Whale watching in Antarctica

One of the most exciting things about going on an Antarctic cruise is the company – and not just your fellow shipmates. You’ll sail through oceans rich in krill, crustaceans and squid, and therefore rich in whales – incredible, when you consider the bloody history of whaling in the Antarctic.
Encountering the largest whale species on the planet is always going to be thrilling – but doing so against a backdrop of blue icebergs as the horizon stretches into ocean and ice is hard to top.
In fact, despite being hunted in their tens of thousands in the 20th century, Antarctica is one of the best places in the world for seeing elusive blue whales. There are also six other whale species which are more commonly seen during Antarctic cruises, along with killer whales (also known as orcas).

Keep reading to find out what whales live in Antarctica, plus where and when to see whales while on your Antarctic cruise.

Whale species in Antarctica

Killer whales (orcas)

Much to the other whales’ exasperation (we imagine), the “whale” many of us on an Antarctic cruise would love to see is actually the largest member of the dolphin family, the killer whale. Around 70,000 killer whales live in Antarctica – that’s over two thirds of all the world’s orcas. The incredible hunting skills of these notorious predators are well-known to fans of wildlife documentaries, and in Antarctica they feed on fish, seals and even minke whales.

Humpback whales

Humpback whales are known for their astonishing acrobatics. They lunge vertically out of the water (known as spy hopping) or throw themselves down on their backs – impressive, given the humpbacks’ huge size. They are also easily recognisable by their enormous flippers, which can measure a third of their body length, and are waved energetically in the air. Antarctic cruises often pass through known humpback feeding grounds; they can cluster here in groups of over 20.

Blue whales

Antarctica is one of the best places in the world to encounter blue whales, which migrate here for the warmer southern summers. Antarctic waters are rich in krill, the tiny food source which sustains these marine giants. These incredible creatures measure up to 30m long and weigh in the region of 150 tonnes – the largest animal that has ever lived. Despite their enormous size, they are surprisingly elusive, which makes a sighting even more special.

If you’re lucky, you might see a female blue whale shadowed by its calf. They’re huge – in a single 24-hour period, a suckling calf drinks around 400-500 litres of its mother’s milk and gains up to 90kg in weight. Yep, that’s around 3.75kg per hour. This rapid weight gain is necessary, as the young whale needs the energy to swim many thousands of miles to the polar regions and the blubber to survive in the icy conditions.

Minke whales

Minke whales are curious creatures and have been known to approach boats. They are around 8m long and delightful to watch, as they often leap right out of the water, particularly when feeding. Minke are one of the most commonly spotted whales on Antarctic cruises and are often seen around the pack ice.

Sperm whales

Bulbous-headed sperm whales are frequently seen in Antarctica. Only the males migrate here, as they lead largely solitary lives away from the females and calves, which prefer warmer waters. Sperm whales dive deeper than any other species of whale, typically down to 400-800m, but it is believed that they can reach depths of 3,000m. This helps them hunt their favourite food: giant squid.
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When to see whales in Antarctica

Whales can be seen on Antarctic expeditions right through the season from December to April, but February and March are the peak months for sightings.

With bellies filled with krill and squid, the whales have the energy to add a bit of pizzazz to their breaching, diving and tail-slapping during these months. They also have more time to check out their surroundings – including you, as they peer up with a single eye from the deep.

Where to see whales in Antarctica

Whales can be found all around Antarctica, starting with the Drake Passage crossing. Particular hotspots include Wilhelmina Bay – known as ‘Whale-mina Bay’ due to the extraordinary number of whales found here due to the availability of krill. Humpback whales are particularly common in the bay.

The Lemaire Channel is an 11km-long natural aquarium set against a backdrop of sheer cliffs, giant icebergs and glaciers. Its lake-like waters mirror the surrounding scenery, sheltering humpback and minke whales, orcas, penguins and dolphins. The Lemaire Channel is also known as the Kodak Gap, thanks to the number of rolls of film that must have been fired off here over the years.

Wilhelmina Bay and the Lemaire Channel are usually included on Antarctic cruise itineraries, conditions permitting.

The history & legacy of whaling in Antarctica

The thick layer of blubber that keeps all whale species alive is also what once nearly pushed them into extinction. Whales have been hunted by coastal subsistence communities for thousands of years, but as societies industrialised in the 19th century, the demand for blubber – which was boiled to create valuable oil – soared.

The whales’ feeding grounds in the polar regions were the preferred hunting grounds. Hunters began setting up whaling stations in the more accessible Arctic, but soon moved to the Subantarctic Islands and Antarctica.
Blue whale populations were particularly devastated by whaling industry. The first blue whale was killed off the coast of South Georgia in 1904 and by the summer season of 1930-31 alone, 29,400 blue whales were killed in Antarctic waters. The bounties were high and whalers braved the harsh polar conditions and dangers of whaling in pursuit of the whales.

By the time the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned the hunting of blue whales in 1966, over 370,000 had been slaughtered – with 330,000 of these taken in Antarctica alone. Just 360 individuals remained there, from an initial estimate of 240,000-300,000. It’s hard to judge how many blue whales exist in the world today, as they are elusive, solitary and deep divers, but scientists think around 25,000.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Rob Oo] [Intro: NOAA Photo Library] [Killer whales (orcas): Bryan Goff] [Blue whales: Oregon State University] [Where to see whales: Gary Bembridge] [The legacy of whaling: Aah-Yeah]