Earth’s coldest, driest and windiest continent may not be very hospitable to human life, but the wonders of adaptation mean Antarctica’s waters and lands are home to 235 animal species. The creatures that thrive in this seemingly barren environment capture our imagination as  living proof of the remarkable resilience and adaptivity of life on earth. They are also incredibly photogenic, so best get your camera ready. 

Map of whales penguins and seals found in the Antarctic

Animals that live in Antarctica 

  • Adelie Penguin
  • Albatross
  • Antarctic Orca
  • Blue Whale
  • Chinstrap Pengiun 
  • Commersons Dolphin
  • Fur Seal
  • Gentoo Pengiun
  • Humpback Whale
  • King Pengiun
  • Leopard Seal
  • Minke Whale

These are only a handful of the wildlife in Antarctica.

Penguins

Emperor penguin colony protects their young in Antarctica

Emperor penguin

  • Population: 595,000
  • Find them: Northern Antarctic Peninsula
  • When: at the end of breeding season in November

The big daddy of the penguin world, emperor penguins can grow up to 1.2 metres tall (4 ft) and weigh up to 45 kilograms (100 lbs). They are only found deep in the coldest parts of Antarctica and huddle together in large groups to stay warm.

King penguins in Antarctica

King penguin

  • Population: 4 million
  • Find them: South Georgia Island and Falkland Islands
  • When: December to February

The second-largest penguins in the world (after the emperor), king penguins are an attractive lot with a fiery golden plumage around their heads, and dark grey bodies. Male king penguins incubate the eggs on their feet while covering them with a special pouch to keep them warm. 

Group of Adelie penguins in the Antarctic

Adelie penguin

  • Population: 5 million
  • Find them: Antarctic Peninsula
  • When: breeding from October to February, chicks present from late December to February

Easily recognised by the white ring around their eyes, the Adélies also have stiff wings that can propel them underwater to depths of 100 metres (330 ft). Aside from emperor penguins, Adélie penguins are the only true Antarctic penguins, meaning they live there all year long.

Macaroni penguins gather on rocks in Antarctica

Macaroni penguin

  • Population: 18 million
  • Find them: South Georgia plus one colony on the Antarctic Peninsula
  • When: breeding season changes annually, but usually between November and March

Short, rotund and sporting a pair of yellow eyebrows that put even the most avant-garde makeup artists to shame, macaroni penguins are as handsome as they are aggressive – males frequently fight other penguins within their colony.

Gentoo penguin group, Antarctica

Gentoo penguin

  • Population: 774,000
  • Find them: Antarctic Peninsula, Falkland Islands
  • When: breeding from October to February with chicks present from late December to January

These active critters spend a large part of their time hunting and eating. Known for their speed in the water, the gentoo penguin hunts for krill, smaller fish and squid. With an orange beak that looks a little like a smear of lipstick and a ‘bonnet’ of white feathers, they're also undeniably adorable.

A pair of chinstrap penguins on Antarctic ice

Chinstrap penguin

  • Population: 14 million
  • Find them: Antarctic Peninsula
  • When: breeding October to November with chicks present from late December to early February

These creatures are easily identified by their thin ‘beard’ of black feathers and live in colonies of hundreds of thousands. Chinstrap penguins’ mating habits are quite dramatic. Males fight for the best nest position and then reserve it for five days – if the female doesn’t arrive in time, he may look for another mate. ​

Seals

Leopard seal

  • Population: 300,000
  • Find them: Southern Antarctic Peninsula
  • When: November to March

The only seals that kill other mammals for food, the solitary and adventurous leopard seal will migrate far and wide in search of a feast. They have long bodies covered in spots (hence the name) and incredibly sharp teeth. As they aren’t fond of company, spotting them is a rare treat.

Crabeater seal swims underwater in Antarctica

Crabeater seal

  • Population: 15 million
  • Find them: anywhere with pack ice
  • When: October to December

Crabeaters are the most commonly found seal in the world, with an estimated population of up to 15 million. The male and females are both roughly the same size and have pale, cream-coloured fur and a pointy face. You won't care that they're common when you see them – trust us.

Antarctic fur seal

  • Population: 4.5 - 6.2 million
  • Find them: South Georgia Island, South Orkney Islands, South Shetland Islands
  • When: October to January

Male Antarctic fur seals can weigh up to 180 kilograms (400 pounds), which is much larger than their female counterparts. They are silvery grey on their backs, with brown stomachs and a hairy mane on their neck and shoulders, which is how they get their name (and all the attention).

Southern elephant seal rests on the shore of South Georgia Island

Southern elephant seal

  • Population: 650,000
  • Find them: South Georgia Island, Elephant Island
  • When: males take to the beach from November to secure breeding space

The largest species of seal in the world, males weigh up to 3600 kilograms (four tons) and sport a prominent schnoz that they use to roar and attract mates. Come breeding season, males fight for their right to secure a piece of territory on the beach and attract a bevy of beautiful lady seals.

