What compels people to explore Antarctica. The answer is simple, Antarctica is nature in its purest state; her power and beauty are at once humbling, confronting and exhilarating. Come and learn about the early explorers that dared to brave her sometimes cruel and deadly elements.
Life in the Antarctic
One of the main objectives of our Antarctica expedition is to observe the many varied forms of wildlife inhabiting this remote location. Many people think only of frozen, icy wastelands when they think of Antarctica. In fact, the waters around Antarctica are teeming with life and bird life abounds over and around the Southern Ocean.
Due to its harsh and unforgiving environment, the wildlife of Antarctica mostly thrive in the sea such as krills, squids, jelly fish, arrow worms, comb jellies, snails, salps, seals, whales, penguins and sea birds like skuas, petrels, terns and albatrosses.
There are no large land animals not including microorganism's such as protozoa, nematodes, rotifers, tardigardes and the minuscule invertebrates such as mites, springtails and midges. The largest land animal is only 12mm (approximately 0.5 inch) - the midge insect. Polar bears, well they're only found in the Arctic.
The land flora on the continent are mainly algae, lichen and mosses (We observed: green and pink algae). There's around 300 species of algae, around 200 species of lichen, 85 species of moss and 25 species of liverwort have been observed. In the Antarctic Peninsula, where the climate is less colder, two flowering plants (Deschampsia antarctica an Colobanthus quitensis) have thrived and are one of the study subjects of many scientists who wanted to uncover the secrets of the plant's freezing tolerance and cold-acclimatisation capabilities.
Marine Wildlife Watching Guidelines
(Whales & Dolphins, Seals and Seabirds)
For Vessel & Zodiac Operations - The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) has developed the following Wildlife Watching Guidelines to provide guidance to vessel operators while viewing cetaceans, seals, and birds in their marine environment.
Wildlife Watching Guidelines (PDF) | General Visiting Guidelines
Bird Life in Antarctica
There are 7 species of penguins that can be found on the frozen land: Adelie penguins, Gentoo penguins, Chinstrap penguins, King penguins, Rockhopper penguins, Macaroni penguins and Emperor penguins - the only species that stays during the winter.
King Penguin: King Penguins are actually sub-Antarctic birds, rarely venturing south of South Georgia Island. On this island, there are some 100,000 pairs breeding here on a regular basis. These birds are tall (37 inches) and can weigh up to 26lb. They sport a silvery-grey back with a blackish-brown head accented with a striking patch of orange behind the eyes.
Emperor Penguin: Emperor Penguins can be found all along the Antarctic Continent, with some 40,000 pairs nesting in the Ross sea area. Emperor Penguins can stand about 42 inches in height, weighing up to 84 lbs. at maturity. The story of the Emperors is a dramatic one. Each year, in early June, as the weather begins to turn colder for winter, a single egg is laid. The male penguin then begins a 66-day vigil of watching over this egg throughout the long, cold, dark Antarctic winter. The female spends this time feeding at sea while the male remains ashore, cradling the egg on his feet and covering it with a fold of abdominal skin. The males all huddle together to help ward off the intense cold. By the end of the period, the male has lost 45% of its body weight. Once the female returns the male journeys several days to return to the sea to begin feeding again.
Gentoo Penguin: Smaller than the Kings and Emperors, Gentoo's reach a height of 32 inches. Gentoo's live on many of the sub-0Antarctic islands as well as the Antarctic Peninsula. The total population numbers between 300,000 and 350,000 and the majority of these birds inhabit South Georgia Island.
Adelie Penguin: The Adelie, along with the Emperor, is the only truly Antarctic Penguin. It breeds further south than any other penguin. These penguins are the most abundant of all penguins, breeding all along the coast of the continent. The birds are most populous in the Ross Sea area, and the total population numbers around two and a half million pairs. Adelies are adept swimmers and divers. One bird was recorded as having dived 574 feet in search of its favorite food, krill.
Chinstrap Penguin: Chinstraps have a black-blue back with a white underbelly and white cheeks. A single black line crosses the chin under the eye, giving the bird its name. Chinstraps can be found in large numbers on the shores of the South Sandwich Islands, South Shetlands and South Orkneys. Underwater, Chinstraps can cruise at about 3mph and can dive as deep as 250 feet.
Macaroni Penguin: The Macaroni Penguin sports a black back, white belly and a dramatic golden crest of plumage atop its head. These birds are the most abundant of the Southern Penguins, with numbers reaching 12 million breeding pairs in Antarctica. The largest concentrations are on South Georgia Island.
