Last week, we highlighted 3 awesome reasons to visit the extraordinary continent of Antarctica. From the magnificent scenery of dramatic mountains, glaciers, and icebergs to the white continent’s fascinating history of bold exploration in unimaginable conditions, the lure of Antarctica is immense. However, there are so many magical moments to experience in Antarctica that it impossible to capture them in just one post.
So, if you are not already convinced, let’s see if more highlights of Antarctica will convince you to add the continent to your bucket list. From the cacophonous colonies of penguins to hordes of boisterous seals and huge pods of whales, Antarctica is a magnet for wildlife enthusiasts. However, on an expedition ship, such as Scenic Eclipse, you can experience truly spellbinding close encounters with these creatures during a variety of adventure activities. Here’s what treasures your trip to Antarctica might deliver.
The Antarctic is home to millions of penguins, seals and birds and each year, the flourishing waters of the Antarctic attract huge numbers of whales. For wildlife lovers, the Antarctic offers the opportunity to experience close encounters with these creatures. You will witness heartwarming scenes of hilarious penguin behaviour and delight at the sight of cute (and not so cute) seals. However, you may also witness the harsh realities of the fight for survival in Antarctica should you spot leopards or whales hunting in the rich Antarctic waters.
If you would like a detailed overview of wildlife in the Antarctic check out this article. For now, here are just a few of our wildlife highlights from Antarctica.
The leopard seal may appear cute to some however this formidable predator is second in the food chain to the killer whale. According to the New Zealand Department of Conservation leopard seals are, ‘are the only seals known to regularly hunt and kill warm-blooded prey, including other seals’. The seals feed mainly on krill, fish, and penguins and kill with ruthless savagery. They have even been known to occasionally attack humans including one fatality involving a snorkeller in Antarctic waters. These seals are the Jurassic contribution to Antarctic wildlife, at times resembling a dinosaur, moray eel or even a giant slug lazing on the ice floes.
Leopard seal penguin slaughter
In a horrifying yet enthralling display of aggression, we watch on one outing as a leopard seal viciously flings his penguin prey back and forth. For over five minutes, he grapples with the penguin, intent on removing the skin to feast on the meat.
On another occasion, we watch fascinated as a leopard seal tries stubbornly to clamber onto an iceberg tempted by the prospect of crabeater seal lunch. His head bobs covertly in and out of the water as he explores the edge of the iceberg, on the prowl for a suitable entry point to the ice. It looks like the crabeater’s days are coming to an end when he manages to clamber ungainly onto the ice, only to slither back into the water. Phew! Safe (for now!)
Weddell seal singing
Weddell seals are the cuties of the ice. We spot them lounging on the ice, unconcerned by the zodiacs bearing visitors. As we approach, we hear a soothing trill, a strange, haunting kind of sound. Yes, the weddell seals sing!
Wherever you go in Antarctica however it is likely you will see seals. Whether hanging out on icebergs, prowling the water on the hunt for a feast or behaving boisterously on many of the islands, you may see them in their hundreds. On Baily Head, we lose count of the number of seals marking their territory on the beach whilst penguins surf the waves.
Which leads me nicely onto penguins. Whilst leopard seals may be the villains of the Antarctic, penguins are the comedians. Just check out this video montage of our penguin highlights to see what I mean!!
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Make sure to fixate on a few penguins to witness their comedic value in scenes such as these.
Penguin twins fighting for survival
On one occasion, two chicks rush to their mother as she emerges from the sea, her belly laden with food. Survival of the fittest is the name of the game in the harsh waters of the Antarctic however and chicks must fight for food as parents try to ensure the best chance of survival for their strongest chick. This elaborate contest sees two chicks scrambling clumsily over rocks in pursuit of their mother. One is intercepted by a bird pecking at its rear and distracted he gives up the chase. Meanwhile the hustling chick hurriedly waddles after his mother keen to feast on the regurgitated contents of her stomach.
Note, watch closely in the reel above for the bird taking on the penguin!! What a bully!
