For many travelers, Antarctica is the ultimate destination. Remote, unworldly and impossibly beautiful, cruisers continue to flock there in increasing numbers. For nearly all visitors, its wildlife -- especially the antics of the cute penguins -- are the big draw.
Watch anyone making a first Antarctic landing, and it is easy to understand why penguins have such popular appeal. Everything about them can be overwhelming -- their teeming colonies, the cacophony of ecstatic calls, and yes, their smell, which quickly finds its way into the ship's ventilation system and even your clothing! With penguins waddling past your feet, you may find few activities as absorbing or unique as simply standing in their midst while they stare back at you inquisitively.
Of course, penguins aren't the only creatures you will spot on the White Continent. By the end of December, whales are abundant, and smaller expedition ships make an excellent platform from which to stop and watch the animals. Humpback whales perform spectacular breaches, surging almost entirely out of the water, and killer whales slowly scan ice floes for prey. In the air, take delight in the soaring albatrosses that deftly skim even the most tempestuous waves and can spend several years at sea.
Almost all cruises to Antarctica are staffed with a bevy of naturalists. Instead of selecting from the usual offerings of production shows, belly-flop contests or bingo, passengers are offered talks that explain the difference between a rorqual and a toothed whale and which species of penguin is the only one to nest on ice.
For a look at some of the many species you might see up close on an Antarctic and South Georgia expedition, click through our slideshow.
Why They're Cool: Seeing a killer whale hunting in the wild is a study in pure power and environmental adaptation. With its dramatic black-and-white pattern and rigid dorsal fins that can reach 6 feet high, these sinister-looking mammals usually travel in tight-knit, family pods. Research is revealing more about their advanced hunting behavior and their dynamic social structure. Case in point: They work together by swimming in groups to produce a breaking wave that washes prey off ice floes and into the water.
Where to See Them: Most commonly they are spotted in the Gerlache Strait along the Antarctic Peninsula.
Why They're Cool: The immense penguin colonies on South Georgia -- well over 100,000 birds on one beach -- are a wildlife lover's paradise. To visit South Georgia is to witness an explosion of life and biomass. (The collective odor and noise is equally staggering!) King Penguins have an elongated breeding cycle, meaning cruise ship visitors will always see chicks in their creches. Called "Oakum Boys" because of their fluffy, brown feathers that resemble the dirty, tarred workers who used to caulk ships with oakum, these clumsy but adorable chicks are charmingly curious.
Where to See Them: Kings are found in the Falkland Islands, but most notably on vast colonies on South Georgia.
Why They're Cool: These 40-ton gentle giants rank among the most widespread and charismatic whales. Energetic and acrobatic, you might spot them breaching (jumping out of the water), spy-hopping (raising their heads out of the water seemingly to look around) or rolling on the surface flapping their long pectoral fins. Each tail pattern is unique, much like our fingerprints; your naturalists may have access to a catalog that can identify individual whales and where they were last spotted.
Where to See Them: By January, it is hard not to spot humpbacks that are in abundance in the waters of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Why They're Cool: This cream-colored seal grows to about 8 feet in length, and with an estimated population of 15 million (or possibly, many, many more), it is the most populous seal in the world. In fact, some scientists believe it might be the most abundant large mammal in the world! Despite the name, crabeaters feed almost exclusively on tiny, shrimp-like krill. Their teeth allow them to strain out the krill while forcing water out of their mouths.
Where to See Them: Along the Antarctica Peninsula.
Why They're Cool: The smallest of the rorqual whales, minkes average just under 30 feet long. While their plentiful numbers make them a relatively common sight, eager visitors are often disappointed by their elusiveness. These whales are fast swimmers, usually skittish of ships and rarely show much body as they break the surface to breathe. Occasionally, however, they launch into repetitive displays of breaching, and they have been known in a few locations in Antarctica to actually swim alongside and underneath Zodiacs for a prolonged inspection!
Where to See Them: Throughout the Antarctic Peninsula.
