Antarctic Peninsula wildlife: key points

  • The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the best wildlife watching destinations on Earth, with an abundance of wildlife set against an endlessly dramatic landscape
  • While penguins always end up stealing the show, Antarctica also offers first class whale watching, with humpback whales and orcas especially common
  • Antarctica’s wildlife is completely unafraid of people, leading to truly unforgettable encounters: you’ll sometimes have to withdraw to stop curious animals getting too close to you
  • Expert naturalist guides on board your expedition cruise ship will lead landings and zodiac cruises, as well as giving talks throughout the voyage
  • Wildlife encounters vary across the season – we can guide you to the best time to visit if you have a special desire to see newly-hatched penguin chicks or the greatest density of whales.

Antarctic Peninsula wildlife: what to see

Penguins

Few places could ever hope to have their spirit encapsulated so perfectly as Antarctica and its penguins. Endlessly full of personality, they are the true banner species for the region.

Three species of penguin are resident in the Antarctic Peninsula: gentoo penguins, chinstrap penguins and Adelie penguins, nesting in large, noisy (and smelly) rookeries. A fourth species, the macaroni penguin, can sometimes be found in small numbers in parts of the South Shetland Islands. 

Visit in the early season and you’ll have the chance to see penguins performing mating behaviours or incubating their eggs. Fluffy chicks tend to arrive roughly in time for Christmas, and start getting ready to fledge by February and March.

Gentoo penguin feeding its chick in Antarctica

Gentoo penguin and chick

Whales

The Antarctic Peninsula quite simply one of the world’s greatest whale-watching destinations.

Humpback whales are the most common whale you can see around the Antarctic Peninsula, along with the much smaller minke whale and the orca (killer whale). All these species can be found close to the shore or ice; in open water there’s also the chance to see fin whales, the second largest species in the world. Blue whales can sometimes also be seen at sea, but remain very rare.

Whale watching starts slowly in Antarctica: in the early season (Nov–Dec), whales are still migrating south to their feeding grounds. From Christmas onwards, whales appear in greater abundance, with encounters peaking in February and March.

Humpback whale flukes in Antarctica

Humpback whale

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Julie says

We were sailing through the Lemaire Channel at the very end of the season and the sea was like whale soup. There must have been forty humpbacks or more spouting close to us. Antarctica really knew how to put on a show for us.

Julie Ruston Antarctica Sales Specialist

Seals

The most common seal seen around the Antarctic Peninsula is the Weddell seal, encountered happily hauled out on the shoreline or an ice floe. Leopard seals, one of Antarctica's apex predators, are typically found wherever there are penguin rookeries. Crabeater seals, the most populous seal in Antarctica, tend to be encountered more the further south you head: they are great lovers of the pack ice.

At the northern end of the Antarctic Peninsula and around the South Shetland Islands you’ll also find plenty of southern elephant seals and Antarctic fur seals. They actually breed further north in places like South Georgia, but head south to the Peninsula in large numbers to feed as the season progresses.

Yawning leopard seal on an ice floe

Yawning leopard seal

Birds

Birdwatching in Antarctica extends to more than just penguins, with many resident or visiting species.

Petrels are the most commonly seen birds. Cape petrels and storm petrels, both of whom follow expedition cruise ships at sea, breed here, along with the beautiful pure white snowy petrel. They breed on cliffs, as do imperial shags (also known as blue-eyed cormorants) southern fulmars and kelp gulls.

Wherever there are penguin rookeries, you’ll find predatory brown skuas, who are also quick to divebomb any visitor accidentally straying too close to their nests. Also associated with penguin rookeries is the pigeon-like snowy sheathbill. These scavengers show a high degree of curiosity around people, often landing on ships or zodiacs, or pecking at any unusual item they encounter.

Brown skua in Antarctica

Brown skua

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Swoop says

Most visitors rush straight into the action when they arrive at a penguin rookery, but there's a lot to be said for lingering by the shore, watching individual penguins as they come and go from the water, or porpoising in groups as they return from their feeding grounds. 

When to see wildlife on the Antarctic Peninsula

Antarctic Peninsula wildlife: where to see it

Northern Antarctic Peninsula

The northern Antarctic Peninsula has the highest concentration of wildlife sites in the region as well as the most spectacular scenery.