Penguins enjoying their first feast
Once penguins reach a certain level of maturity, their parents abandon them to fend for themselves. One abandoned chick colony contemplates their first hunting foray from the safety of the beach. They hesitate on the shore, chirping and clucking to one another in deafening high-pitched squawks, as they contemplate their first plunge. A bold ringleader takes his first steps tentatively into the water, and like lemmings, the herd follows. Hungry for their first feed, they skim across the water giddily, bobbing in and out as they hunt, an ecstatic display for those who manage to make it back to shore. As you can see in the reel above however, not all make it back to safety!
On shore, penguins shuffle around with awkward hops, skips and jumps and frequently fall flat on their faces. With an embarrassed shrug, they skittishly look around to see if anyone has spotted their tomfoolery before they continue. On other occasions, penguins sneakily steal pebbles from the nests of neighbouring penguins. They covertly wait until a penguin has turned away before skittering across the rocks to pinch a pebble which they hurriedly stash in their nest. We even see penguins high fiving!
At sea, we spot penguins as they speedily skim the surface hopping in and out of the water. They porpoise in this fashion to avoid predators and catch their prey unaware. It’s fascinating to watch and equally entertaining to see them plop onto shore on their bellies. You can see a particularly cute scene in the reel where a penguin beaches in this way.
More penguin resources
If you want to know more about penguins, you can find some great information on the Polar Guidebook including a comparative size guide. The British Antartica Survey also provides an overview of the main species you are likely to see during your stay in Antarctica.
Here are the different species we saw in Antarctica.
If you love ornithology, then the Antarctic is a great place for you to see wandering albatross, petrels, skuas and a variety of other huge migratory birds.
South Polar skuas
The most notorious birds to visit the continent are the south polar skuas, the hooligans of the Antarctic. These birds are highly intelligent and harass other birds to steal their food. They have been known to drown adult penguins and work in teams to achieve their goals. The ruthless birds torment penguins, dragging them away from their nests so they can steal their eggs and have been known to eat their own chicks. Uugh, gross! Antarctic skua (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)
For many, whales are a huge magnet for visitors to Antarctica and you may experience some truly unforgettable moments during your expedition.
Flandres Bay whales
Perched on the edge of the zodiac I peer expectantly into the azure waters of Flandres Bay. Earlier, I’d spotted a pod of humpback whales so I am excited to see whether we will have a close encounter.
We spot a sharp fin just a few metres away, sandwiched between two zodiacs. Like a scene from Jaws, the fin circles the boats ominously. However, this is not a shark. The Antarctic Peninsula waters are far too cold for sharks. This is a minke whale on a mission for fun, not food.
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As I watch, he heads directly towards our zodiac and surfaces. His bulging eyes pop up from the water like a frog, eying us curiously before plunging right beneath our boat. Life slows, I hold my breath captivated as I eye the length of his body, the white and yellow markings so close I can virtually touch them. More gasps as he remains just below the surface passing beneath a small group of kayakers who seem frozen, barely able to move due to the enormity of what we are witnessing. He surfaces just beyond the furthest kayak with a little splash and glides away.
But not for long…this minke wants to play and seems to delight in teasing us. Jill, one of the kayak guides bobs calmly on the water when the minke suddenly pops his head up with a snort that makes her jump. He does the same to another female guest on one of the zodiacs, breaching the surface at the bow where she is perched. We watch captivated as he repeats the process several times, a true exhibitionist.
After a spellbinding 30 minutes our minke whale decides he has better things to do than entertain us and slowly glides away leaving us to revel in the moment. After all, this isn’t Seaworld!
The announcement sounds loud early one morning as we sleep. Danny announces the sighting of orcas around the ship. Having spotted them from afar in Alaska we hurriedly dress and rush out onto the bow, hoping for a close encounter with these ruthless predators.
In every direction, orcas hunt, mothers and calves close together. We gasp astonished at the sheer size of the pod that is currently treating the bay as their penguin banquet. In groups, they dive and surface, clasping penguins ferociously in their jaws. They rip their catch to shreds and feast on the tongue, liver and heart then leave the waste drifting in the water for scavengers.
Technically part of the dolphin family, male orcas can reach up to 10 metres in length and can swim over 50 km an hour. They are highly intelligent and work in groups to coordinate hunting. Today however, they appear to be hunting penguins and tossing them aside after their kills, a murderous lesson for their calves.
