The wildlife in Antarctica is completely fearless of visitors. Curious penguins will come and sit on your knee if you sit still for long enough. You will probably get nothing but a disinterested yawn out of the seal population as they laze around on the beaches.
Think of Antarctica and most people think of penguins.
There are seven species confined to the southern hemisphere and of these the Emperor, Chinstrap and Adelie breed entirely in Antarctica – these three species make up about 90% of the bird population in the Antarctic.
Emperor penguins are the largest of the species and stand over three feet tall but are probably one of the most difficult to spot as they do not go on land.
They live in loose breeding colonies on the pack ice. They are the only Antarctic birds to breed in winter.
As most other birds are heading north for the winter, Emperors move south. Their dense feathers (about 70 feathers per square inch) keep them insulated as temperatures plunge. Most Emperor penguins are found in the Ross Sea.
King penguins are very similar to the Emperor but slightly smaller and distinguished by the orange colouring on their breasts.
They breed north of the pack ice around South Georgia in colonies of as many as 100,000. King penguins were hunted by sealers in the early 19th century ‘ the skins were used as fuel and clothes ‘ and the species was close to being extinct. There are now around 2 million pairs in the Antarctic.
Gentoo penguins are found all over the Antarctic Peninsula but are the least common of the penguin species. There are around 300,000 pairs.
Gentoos are more timid than other penguins and tend to keep their distance. They are identified by their bright orange bill.
Chinstraps are one of the most common breeds with over 7 million pairs. They live in huge colonies along the coast of the South Shetland Islands.
Adelie penguins are small and are distinguished by the white ring surrounding the eye. They have quite a comical way about them, as they tend to do everything in groups.
So you will see a large group waddling off to the sea and then all jumping in off the rocks. Being small they are vulnerable and less than two-thirds of the chicks survive the first three weeks.
Despite the high mortality, there are 2.5 million pairs found throughout the continent.
In Antarctica you are likely to come across a variety of seals. The most common are Crabeater seals (a peculiar name as they don’t eat crabs) and Weddell seals.
There are about 30 million Crabeaters making it one of the world’s most abundant mammals. They spend long periods of time at sea and on the shelf ice so you are unlikely to see them on shore.
Weddell seals live further south than any other mammal.
They have long whiskers and are very placid animals.
You are also likely to see Leopard seals cruising the shores of the penguin colonies waiting to pounce when the curious chicks first venture into the sea.
Leopard seals are the largest of the Antarctic ‘true’ seals and are the only species to eat other seals.
Antarctic fur seals are also very common but can be very aggressive so you will need to keep your distance. Fur seals are not ‘true’ seals as they have ears.
They were hunted close to extinction during the 19th century which may account for why they are so aggressive towards man.
At the start of the polar spring millions of sea birds arrive in Antarctica for the breeding season. Besides penguins, the most common are petrals and albatrosses.
Albatrosses are considered to be the most majestic of all birds. With a wing span of up to 11 feet they are beautiful gliders. Adults can cover up 550 miles per day at speeds of over 50mph.
There are 13 species of Albatross making a population of around 750,000 breeding pairs. The largest is the Wandering Albatross. These birds often follow the ship for hours at a time.
There are many varieties of petrals but the one most people look out for are Giant Petrals which, like the albatross, are great fliers. They forage on both land and sea and can kill anything up to the size of a king penguin.
The snow petral is one of the most beautiful birds in the Antarctic. It is pure white with grey feet.
Whales come to Antarctica to feed in the austral summer.
They then migrate north at the end of the season. You are most likely to see humpback and minke whales as well as Orcas (killer whales).
When the captain spots whales from the bridge he will often stop the boat or at least slow down so you can spend some time admiring these magnificent mammals.
If you are lucky you may see a blue whale.