Why They're Cool: With a reptilian head, spotted body and streamlined shape, these pinnipeds simply appear fierce from all angles. Reaching lengths up to 12 feet long, they are an undisputed top predator in the Antarctic along with killer whales. Often you'll spot a leopard seal prowling off a beach nearby a penguin colony. The nervous birds gather at the water's edge, waiting for the first brave penguin to jump and test the waters. Despite the leopard seal's reputation, however, up to 50 percent of its diet may consist of krill., spotted body and streamlined shape, these pinnipeds simply appear fierce from all angles. Reaching lengths up to 12 feet long, they are an undisputed top predator in the Antarctic along with killer whales. Often you'll spot a leopard seal prowling off a beach nearby a penguin colony. The nervous birds gather at the water's edge, waiting for the first brave penguin to jump and test the waters. Despite the leopard seal's reputation, however, up to 50 percent of its diet may consist of krill.
Where to See Them: Usually on ice floes along the peninsula, in the South Orkneys and in limited numbers in South Georgia.
Why They're Cool: Immortalized in the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," soaring albatrosses are emblematic of the Southern Ocean and are known as good luck for sailors. Gliding effortlessly over the seas in even the heaviest winds, these birds spend almost their entire life at sea. You'll probably spot the black-browed albatross on your expedition, but keen spotters will also see the wandering albatross, whose 10-foot wingspan is the largest of any bird, and the light-mantled sooty albatross, one of the most graceful and beautiful birds anywhere. Take a seat in a lounge and just watch them dip, dance and dive over the waves; you'll be mesmerized.
Where to See Them: At sea in the Drake Passage, as well as at the Falklands and South Georgia.
Why They're Cool: A visit to a South Georgia beach in the austral spring is an overwhelming experience. Huge elephant seals up to 16 feet long and weighing 4 tons (the size of a Volkswagen Beetle!) lazily lounge in the sand. Occasionally, brutal and bloody confrontations unfold only feet away from you, as males protect their harems in a scene straight out of National Geographic. When young, however, weaner seals recently abandoned by their mothers are heart-wrenchingly cute with their wide, doe-like eyes. They will often inquisitively wander up to patient visitors for up-close encounters. Incredible divers, adult elephant seals can reach as deep as 5,000 feet underwater and stay below for two hours.
Where to See Them: While limited numbers are found on the Antarctic Peninsula, visit South Georgia in the early season (October and November) to experience vast colonies of a thousand or more.
Why They're Cool: The emperors are the grand prize of penguins and the stars of films like "March of the Penguins" and "Happy Feet." As the only penguin that makes its colonies on sea ice over winter, Antarctic explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard said, "I do not believe anybody on Earth has a worse time than an emperor penguin." Over 3 feet tall and 80 pounds, these are big birds -- but chances of spotting them are slim because the only nearby colony breaks up in early December. Catching sight of this noble bird standing alone on an ice floe, or waddling back en masse against a vast, bleak ice expanse, is a privilege few experience.
Where to See Them: On the ice deep in the Weddell Sea or far south on the peninsula.
Why They're Cool: A conservation success story, fur seals were almost hunted to extinction but have made a remarkable comeback. Territorial males are one of the few animals visibly aggressive to humans in Antarctica, and during the breeding season, males can be nasty and pugnacious. Despite their bellicose behavior on land, they are a joy to watch in the water, as they frolic at the surface and take an active interest in passing Zodiacs.
Where to See Them: South Georgia is almost overrun with fur seals; they can be so populous that they make landings impossible!
Why They're Cool: Consisting of three species, these penguins are the most common types you'll discover on the Antarctic Peninsula, and each one basically fits the popular image of a tuxedoed bird. Visitors can't get enough of their comic antics -- popping out of the sea onto ice as if shot from a gun, only to bounce off and clumsily fall back in the water; waddling up hills single file on "penguin highways"; preening and cleaning in the surf; and watching giant flocks swim alongside your Zodiac. They are every bit as charismatic and cute as you'd hope, and watching them carry on their daily life is pure wildlife magic.
Where to See Them: You'll find the three species of brush-tailed penguins (Adelie, gentoo and chinstrap) throughout the peninsula. Each has a slightly different range and lives in distinct colonies.
Updated November 21, 2019