foray. The Leopard Seal spots them, locks his gaze onto one particularly tasting looking bird and the chase is on.
The chase is on
The penguin is fast underwater and shoots through the water like a torpedo. But the Leopard Seal is fast too and flexible enough to stay on the webbed heels of the penguin’s desperate attempts to reach shore. The Leopard Seal opens it’s enormous jaw and clamps down on the penguin, losing grip at the last moment. Perhaps running on adrenaline alone, the penguin makes a dash for it but injured, he’s no match for the hungry predator. The Leopard Seal grabs the little Gentoo again and dispatches it with a violent shake.
Leopard Seals don’t like to eat penguin feathers so to eat the Gentoo, he shakes it in such a way as to turn it inside out. A grim sight indeed. But worse still, once his meal is prepared, he abandons it. He just leaves the poor penguin’s inside out and lifeless body floating in the bay.
Perhaps this seal’s behaviour was more out of curiosity than hunger but the Giant Petrels didn’t let his would-be meal go to waste. Of course this Gentoo isn’t the only victim of the Leopard Seal’s games. The penguin’s chick waiting for it’s next meal is unlikely to survive without 2 parents to feed it. Not quite the Happy Feet ending I’d hoped for.
Must read: how to pack for your Antarctic expedition
Elephant Seal belly flopping into the ocean
The largest of all pinnipeds, Elephant Seals are 4 ton of mostly blubber. They spend most of their lives in the open ocean, diving as deep as 2km to dine on squid. Only coming ashore to breed and moult, they love physical contact and can often be seen hanging around the beach, lawling all over each other.
In February, there’s no breeding activity going on so we missed the big beach master fights. Most of the Elephant Seals we saw were moulting so mostly doing nothing; except for this bad boy.
The expedition team landed the kayaks on the shore of Grytviken in South Georgia. As the zodiacs ferried passengers from ship to shore, this male Elephant Seal, probably at the end of his moulting phase, decided it was time to head into the open ocean.
You can get an idea of his size from the video as he belly flops his way past the 19ft long kayaks. Bear in mind, we’ve cut loads of footage out of this where the big guy was just resting between flops. All told, he took around 10 minutes to land. This is a massive undertaking for him. No wonder he spends most of his life at sea. The Antarctic Fur Seals swimming around are dwarfed by his mass and one was somewhat startled by his presence at around 49 seconds.
To watch this remarkable animal return to the open ocean, knowing he’ll not be back on land for many months was a wildlife experience we won’t forget in a hurry!
Negotiating passage with Antarctic Fur Seals
There’s only one landing site on Prion Island to see the nesting Wandering Albatross. Boardwalks have been constructed so we can get a closer look at the nesting birds without trampling wildlife burrows underfoot.
Prion Island is a low lying island, rocky and rich in tussock grass, favoured by nursing Antarctic Fur Seals and their pups who have little regard for the man-made structures. The young seals use the labyrinth between the tussock mounds as their playground, exploring their world while their mothers fish or snooze nearby.
Although we pose no threat, mother seals don’t tolerate intruders well and insist we give both them and their off spring a wide berth.
As with all zodiac landings in South Georgia, our visit to Prion Island must adhere to the strict rules of the Government of South Georgia & South Sandwich Isles (GSGSSI). We’re not free to wander and must walk in groups of around 10 with at least one expedition guide. If a seal is close to the boardwalk, we wait for them to move on.
Face off with an Antarctic Fur Seal
Of course, the seals also know the boardwalks lead to the beach and some treat them as a short cut. 2 seals wanted to come up as we were heading down resulting in a stand off.
We had no choice but to use the boardwalk for fear of meeting and startling another seal in the tussock or worse, causing the collapse of burrowing birds’ nests. The seals figured we were in their way so hissed a lot and held their ground.
Fur seals are fast on land, will charge at humans and give nasty bites needing many different antibiotics to ensure the victim doesn’t succumb to the infections inflicted. So while we looked rather relaxed about passing, we actually cowered behind Annette, our walking pole wielding expedition guide!
Arms raised in the air to make ourselves appear larger, we held our ground. The seals snorted in distaste, expelling some rather horrible mucus as they did, and retreated off the boardwalk. They didn’t go far though, remaining in striking distance at the edge. We walked by in single file as the seals starred us out, Annette armed and ready to threaten a prod should the seals decided to lunge. Fortunately they didn’t and we were relieved to pass without altercation.
