Wildlife in Antarctica & the Arctic

Polar Bears

The world’s largest land predator inspires awe amongst all Arctic travellers – not least because when you’re out looking for polar bears, you’re never quite sure if there’s one out there looking for you.

Known as nanuk by the Canadian Inuit, this cuddly-looking creature is anything but. Weighing up to 550kg, they feed mainly on the blubber of seals which they catch when the seal pops up through a breathing hole in the ice. The bears must follow the ice; the seals live at sea, and catching a swimming seal is near impossible. Beached whales provide a rare but welcome feast – if a carcass is spotted, your ship will likely make a diversion to see if any polar bears are feeding on it.

The polar bear’s Latin name, Ursus maritimus, means sea bear, and these creatures actually spend most of their time at sea. 350km is the furthest a polar bear has ever been recorded swimming – so you’ll need to keep an eye on the sea as well as the ice floes to spot the bear!
Something about the penguin's upright waddle makes them strangely human. You'll burn through memory cards on your first wild penguin sighting.


These diminutive, flightless birds are one of Antarctica’s biggest draws. Rookeries are surprisingly noisy – and smelly! – but they’re not afraid of humans, so while you are not allowed to approach them, there’s nothing to stop them approaching you. Six species can be found in Antarctica, with Adélie and gentoo being the most common. Rookeries can comprise thousands of pairs, particularly on South Georgia and the Falklands.

Seals & walrus

Your image of cuddly seals is sure to change in the Polar Regions. There are tooth-raked bull elephant seals, ferocious, shark-mouthed leopard seals and the blubbery walrus with its fearsome, metre-long tusks.

Elephant seals are found in Patagonia and the South Atlantic archipelagos. True to their name, males are up to 6m long with trunk-like noses. Leopard seals live around the Antarctic Peninsula, where they hunt penguins and other seals, as well as fish and seabirds. Diving trips reveal these master predators in action. Atlantic fur seals are cuter – especially the tiny pups, which can be seen in December and January. Over a million of them breed on the island of South Georgia alone.

Up in the Arctic, the walrus – with its whiskery moustache and old-man skin – has been anthropomorphised in contemporary and traditional culture. Their tusks help them haul their bodies – up to 3.5m long – out of the water and onto slippery ice. They are also used as dangerous weapons by territorial males. Walrus can be seen in Canada, Greenland, Russia and Alaska– often drifting on ice floes.

Our top Antarctica & the Arctic Holiday

Classic Antarctica cruise & South Shetland Islands

Classic Antarctica cruise & South Shetland Islands

Experience all that this remarkable area has to offer!

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All whales have an air of mystery, but those inhabiting the Arctic waters are more mysterious than most, from the ghostly beluga to the narwhal - the 'sea unicorn'.


Playful humpbacks are commonly seen breaching and slapping their enormous flippers. Stunning orcas inhabit both regions, a particularly dramatic sight from a kayak. The world’s largest animal – the blue whale – is less common, but stretching as long as three double-decker buses, a sighting is unforgettable. The ghostly white beluga and the narwhal – the ‘sea unicorn’ – are only found in the Arctic, along with the 60-ton bowhead whale – which has the most enormous mouth of any creature.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Bryan Goff] [Polar Bears: NOAA] [Penguins: Paul Carroll] [Seals & walrus: Pacific Walrus Bull] [Whales: Derek Oyen]