Weddell seal pup in the Antarctic

Weddell seal

  • Population: 250,000
  • Find them: Southern Antarctic Peninsula
  • When: breeding from September to December

Males and females are about the same size and are dark grey on their backs and light grey underneath. They are characterised by a small face with huge eyes, and light streaky patterns across their whole bodies. Weddell seals breed further south than any other mammal in Antarctica.

Ross seal rests on the ice in the Antarctic

Ross seal

  • Population: 78,000
  • Find them: dense pack ice in the Southern Ocean
  • When: November to December

The rarest of the Antarctic seals, the Ross are solitary hunters who stick mainly to thick pack ice. As it’s the breakdown of pack ice during the warmer months that allows humans to access the Antarctic’s waters, catching sight of these little creatures is highly unlikely.  

Whales

Blue whale swims in the Antarctic peninsula

Blue whale

  • Population: 10,000 - 25,000
  • Find them: South Georgia Island and Antarctic Peninsula
  • When: most active February to March

The largest animal to have ever lived on planet earth. Just let that sink in for a minute. Ok, ready for more? The biggest blue whale on record weighed nearly 200 tonnes – to put that in perspective, an adult male African elephant weighs 6 tonnes. Blue-grey in colour, these beauties are rarely spotted, but if seen are impossible to forget.

Orca pod in the Antarctic

Antarctic orca

  • Population: 70,000
  • Find them: all over Antarctica
  • When: most active February to March

The ‘killer whale’ is technically part of the dolphin family. With their iconic glossy black back and striking white bellies, there is little chance of missing this mammal if they are close by. Males grow up to nine-and-a-half metres (31 ft) in length, while females clock in at seven metres (23 ft).

Humpback whale breaches the surface in the Antarctic peninsula

Humpback whale

  • Population: 30,000 - 40,000
  • Find them: South Georgia Island and Antarctic Peninsula
  • When: most active February to March

The humpback’s white neck, huge size (up to 40 tonnes), hump and frequent breaches make them one of the easiest whales to spot if they’re nearby. Look out for the great spout of water called a ‘blow’ they expel from their double blowholes – these sprays can reach up to three metres.

 

Minke whale skims the waters surface in the Antarctic Peninsula

Minke whale

  • Population: 500,000
  • Find them: South Georgia Island and Antarctic Peninsula
  • When: most active February to March

One of the smallest whales, a minke whale maxes out at around 10 tonnes. These slender and acrobatic creatures like to breach and dive under ships, although they are fast swimmers, so you need to be on the ball to spot them.

Southern right whales swim in the Antarctic Peninsula

Southern right whale

  • Population: 10,000
  • Find them: Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetland Islands
  • When: most active January to March

One of the slowest moving whales, the southern right whale can weigh up to 80 tonnes and is the only large whale without a dorsal fin. Black and mottled brown in colour with some white around the eyes, these beauties can be quite the show-offs and are prone to breaching, headstands and curious nature.  

Fin whale swims in the Antarctic Peninsula

Fin whale

  • Population: 85,000
  • Find them: Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetland Islands
  • When: most active January to March

While female fin whales can weigh up to 130 tonnes, don’t let their size fool you – these remarkably nimble whales are known as the greyhounds of the sea. During the 20th century they were almost hunted to extinction, so spotting them today is a rare and humbling experience. 

Flying seabirds

Wandering albatross, Antarctic

Wandering albatross

  • Population: 26,000
  • Find them: all over the continent, but most common in the skies around South Georgia
  • When: breeding season in December and January

One of the world’s largest seabirds, the albatross spends most of its time up in the air and can be spotted easily thanks to its long wings. They love to glide behind big ships, so when you’re standing out on deck, look up at the skies and you may spot these graceful birds.

Antarctic petrel

  • Population: 10 to 20 million 
  • Find them: all over the continent
  • When: breeding season from October to December

Petrels spend all their time out at sea and are very resilient, even in the harshest of Antarctica’s weather. The only time they will come inland is to nest. Look out for colonies resting on icebergs in November, December and January – their brown colouring stands out against the ice.

Blue eyed cormorant rests in the Antarctic

Blue-eyed cormorants

  • Population: 20,000
  • Find them: all over the continent
  • When: breeding season from November to December

With its long neck and dazzling blue peepers, the blue-eyed cormorant cuts a pretty figure. They fly in large flocks and hang out around the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island, the South Shetland Islands and the top of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Kelp gull spreads its wings

Kelp gull

  • Population: 3.5 million
  • Find them: all over the continent
  • When: breeding season from November to January

Ah, gulls. One of the hardiest and most misunderstood of all the seabirds. These opportunistic creatures will feed whenever and wherever they can – including penguin eggs and the skin and blubber of live southern right whales. Rock and roll.

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