Wandering Albatross: These are the world’s largest flying birds, weighing over 20lb and sporting a wingspan of 142 inches. They spend the vast majority of their adult life riding the prevailing westerly winds in the “furious fifties” and “roaring forties”, circumnavigating the entire Southern Ocean and coming ashore only to breed. They are enthusiastic ship followers, often keeping company for days at a time. Wanderers feed mainly on squid, but will also take small fish and crustaceans as well.
Black-Browed Albatross: These birds are circumpolar, often found several hundred miles away from shore, but they are mostly found in inshore waters. Many times, these birds are seen near the tip of South America and around the sub-Antarctic islands, where they breed. Mostly white, with sooty brown wings and a dark smudge near the eye and a yellow-orange beak, these are striking birds. They are smaller than Wandering Albatrosses, with a wingspan of just over 94 inches.
Gray-Headed Albatross: As the name implies, this bird has a gray head with a black bill and a dark gray back and tail. This bird is generally found north of the Antarctic Circle, breeding on the sub-Antarctic Islands. Colonies can be large, with as many as 10,000 pairs competing for small patches of mud and grass where a nest is built and a single egg is laid. The birds feed their chicks with squid, lampreys and other fish. The birds work the cold Humboldt currents and travel into Peruvian waters during the colder winter months.
Sooty Albatross: Like other Albatross species, this bird is circumpolar in the Southern Ocean, often found in waters south of the Antarctic Convergence down to the pack ice. They are also found as far north as Peru and the Beagle Channel in the winter. Sooty Albatrosses are a handsome sooty-brown color with a gray mantle and lower back. They have a wingspan of 86 inches.
the Albatross Campaign: The problem - Most albatrosses
and several other seabird species are heading for extinction. They
are being unintentionally drowned in large numbers by "longline"
Longlining is the single greatest threat to the world's seabirds. Much of it is carried out by "pirate" fishing boats.
Save the Albatross | Albatross Conservation | Donate: Online ▪ Form (pdf)
Southern Giant Petrel: The plumage of the Southern Giant Petrel varies from almost total black to almost total white, but is most often mainly gray. With an 81 inch wingspan, the Giant Petrel is at home skimming the surface of the wave tossed Southern Ocean. Giant Petrels are scavengers, often referred to as the “Vultures of the Antarctic”. Often, these birds are seen hanging around Penguin colonies, and it is estimated that as much as 50% of the food regurgitated to their chicks is actually penguin carrion. Southern Petrels are circumpolar, breeding on the Antarctic Peninsula and some of the sub-Antarctic islands. Oddly, the adolescent birds may actually ride the cold water currents as far north as the tropics but the adults rarely stray very far from their breeding grounds.
Cape Petrel: This bird is scattered white and brown in blotches on black wings, with a black head and white underparts. The main food for this bird is fish, squid and krill, which it finds throughout the Southern Ocean. Breeding occurs in November along exposed cliff ledges and among boulders along the Antarctic Peninsula and the Sub-Antarctic Islands. In the cold of winter, the birds disperse as far north as the equator. They can live for as long as 20 years.
Snow Petrel: A snowy-white plumage gives this bird its name. The only other color markings are a short black beak and a coal-black eye. The bird is circumpolar and abundant, especially in the Ross Sea. Their main food is krill, small fish and carrion taken on the wing as it flies amongst icebergs and pack ice.
Wilson’s Storm Petrel: This bird is sooty brown with a white swatch on its square tail. They are found throughout the entire coastline of Antarctica, often seen in flocks of hundreds of birds over shallow waters feeding on shrimp and krill. Storm Petrels are named because they are often seen accompanying ships during foul weather. Wilson’s Storm Petrel populations number in the millions and it is the most commonly seen storm petrel in Antarctic waters.
South Polar Skua: Skuas in general are predators, often seen around Penguin colonies waiting to pick off unattended chicks and sickly birds. The South Polar Skua is an opportunistic feeder and will also search for fish and krill. The main fish prey is the Antarctic Herring. South Polar Skuas are found all along the coast of the continent, and the peninsula, but will travel far over the polar ice, giving them the distinction of the most southerly bird in the world.
Antarctic Skua: This is a large and powerful bird, with a wingspan of 60 inches and a length of 26 inches. Colored with a brown head, dark cap and yellow streaks on the nape, along with blackish-brown wings with a white patch, this is an imposing bird. It is a fierce predator, often pursuing terns and petrels in flight, and will defend “feeding territories” like penguin colonies vigorously. They are circumpolar, breeding mainly in the sub-Antarctic and along the Antarctic Peninsula.
