Wildlife in Antarctica

One of the most asked questions is, “Are there bears in Antarctica?” The answer is a resounding no. You’d have to go to the other pole, at the Arctic, to see polar bears. Penguins, whales, orcas, leopard seals and albatrosses are all in plentiful supply, however – and all fine-tuned to survive in some of the most extreme places on our planet.

Much of the wildlife in Antarctica can only be reached on a rigid inflatable boat (RIB or Zodiac) from a small cruise ship. Visiting these creatures and the scientists, conservationists and guides who research and protect their environments is one of the best ways to secure their future.

Read on to discover more about what animals you can see in Antarctica.

Birdlife in Antarctica

You’ll be amazed how these awkward waddlers turn into streamlined torpedoes once in the water. They’re perfectly evolved for what they do.


Diminutive, flightless penguins are one of Antarctica’s biggest draws. The colonies (known as rookeries) are surprisingly noisy – and smelly – but their antics make them entertaining. They can “toboggan” on their bellies over surprisingly large distances. Healthy adults have no natural predator on land, the moment they dive into the water to fish for squid and fish, however, they’re in the cross hairs of leopard seals and orcas.

Something about the upright waddle of penguins makes them strangely human. You’ll burn through memory cards on your first wild penguin sighting. They’re not afraid of humans either, so while you’re not allowed to approach them, there’s nothing to stop them approaching you.

Eighteen species of penguins can be found in Antarctica. Adelie and gentoo penguins are the most common. Adelie penguins are only found along the Antarctic coast, and these feisty little birds have been known to be aggressive towards anyone approaching. Survival is tough down here – and they have to fight for it. Many thousands of pairs can be seen on the islands, along with gentoo penguins, which can be recognised by their prominent tails.
Penguins are completely dependent on the ice and fish stocks, so global heating can cause huge breeding failures in the rookeries.
The long, tufted orange “eyebrows” of the macaroni penguin makes it one of the most appealing and comical. They nest in large groups on South Georgia – also popular with chinstrap and king penguins, who prefer the warmer waters away from the Antarctic continent. King penguins resemble the striking emperor penguin, with yellow patches on their head and neck.

Emperor penguins are the best known and, at over a metre tall, the largest species. However, their sheltered breeding grounds – often far inland or on floating ice – makes them hard to reach.
The albatross is the most impressive of all the birds found in the Antarctic, with a wingspan of up to 3.5m.


Seeing albatrosses soaring through the steely skies of the Antarctic is a moving experience. Four species breed in Antarctica, crowding onto the tiny island of South Georgia to rear their young. They can fly up to 1,000km in a day as they migrate 10,000km between the Antarctic and warmer weather further north. All species have steadily declining populations – largely because adults are increasingly likely to be killed by longline and trawler fishing and accidentally eating ocean plastics.


You’re most likely to see skuas around the Falkland Islands and South Shetland Islands during their October-March breeding season – which handily coincides with the Antarctic cruise season. These brown gull-like birds have 1.5m wingspans, and are both scavengers and aggressive predators known for their distinctive high-speed chases. There are two species of skua in Antarctica: the bolshy brown skua, with its eagle-like beak and talons, and the smaller, laid-back south polar skua.


Southern giant petrels are the most striking type of petrel; they can reach the size of a young albatross and rarely make land. South Georgia is your best bet for seeing them, when they gather to breed and nest.

Millions of Wilsons storm petrels stick close to the coast of the Antarctic shelf, making it an easy spot. Flocks of cape petrels stalk ships through the Southern Ocean, cackling at each other while they pick off forgotten fish. And it’s hard not to be charmed by the snow petrel. These dove-like birds are deceptively delicate looking, but tough it out in the Antarctic all year round, hunkering down in rocky outcrops and travelling far south in search of food.
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Whales & killer whales

Whales calve during the austral summer in the Antarctic’s chilly waters, before migrating thousands of miles north in the bitter winters.
Playful humpbacks are the most common species of whale in Antarctica, and the most entertaining as they breach and slap their enormous flippers. Orcas (killer whales) hunt in the channels and minke whales are large and gentle. The world’s largest animal – the blue whale – is less commonly seen, but stretching the length of three double-decker buses, a sighting is unforgettable.

Read more about whale watching in Antarctica.


Your image of cuddly seals is sure to change after you’ve come face to face with an enormous bull elephant seal or one of the Antarctic’s most ferocious killers – the 3m-long leopard seal.

Elephant seals

Elephant seals are found on the beaches of Patagonia and the South Atlantic archipelagos like the Falklands and South Georgia. True to their name, males can be up to 6m long and have trunk-like noses that they use to amp up their roar during the ferocious mating season (September-November). Female elephant seals can’t hunt while suckling their young; their thick blubber keeps them warm as well as providing energy reserves.

The elephant seals in the Southern Ocean have amazing adaptations, including red blood cells so hardy that they’re able to hold one breath for up to two hours while deep-sea diving. They also swim thousands of kilometres to forage for food after breeding, making the whole of the Southern Ocean their hunting ground.

Leopard seals

Leopard seals, with their spotted coats and shark-like teeth used for straining krill, are found around the icy waters of the Antarctic Peninsula, where they hunt penguins, other seals, fish and seabirds. However, they also wander – some winding up as far north as Tasmania while following the flow of fish.

Leopard seals are lone rangers for the most part, with only one natural predator – the killer whale (orca). They, on the other hand, eat anything and everything from the buffet of Antarctic wildlife, grazing on crabs, fish, squid, penguins and even other seal pups.

Southern fur seals

Southern fur seals (AKA Antarctic fur seals) are somewhat cuter than their toothier cousins, especially the tiny pups that blink into the light in December and January. They favour the ice-free islands, with over a million fur seals breeding on the island of South Georgia alone – remarkable considering they were almost wiped out by hunters in the 18th and 19th centuries. Southern fur seals feed in shallower waters, so you’re most likely to see them close to the shore, snapping up krill, fish, squid and the occasional penguin.

Weddell seals

Noisy Weddell seals can be heard barking in the southern Antarctic, diving up to 600m beneath the ice to catch a cod dinner while avoiding the snapping jaws of orcas and leopard seals. Weddell seals maintain their under-ice hunting grounds with a bit of DIY in winter, using their teeth like ice picks to drill breathing holes into the ice. The pups are particularly photogenic, thanks to their gold and silver fur coats that keep them toasty on the ice.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Torsten Dederichs] [Intro: Danielle Barnes] [Penguins: Gilad Rom] [Albatross: Fer Nando] [Whales & Orcas: heckepics] [Seals: Yuriy Rzhemovskiy]