Antarctica is one of the world’s great wildlife watching destinations, and even more so if you add the island of South Georgia into the mix. But for the first time visitor it’s not always easy to work out what you’re seeing. The different types of penguin sort themselves out pretty quickly, but there are times when even the keenest birdwatcher might need some help sorting their petrels from their prions. That’s where a wildlife guidebook can come in handy.
There is no pressing reason to pack a book of course. The ship you sail on will have several naturalist guides on board who can help you sort out your petrels from your prions and give you some extra insights into both. This is a perfect arrangement for the casual wildlife watcher. But there’s also great pleasure to be had from browsing through them at your leisure, as well as slipping them into your pocket if you want to be out on deck with your binoculars before anyone else is up in the morning, scanning the horizon for new species.
With this in mind, I took along all the main wildlife guides to Antarctica and South Georgia on my last trip south to put them through their pages and find out which might be the best for your trip.
The best general Antarctica wildlife guide
For those with enough interest in Antarctica’s wildlife to want to take a guidebook, but not quite keen enough to have a ‘life list’ to tick off what bird species they’ve spotted, my recommendation is Tony Soper’s Antarctica: A Guide to the Wildlife (Bradt Travel Guides (7th edition, 2018). This slim volume can easily slip inside your parka during a landing or look equally at home next to your drink at the bar after a long day’s exploring.
The book begins with an excellent potted history of Antarctic exploration before kicking things off with the species everyone has travelled so far to see: penguins. The species are illustrated with elegant watercolours, alongside a distribution map showing where you’ll find them wherever you are on the continent or in South Georgia or the Falkland Islands (this is the only handy wildlife guide that assumes a chance you might be visiting all three).
The text is more narrative-focussed rather than being broken into the different sections for biology, habits and distributions that many wildlife guides use, but to my mind this made it a more pleasurable book to actually read during the trip, while still capturing everything you might want to know about the bird, seal or whale you’ve seen or are looking for.
The best Antarctic Peninsula wildlife guide
For travellers sailing to the Antarctic Peninsula alone who want to really get to grips with the wildlife, the guidebook you’ll want to pack is probably Antarctic Wildlife: A Visitor’s Guide to the Wildlife of the Antarctic Peninsula, Drake Passage and Beagle Channel by James Lowen (Wild Guides/Princeton University Press (First edition, 2012).
One thing I really appreciated about this book was its recognition that the wildlife aspect of a cruise doesn’t wait until you arrive in Antarctica – it begins the moment you embark from Ushuaia and sail through the Beagle Channel. The early sections of the book take you through different zones, from the Beagle Channel to the Drake Passage and to different parts of the Peninsula, with lists of the different species you’ll find in each, along with a useful section on what wildlife you can expect to see at different times of year.
This layout does take some getting used to however. Birds of the Drake Passage are followed by whales and seals, then Antarctic seabirds and finally penguins. It’s not very intuitive and you’ll certainly find a couple of bookmarks useful.
When you do find the right sections however, the individual species entries are excellent, with clear photography for identification, notes on behaviour and some often unexpected talking points about the different species. The simple profiles for how whales appear when surfacing and diving is a smart addition.
Also at the front of the book there’s a good primer on Antarctic tourism and conservation issues, plus a great map of the Peninsula to help you track where you’ve visited.
The best South Georgia wildlife guide
If you’re sailing to South Georgia then there’s a good chance that you’re pretty serious about your wildlife watching and might be serious about your wildlife reading too. If that’s the case then you’ll definitely want to bring along a copy of A Field Guide to the Wildlife of South Georgia by Robert Burton & John Croxall (Wild Guides/Princeton University Press 1st edition, 2012), produced in conjunction with the South Georgia Heritage Trust.
In 200 pages gives a comprehensive spotter’s guide to all the bird and mammal species you might see on South Georgia, leading off with the one species you won’t have trouble finding, the king penguin (its entry also includes the best chart I’ve seen explaining this penguin’s unusual breeding cycle to demonstrate why you’ll always see chicks whatever time of year you visit).
Each species is detailed according to its identifying features and behaviour, alongside notes on some of the best places to see them on South Georgia. The accompanying photography is excellent.
One thing I really appreciated about this book was its holistic approach to the island’s entire ecosystem. There is a section on the different plant communities found in different parts of the island, alongside an identification guide to the key plant and invertebrate species. Thankfully, the section on introduced mammals is now out of date: the rats, mice and reindeer introduced during the island’s whaling period have all been eradicated from South Georgia (the guide to whales offers insights on how the island’s waters are being repopulated).
The most comprehensive Antarctic wildlife guide
For those who are really looking to enrich their trip and do some deep learning both before and after their trip, put Hadoram Shirihai’s A Complete Guide to Antarctic Wildlife: The Birds and Marine Mammals of the Antarctic Continent and the Southern Ocean (Bloomsbury Wildlife, 2nd edition 2019) on your wish list.
This is the book that the naturalist guides on board your ship will be using as their main point of reference, and there will almost certainly be one or two copies available in your ship’s library. It’s not a field guide by any stretch of the imagination, and is big and heavy enough that you’ll probably want to be sat in a comfy chair table to refer to it. But that size and weight is reassuring when it comes to the book’s scope. The author clearly understands the brief of the book, and includes all South Georgia and Falkland Island species in the book, alongside Australia and New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic islands (such as Macquarie Island).
The oversized format is fully exploited with excellent illustrations of species (alongside juvenile variants on the key identifier pages, alongside photos of the species in context showing different behaviours. The text is strong on the biology distribution and conservation status of each species.
The book appreciates that most wildlife enthusiasts will be visiting as part of an expedition cruise, so there is a wealth of practical information for visitors: I particularly enjoyed reading these sections when I was back on board after a landing, to put what I’d seen there into a wider context.
The best bird app for Antarctica
A great alternative to printed guides is to use your phone or tablet. By far the best option to go for here is the eBird app, produced by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Download to either your Apple or Android device before you travel and you’re set to go. The app is designed to have full functionality when used offline, so you won’t have to worry about data or wifi when you’re in the Southern Ocean.
The eBird app covers every bird species in the world, so once you’ve got it you can use it wherever you travel. As well as having a fantastic database of photos, each species also has a geolocated distribution map and audio clips: perfect for testing fellow travellers on what sounds a gentoo or chinstrap penguin makes.
One great aspect of eBird is its user-generated content. After creating an account you can log your own sightings to add to the world’s largest database of bird sightings. This is citizen science writ large. Bird researchers across the world use eBird for their work, and it’s a cornerstone of the South Ocean Seabird Survey: a citizen science project currently offered on many Antarctic cruise ships. Downloading the app will give you a head start in getting involved.
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