Arctic Tern: Although they breed in the Arctic regions, Arctic Terns actually “winter” in the southern summer. This is one of the most amazing feats of migration in all the natural world as this diminutive little bird actually flies some 20,000 miles a year, living a life in almost perpetual daylight, as it travels from polar region to polar region. We hope to catch a glimpse of these fascinating birds, which will be sporting their winter plumage of gray and white.
Antarctic Tern: The Antarctic Tern closely resembles the Arctic Tern. Both have blood red bills, red legs, white underbellies and gray wings. In the summer, the Antarctic Tern has a black cap and long tail streamers, which the Arctic Tern lacks in its winter attire. The Antarctic tern is a year long resident of the Southern regions, although it is circumpolar to Antarctica. These birds are abundant on the peninsula, often seen plunging into the cold waters looking for small fish and krill.
Pinnipeds ( Seals )
Antarctica also have their share of seals, including Crabeater seals, Leopard seals, Elephant seals, Weddell seals and Antarctic Fur seals, with Weddell seals the only seal species that can be found year-round. Other seals migrate to the north by following the pack ice.
Antarctic Fur Seal: Medium sized (6 feet 6 inches) and weighing 250lb, the Antarctic Fur Seal can be seen on many of the sub-Antarctic islands, such as the South Orkneys, South Georgia, South Sandwich and the South Shetlands. The seal is grayish-brown in color, with a creamy throat and a ginger colored belly. This species is a moderate diver, reaching depths of 165 feet in search of small fish, krill and squid.
Crabeater Seal: With a total worldwide population in excess of 15 million, this is the most abundant seal in the world. This species has a dog like face with a lightly blotted silvery tan color, which is darker on the back and lighter on the belly. Crabeaters are relatively slender seals and can move fast over the ice, achieving speeds of 15 mph. Ironically, Crabeater seals do not eat crabs. Rather, their diet consists mainly of krill and other crustaceans. Each year, they consume 20-25 times their body weight in Krill alone. Crabeaters are mainly found on the pack ice in the coastal waters of Graham Land and the Ross Sea, but they have been observed in such dispersed locations as New Zealand, Tasmania, Australia, and South America.
Weddell Seal: Weddell Seals are the most southerly of the Antarctic seals. Apart from a small population on South Georgia Island, they mainly seek out the ice. They are circumpolar and coastal, remaining on and under the ice during the winter. While under the ice, they maintain small breathing holes by continually using their sharp teeth to scratch the quick forming ice. This is a large seal, reaching 9 feet in length and weighing around 1000 lbs. They are very accomplished divers and are well adapted to the water environment. They maintain a large oxygen store, which gives them the ability to remain submerged for extended periods of time. During deeper dives, they slow their heart rate by 50% and for really deep dives, they reduce this by 75%. They can stay underwater for well over an hour and can dive as deep as 1300 feet. In addition to crustaceans and squid, the seal feeds on the giant Antarctic Cod, which it finds in the deeper waters. Weddell Seals are very vocal underwater and we hope to hear their eerie chirps and calls beneath the surface of the Southern Ocean along the Antarctic Peninsula.
Leopard Seal: The Leopard Seal sports a spotted coat, thus its name. This is a very solitary animal that is frequently found near penguin colonies, though it ranges widely over the fringes of the pack ice. These predators usually lie in wait along traditional penguin launching places, picking off the unsuspecting birds as they enter the water. These are seals that are built for speed and can actually be the most dangerous form of wildlife we will encounter on our expedition. Leopard seals have sharp teeth and are aggressive. Since they are opportunistic feeders preying on fish, birds and other sea mammals, they can often be a danger to humans as well. Perhaps the most dangerous scenario is the puncturing of the rubber sides of a zodiac by the teeth of a Leopard Seal…since the water is so cold, this could be a potentially severe situation.
Southern Elephant Seal: This is the largest seal in the world, reaching a length of 11 feet and weighing in at over 4 tons. Famous for its large nose and trunk, these are imposing animals. The bulls, which are larger than the females, often sport large scars around their necks, evidence of the fierce, bloody battles for territory and mating privileges. Elephant Seals are found breeding on the Sub-Antarctic Islands and are ocean going when not breeding. Because of their large mass of blubber, these seals attracted the sealing industry in the 18th century when more than 100 vessels were stationed in the Southern Ocean securing seal oil by killing these creatures.
Whales are the largest mammal that can be found in the Antarctic waters and only during the summertime. The species of whale that can be seen around the continent are Southern Right Whale, Blue Whale, Fin Whale, Minke Whale, Humpback Whale, Sperm Whale, Arnoux's Beake Whale, Southern Bottlenose Whale, Hourglass Dolphin and Killer Whale.