As if the wildlife encounters onboard an expedition cruise are not exciting enough, all inclusive adventure activities can really up the ante. Expedition cruises to Antarctica typically include a variety of excursions in zodiacs, kayaks and even SUP. These offer the chance for amazing interactions with wildlife but also the chance to experience the incredible landscape from much closer quarters.
Exhilarating zodiac rides and dramatic shore landings
The changeable weather sometimes means that a normally sedate zodiac trip in Antarctica may turn into an adrenaline fuelled adventure. During our visit to Baily Head on Deception Island we experience an exhilarating start to the day when our calm zodiac ride turns into a roller coaster shore landing. As we approach the black volcanic beach, the swell heightens. Four huge waves hit the shore in quick succession and toss our zodiac’s passengers around like clothes in a washing machine. Water pours into the boat, a swirling eddy that rapidly turns the zodiac into a small paddling pool.
Danny, our discovery leader calmly orders us to stay in the zodiac until the next wave recedes. Then legs slightly shaking, I hurriedly clamber over the rim and onto land. Unprepared for the sensation of sinking volcanic sand, I stumble as another large wave crashes, catapulting me forward. Fortunately, Danny is there to haul me up onto the beach like a beached whale. Amazingly, the waterproofs do the job and I escape with only squelchy socks and damp hiking pants.
The return from the beach is equally exciting. Guides herd us into two rows of four, and hordes of staff urge us forward onto the boat. Beached, we wait for waves to lift us as the discovery team push the zodiac into the surge. Wrestling to hold their balance, waves battering the shore, they manage to push us into the waves and with a huge thrust of the engines, we soar over the crest of a wave and back to the boat.
On land, we hike up the barren valley with sheer rocks rising on one side and a sloping hillside stretching towards the glacier on the other. Everything appears monochrome, the brilliant white snow and ice a sharp contrast to the black sand and dark ominous cliffs. Everywhere, penguins surround us and fur seals lumber around the beach, occasionally turning their heads to hiss and growl at us.
The headland is like a battlefield with dead penguin carcasses littering the valley, birds pecking away at the slivers of remaining flesh. Mangled feathers litter the beach and chicks feed next to decaying corpses; their exposed rib cages a stark reminder of the fight for survival in the wild. The chicks seem unperturbed by this horror, squeaking and squawking animatedly in their huddles.
Other adventure activities
The chance to kayak or SUP in bays littered with giant ice sculptures is utterly surreal. As you paddle through the water, the occasional thunder of calving glaciers echoes around the bay. Ice scrapes against the kayak as you manoeuvre between lumps of ice in the freezing water.
As we scour the bay hoping to see more wildlife, we spot the distinctive hump of whales in the distance. In tandem, a duo of humpbacks glide through the water, diving and resurfacing before a flick of their tails announces their descent. We sit in our kayaks, paddles poised as we watch the mesmerising display. They drift a little closer putting on an undulating display of hypnotic beauty but all too soon we must return to the ship.
Of course, no cruise to Antarctica is complete until you have doffed off, donned your swimming costume, raced across the marina deck and hurtled into the water with a big splash. Thankfully staff attach you to the boat before you make the leap as the cold water paralyses brain functionality. As you hit the water, adrenaline surges through your body and it feels likes needles are stabbing you everywhere. Your legs refuse to heed the command to swim as you frantically lurch towards the ladder and a soft towel. A warm shot of whiskey welcomes you on exit and a certificate commemorates your moment of Antarctic madness.
Note, you may have quite the audience so if you are at all body conscious it might be worth bringing some shorts that you are happy to get wet.
Map of our Antarctica highlights
This map highlights many of the places we visited on our Antarctica cruise. However, if you book this kind of trip read these ten things to be aware of first. There is absolutely no guarantee that you will visit any of these places and this post explains why this is the case.
Wherever you go on your Antarctic expedition cruise, a trip to Antarctica is quite simply breathtaking. It is almost impossible to explain how this continent makes you feel. As Bruce Herrod, a geophysicist who worked in antarctica said, ‘how on earth does one go home at the end of one’s time here and explain to people what Antarctica is like?’
An easy question to answer in my opinion because you simply cannot. You need to visit Antarctica to truly appreciate the magic of this enchanting place.