Article coming soon: Responsible tourism in South Georgia and Antarctica
Penguins & birds of Antarctica and South Georgia
Perhaps nothing represents the wildlife in Antarctica, South Georgia and the Southern Ocean quite like penguins! With a few species to spot we weren’t disappointed. Penguin poop featured heavily in all our interactions – although the Chinstraps are particularly smelly!
And if you’re really interested, penguins projectile poop so as to keep their nests relatively clean. There was even a study done about the pressure involved. It’s nothing if not a rather funny read. And because we’re childish and find all things poop related funny, here’s a link to the article provided to us by the expedition team. We found the use of the term “aperture” particularly amusing!
Anyway, we digress. Here’s a few of the penguin and bird encounters we most enjoyed in Antarctica and South Georgia.
Lounging with 1/2 million king penguins
Created by outwash from the retreat of the Grace Glacier, Salisbury Plain on South Georgia is 2 kilometres square lying between Grace and Lucas glacier. Its South Georgia’s largest area of level land and home to a King Penguin colony, with about 60,000 breeding pairs.
If you think that’s large, St Andrew’s Bay is massive! It’s the largest King Penguin colony in South Georgia with somewhere in the region of 150000 breeding pairs. So around half a million King Penguins hang out here.
Standing at almost a metre tall, King Penguins are hunted by almost every predator and scavenger in the Antarctica. Skua, Giant Petrels, Orca and Leopard Seals all love to dine on the King Penguin.
Young King Penguin chicks spend their time balanced on their parents’ feet. The parents alternate every few days or so, one guarding the chick while the other forages for food. Once the chick is bigger, at around 5 or 6 weeks, it can keep itself warm and better protect itself against most predators. It becomes more curious and starts to explore its surroundings, eventually joining a creche with its fellow King Penguin chick buddies.
They’re quite inquisitive too! Regardless of our efforts to keeping at least 5 metres away from the penguins, they approached with a lot of curiosity, nosing into our camera bags and into lenses. A truly remarkable experience!
Southern Giant Petrels dining on a whale carcass
We planned on hiking up to the volcanic crater of Deacon Peak on Penguin Island in the South Shetland Isles. As we disembarked from the zodiac, something rather more interesting caught our attention.
A little way down the pebble beach was a washed up whale carcass. It wasn’t as big as we might have thought and everyone was fascinated by it. The expedition crew weren’t entirely sure what species of whale it was.
The entire jaw of the animal was missing, making identification quite a challenge. Due to the size of the carcass and the shape of its head, the educated guess was this was an Arnoux beaked whale.
It was a real puzzle as to how or why the carcass was missing its jaw. Perhaps it died of natural causes and while floating at sea, other animals may have dined on it. As gruesome a sight as this was, what was particularly interesting for us was how this carcass was cleaned by the Southern Giant Petrels.
Around 4 or 5 birds stood on top of the carcass; others dined from the flanks. Using their powerful beak, the Giant Petrels tore their fill of blubber and flesh. A fine feast indeed! We watched as each bird protected their feeding ground. By spreading their wings, they give the impression of a larger size so warding off challenges from other birds waiting to feast.
Because of the cold temperatures in this part of the world, decomposition is slowed allowing the wildlife in Antarctica to feast on it for sometime. Although judging by the sheer numbers of Giant Petrels waiting in line, we don’t think this carcass was going to last too long.
Protecting wildlife in Antarctica as a visitor
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), lays down strict guidelines for visitors to Antarctica. The main objective of these is to protect the wildlife in Antarctica and their environment.
We needed to ensure all our outer clothes, boots and bags were decontaminated before and after every landing to ensure we didn’t transport any seeds or other organic matter between sites.
All rules of wildlife interactions were clearing spelt out to the ship’s passengers at briefings before we arrived on site as well as disembarking from zodiacs.
We mustn’t approach within 5 metres of wildlife and far more than this for moulting penguins and seals. We were taught to spot animal behaviour suggesting our presence wasn’t welcome and how to respond accordingly. Of course, the wildlife doesn’t need to adhere to the same rules and as you can see from many of our images, they often didn’t!
As visitors to this unique environment, we were acutely aware of minimising any impact our presence had. Everyone onboard adhered to the rules strictly under the ever watchful eye of the expedition crew. Watch this space for our upcoming post on responsible tourism in the Antarctica.
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