Blue Whale: The largest animal ever to live on this planet, the Blue Whale has been hunted to near extinction. Worldwide, there may only be 10,000 individuals surviving today. Still, Blue Whales are seen in Antarctica and we hope to spot one during our journey. These magnificent creatures reach a length of almost 100 feet and weigh about 150 tons. During the Antarctic summer, they feed in the Southern Oceans on Krill, taking over 8 tons a day!
Minke Whale: This is the smallest, and most abundant, of the rorquals (Baleen Whales). The maximum length is about 35 feet, although the average is around 27. Minke Whales are fast, dolphin like swimmers and can reach speeds on the surface of about 16 knots. These are circumpolar in their range, although they travel north during the winter to equatorial waters. Their relatively large numbers in Antarctica, about 200,000, attracts the Japanese whalers and their meat is often sold in the Japanese market.
Humpback Whale: Humpback Whales have often been called the Canaries of the Sea because of their mesmerizing songs that echo strangely through the depths of the ocean. Humpbacks are also famous for their enormous, white colored pectoral fins and for the distinctive fluke markings that scientists use to identify individuals. These are slow moving whales, cruising at speeds of about 4-6 knots, but they can leap clear out of the water in spectacular breaches. When diving deep, they raise their flukes out of the water and may occasionally smack their flukes against the water in a behavior known as “lob tailing”. They are seen in Antarctica in coastal waters during the summer months. Apart from Man, their chief enemy is the Killer Whale.
Killer Whale (Orca): This is actually the largest Dolphin. Orca are famous for their distinctive black and white patterns and their very tall dorsal fin. Orcas tend to travel in small family groups known as pods and are effective predators. In addition to fish and penguins, Orca hunt other whales and seals in these waters.
There are over 200 species of fish that are known to live in these waters and tend to be slow-growing. Five families in the order Notothenioidea make up 75% of the Antarctic fish population, four of them found only south of the Convergence. Many of them exist in deeper waters, but we do hope to observe and photograph several species, such as the Antarctic Spiny Plunder Fish, Antarctic Herring, Ice Fish and Eel Pout.
In addition, we will surely encounter the ever-present krill, a crustacean that abounds in these waters and comprises an essential part of the food chain in the Southern Ocean. Underwater, we also expect to encounter Sea Anemones, Jellyfish and other invertebrates as we explore along the bottom near the coasts.
Antarctic Spiny Plunder Fish: The Antarctic spiny plunder fish (Harpagifer antarcticus) another bottom-dweller, is found in shallow water around the northern end of the peninsula, but is also common in tide pools in South Georgia. They can also be found along the South Shetland, South Orkney and South Sandwich islands. Plunder fish are blue and yellow, and tend to be small and scaleless, with characteristically long barbels on the lower jaw. Depth range: 0-5 m on rocky bottoms. Usually under rocks; rarely under algal fronds. A specialized feeder on amphipods, mainly Gondogeneia antarctica.
Crocodile Dragon Fish: The dragon fish is beautifully colored with an elongated crocodile type snout like the pike and lacks the first dorsal fin. Most have been seen near the bottom in deep water. These bottom-dwellers have adapted to the extreme cold with some species have been known to live under the ice. One genus, Pleurogramma, includes the Antarctic herring, the only truly pelagic plankton-eating fish.
Antarctic Cod: The Antarctic Cod (Dissostichus mawsoni), of the fish family Nototheniidae, is famous for producing antifreeze glycoprotein that allows it to survive in the icy waters of the Southern Ocean that surround Antarctica. The Antarctic cod is the largest fish in this region, as long as five feet and with an average weight of over 55 pounds although large specimens may reach 150 pounds.
Even when temperatures drop below freezing, this amazing fish lowers its freezing point to about -2°C. The Antarctic Cod is also called the Antarctic toothfish or sometimes referred as the Antarctic Ice Fish. With a heartbeat once every six seconds, research involving Antarctic cod may lead to advances in cardiac medicine involving conditions where human hearts beat slowly during certain medical procedures or fail to beat fast enough due to hypothermia. Despite its name, the Antarctic Cod is quite unrelated to the true cod; it is not even in the same order, being classified as a perciform rather than a gadiform. More...
- Underwater Field Guide to Ross Island & McMurdo Sound, Antarctica - Even though this is an underwater field guide to Ross Island & McMurdo Sound, many subjects are found in the Antarctic Peninsula as well.
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