For animal lovers, an expedition to Antarctica is one of the most incredible experiences on the planet.
Crossing Drake Passage
This famous stretch of water where the warmth of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans meets the frigid Southern Ocean might seem empty and lonely, but the strong currents create nutrient rich surface water that attracts an abundance of mesmerising seabirds.
During the crossing you’ll be introduced to a variety of petrels and albatrosses circling the ship and taking advantage of the churning water by swooping into the wake.
With the longest wingspan of any bird (up to 3.5 metres) the majestic wandering albatross is a sight to behold and a prized sighting for birdwatchers. Only landing to mate and raise a chick, they spend the majority of their 50+ years at sea gliding for hours at a time, wing tips dancing over the ocean swell.
Another beautiful bird to look out for is the sooty albatross. Although not quite as big as the their wandering cousins, the smoky plumage and distinctive brown eyes make them easy to identify.
Usually flying in small flocks, the pretty black and white speckled Cape petrels will entertain you as they skim over the water diving for krill.
And if you’re lucky enough to experience a so-called Drake Lake crossing rather than the feared Drake Shake, you might even catch a glimpse of a whale or two.
South Shetland Islands
As you get one step closer to the Antarctic Peninsula icebergs start to loom on the horizon and weather and ice conditions will determine where you have your first encounter with the darlings of the south – penguins.
With rocky outcrops and less ground ice than the Peninsula, the South Shetland Islands is where Adélie penguins like to build their nests. Made famous by the movie Happy Feet, Adélie penguins certainly live up to their cute and comical personalities. Watching the day in a life of a penguin rookery is one of the most fascinating experiences to take away from your expedition: the delicate way a couple exchange egg warming duties, squabbles over pebbles to built the perfect nest, the constant squawk of adorable hungry chicks. You may even see an egg hatching.
On these islands, you’ll also see large colonies of chinstrap penguins, named for the narrow line of black feathers that goes from ear to ear that makes every penguin looks like they’re smiling. Like the Adélie, the chinstraps usually have a clutch of two chicks which adds to the excitement of being in a rookery surrounded by new life.
Another creature you’re likely to see (in fact they’re hard to miss) on and around the islands is the southern elephant seal. The largest of all the seals in the world, the males can weigh up to 4,000 kilograms and grow six metres in length. Named for their trunk-like noses, you’ll usually find the females and young pups laying together in mud wallows or waddling awkwardly in or out of the water. If you catch the breeding season, you’ll witness the males battle it out by aggressively slamming their blubber into each other to gain dominance over a group of females. The roar of an elephant seal (not to mention the smell) is definitely something you’ll never forget.
After the crossing and the sub Antarctic islands, arriving at the Peninsula is the ultimate moment, and it can be totally overwhelming.
Surrounded by ice and isolation your captain will find calm bays and coves to tuck into amid the abundance of wildlife.
You’ll see more chinstrap penguins and possibly some Adélies but the most common penguin sightings will probably be gentoo penguins. The third largest of the penguin species, with bright orange bills and legs, they’re easily spotted. On land, penguins look comical as they waddle along ‘penguin highways’ from the sea to the rookery. However, in the water it’s a different story. Gentoo penguins are the fastest swimmers and can reach speeds of more than 30 kilometres per hour.
In addition to the penguins, the thrill of whale watching is always a highlight. Several species are found in Antarctic waters including the right, minke, fin, sei, sperm, killer, humpback and the biggest of them all, the blue. Humpbacks offer the most reliable sightings, especially through the Gerlache Strait as the migratory mammals gorge themselves on krill, and killer whales are often spotted through the stunning Lemaire Channel. Of course, the dream is the privilege of catching any glimpse of the largest mammal on earth – the blue whale.
Seals are also common sightings with several species found hauled out on ice floes and swimming in the frigid water of the Peninsula.
Leopard seals are top line predators and live solitary lives. Although built for hunting with a massive jaw and sharp canine teeth, they actually look like they have a grin on their face. They also ‘sing’, vocalising a series of sounds almost like a bird.
Crabeater seals are the seals you’re most likely to see both in and out of the water. The most social of the seals in Antarctica, they hang out together on ice floes basking in the austral summer sunshine and rolling over like puppies.
And with nearly 24 hours of daylight, there’s plenty of time on the Peninsula to enjoy each treasured moment with the creatures great and small.