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Majestic Glaciers in the Arctic (Photo: Denis Burdin/Shutterstock)

11 Antarctic Animals to Spot During an Antarctica Cruise

Majestic Glaciers in the Arctic (Photo: Denis Burdin/Shutterstock)
Ben Lyons
Marissa Wright

Last updated
Oct 24, 2023

Read time
7 min read

Antarctica is the ultimate destination for travelers the world over. Remote, otherworldly and impossibly beautiful, cruisers continue to flock there in increasing numbers. For nearly all visitors, Antarctica wildlife -- especially the antics of the heartwarming penguins -- are the big draw.

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 in Antarctica.

Humpback whales perform spectacular breaches and killer whales slowly scan ice floes for prey. Admirers can take delight in the soaring albatrosses above that deftly skim even the most tempestuous waves and can spend several years at sea.

And that is just a fraction of the awe-inspiring wildlife one can witness aboard an Antarctica cruise. Plus, almost all cruises to Antarctica are staffed with a bevy of naturalists to explain the wonders of the Antarctic wildlife.

Wondering what animals live in Antarctica and which you could see on an Antarctica cruise? Here’s a look at some of the many species you might see up close on an Antarctic and South Georgia expedition. We explain what animals live in Antarctica and how to catch a glimpse.

1. Antarctica Animals to See on a Cruise: Killer Whales

Resident Orcas in British Columbia, Canada (Photo: Karoline Cullen/Shutterstock)

Why You Should See Killer Whales in Antarctica: Seeing a killer whale hunting in the wild is a study of pure power and environmental adaptation. With their 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 Catch a Glimpse of These Antarctic Animals: Killer whales are commonly spotted in the Gerlache Strait along the Antarctic Peninsula. Seeing killer whales is a typical highlight of an Antarctic wildlife cruise.

2. Antarctica Animals to See on a Cruise: King Penguins

Guests Get Unique Vantage Point for Photographing King Penguins (Photo: Lindbland Expeditions)

Why You Should See King Penguins in Antarctica: The immense penguin colonies on the island of 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 These Antarctica Animals: King Penguins are found in the Falkland Islands, but most notably in vast colonies in South Georgia.

3. Antarctica Animals to See on a Cruise: Humpback Whales

Humpback Whales Migrating (Photo: robert mcgillivray/Shutterstock)

Why You Should See Humpback Whales in Antarctica: 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 Catch a Glimpse of Antarctic Animals: By January, it is hard not to spot humpbacks that are in abundance in the waters of the Antarctic Peninsula.

4. Antarctica Animals to See on a Cruise: Crabeater Seals

Crabeater Seals on Ice Floe, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica (Photo: reisegraf.ch/Shutterstock)

Why You Should See Crabeater Seals in Antarctica: This cream-colored seal grows to about eight 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 These Antarctica Animals: Keep your eyes open for crabeater seals along the Antarctica Peninsula.

5. Antarctica Animals to See on a Cruise: Minke Whales

Why You Should See Minke Whales in Antarctica: 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. They have been known in a few locations in Antarctica to swim alongside and underneath Zodiacs for a prolonged inspection.

Where to See These Antarctica Animals: Onlookers can see minke whales throughout the Antarctic Peninsula.

6. Antarctica Animals to See on a Cruise: Leopard Seals

Why You Should See Leopard Seals in Antarctica: 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, up to 50 percent of its diet may consist of krill.

Where to See Leopard Seals in Antarctica: Usually on ice floes along the peninsula, in the South Orkneys and in limited numbers in South Georgia.

7. Antarctica Animals to See on a Cruise: Albatross

An albatross colony in the Falkland Islands on an Antarctica cruise with Lindblad Expeditions (Photo/Ming Tappin)

Why You Should See Albatross in Antarctica: 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 very likely be mesmerized.

Where to See Albatross on an Antarctica Cruise: At sea in the Drake Passage, as well as at the Falklands and South Georgia.

8. Antarctica Animals to See on a Cruise: Elephant Seals

Elephant seals at Robert Point in Antarctica (Photo/Gwen Pratesi)

Why You Should See Elephant Seals in Antarctica: A visit to a South Georgia beach in the spring is an overwhelming experience. Huge elephant seals up to 16 feet long and weighing four 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. Adult elephant seals are incredible divers and can reach as deep as 5,000 feet underwater and stay below for two hours.

Where to See These Antarctica Animals: 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.

9. Antarctica Animals to See on a Cruise: Emperor Penguins

Emperor penguins in Antarctica with Lindblad Expeditions' National Geographic Endurance (Photo/Ming Tappin)

Why You Should See Emperor Penguins in Antarctica: 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 three 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 Catch a Glimpse of These Elusive Antarctic Animals: If you are to see the great emperor penguins, it would be in the ice deep in the Weddell Sea or far south on the peninsula.

10. Antarctica Animals to See on a Cruise: Fur Seals

Why You Should See Fur Seals in Antarctica: 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 These Antarctica Animals: South Georgia is almost overrun with fur seals; they can be so populous that they make landings impossible!

11. Antarctica Animals to See on a Cruise: Brush-Tailed Penguins

Penguins in Antarctica (Silversea)

Why You Should See Brush-Tailed Penguins in Antarctica: 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 -- suddenly popping out of the sea onto ice, 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 These Antarctic Animals: 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.

Related: Best Antarctica Cruise Lines
Publish date May 04, 2023
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