Whales and more in Antarctica

Whales, and more

Written by David McGonigal

“Will we see polar bears?” is a question that has been asked on an Antarctic cruise. Sadly, the answer is no as they live only in the Arctic. On the other hand, there’s a good chance of seeing other marine mammals, including whales, down south. 
In fact, sightings can begin in the Beagle Channel after leaving Ushuaia. Some rocky islands here are home to South American sea lions and fur seals. The Drake Passage is home to the world’s largest whales including the blue whale, the biggest creature that has ever lived. While they can be hard to find there’s a good chance of encountering fin and sei whales, the second and third largest. 
When the ship crosses the Antarctic Convergence the outside temperature plummets over a few hours. The meeting of the two bodies of water can be rich in nutrients and can provide some great sightings that may even include hourglass dolphins. 
In Antarctica a Zodiac cruise is always a quest to find seals on ice. One of the most populous species of mammals in the world is the crabeater seal that, perversely, lives on a diet of krill. Also found lying about on the ice are Weddell seals. The best way to differentiate them is that Weddells have a spotty coat and their faces look cat-like while crabeaters look dog-like. 
Leopard seals are a very different kettle of fish. They are predators and very curious so they may be found resting on the ice or swimming around your Zodiac observing you. Sometimes you can observe them, swimming along the shoreline waiting for careless penguins. When they are lying on ice the easiest way to recognise them is by their very long front flippers that give this hunter excellent manoeuvrability. Also, they look rather like a bag of bones dumped on the ice while the other seals look more rounded.
It’s always very exciting to encounter a leopard seal on a Zodiac cruise. Up close they look quite reptilian with a big head and an extraordinarily big mouth. No wonder their only predator is the orca whale.
Even a few years ago it was unusual to see a South Georgia fur seal down in Antarctica. Today they are increasingly common, perhaps as a result of global warming and certainly because the South Georgia population is booming. They are easily recognised by their thick coats, long whiskers and the fact they can stand and move quickly utilising both rear and front flippers. As anyone who visits South Georgia can attest they are born bad tempered and will bite you if they get the chance.
The giants of the seal world are the elephant seals though the largest males, the beachmasters with their floppy trunks have normally returned to the water well before the first visitors of the season arrive. The term here is “sexual dimorphism” – the females may weigh up to 800 kilograms while a beachmaster can weigh 4000 kilograms or four tonnes. They are most likely to be seen in South Georgia where the main risk they pose is if you get run over by a large adult rushing back into the water. Young “eles” with their huge liquid eyes are adorable balloons of blubber that are not adverse to settling in on a pile of life jackets or in the lap of an expeditioner.
There’s a wealth of life in the water, too. Krill and starfish, small crustaceans and jellyfish are at one end of the scale and whales are at the other. It’s possible that you’ll encounter whales along the Peninsula, too. Most common, particularly in the second half of the season, are humpback whales that have eaten well and have time to be curious about visiting ships and boats. Close encounters are unforgettable. Sleek minke whales are sometimes seen but they tend to be quite skittish. Finally, there are several pods of orcas that life along the Antarctic Peninsula. They are always on the move so if you hear an excited call of “orca!” you don’t have seconds to waste.

Learn more about the unique wildlife in Antarctica.

Image courtesy: David McGonigal

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