Gentoo penguins are in particular abundance here. Their largest rookery is on Cuverville Island, with other breeding sites in places like Danco Island, Neko Harbour, and Paradise Bay. The latter is also notable for its chinstrap penguin rookery. South of the Lemaire Channel, Petermann Island is a rarity for having gentoos, chinstraps and Adelies all nesting together.

Leopard seals and Weddell seals are common throughout the northern Peninsula.

The Gerlache Strait and the bays that come off it are all notable hotspots for whale watching: humpbacks, minke whales and orcas are all found here.

Gentoo penguins on Petermann Island

Gentoo penguins on Petermann Island

The South Shetland Islands

Penguins form large rookeries in the South Shetland Islands. King George Island, where fly & sail cruises start, is home to all three Peninsula species: gentoo, Adelie and chinstrap penguins. The latter are the most populous species in the islands, with sizeable rookeries also found on Deception Island, as well as Half Moon Island (alongside gentoo rookeries).

Weddell seals and leopard seals are both found in the South Shetlands, plus the occasional crabeater. The islands are the best place to see southern elephant seals and Antarctic fur seals.

The Bransfield Strait, between the South Shetlands and the mainland Peninsula, is excellent for whale-watching, with the possibility of humpbacks and minke whales. The Scotia Sea between the South Shetlands and Elephant Island is known for fin whales.

Young elephant seal on Elephant Island

Juvenile elephant seal on Deception Island

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Otto says

I saw so many penguins that I almost started taking them for granted, until I pinched myself to remember where I was. Seeing penguins on an iceberg nervously deciding whether or not to leap into the water? Out of this world!

Otto Lock Antarctica Specialist

The Drake Passage

Wildlife watching begins the moment you sail south from Ushuaia on an Antarctic expedition cruise. The Drake Passage offers terrific birdwatching, particularly for the albatrosses who will follow your ship.

The most commonly seen species is the black-browed albatross, though you’ll want to keep an eye out for the vast wingspan of the wandering albatross and royal albatross and the smaller light-mantled albatross. A host of other birds will also accompany you, including a wide variety of large and small petrels, dainty prions, plus fulmars and shearwaters.

If the seas are calm, there is always the chance of seeing whales. Fin whales and humpback whales are the most commonly seen, but look out also for hourglass dolphins and long-finned pilot whales.

Wandering albatross on the Drake Passage

Wandering albatross on the Drake Passage

South of the Antarctic Circle

The further south you sail along the Antarctic Peninsula, the more the wildlife begins to thin out. This is a more of a place to be enjoyed for its raw emptiness; the large penguin rookeries disappear and the only penguin species you’ll see are Adelie penguins in small isolated groups.

Snowy petrels and Antarctic petrels may still be seen close to cliffs, while on the ice you may spot the occasional crabeater seals, which are dependent on sea ice for their lifestyle. They are krill eaters and have their prey largely to themselves: whales tend not to venture this far south along the Peninsula.

Adelie penguins on Stonington Island

Adelie penguins on Stonington Island

The Weddell Sea

According to the season and the weather, some expedition cruise ships may opportunistically sail through the Antarctic Sound to the northeast Antarctic Peninsula. Locations here such as Brown Bluff and Paulet Island are home to large Adelie penguin rookeries. Gentoo penguins are rare here and chinstraps are completely absent.

The Weddell Sea however does give the best chance to see Antarctica’s most iconic species: the emperor penguin. Wandering individuals can sometimes be seen on the ice, but Snow Hill Island is home to their northernmost rookery, and the only one in the world readily accessible by expedition cruise ship: a small number of ships call here every year.

Close up of emperor penguin

Emperor penguin on the Weddell Sea

Wildlife watching guidelines

Strict wildlife watching guidelines are in place in Antarctica, drawn up by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) to avoid any possible harmful impacts on wildlife populations during a visit. Swoop is proud to be an associate member of IAATO and we encourage all our guests to familiarise themselves with their guidelines before travelling.

Your guides will instruct you how to behave when you’re out in the field: always follow their instructions. You must keep safe distance of at least of 15 feet (5m) between you and any animal at all times. If an animal approaches, you must quietly withdraw. Always give wildlife the right of way: don’t walk on the natural highways used by penguins and never get between an animal and the sea.

A group of tourists watch gentoo penguins using biosecurity guidelines in Antarctica

Watching penguins from a safe distance in Antarctica

Antarctic wildlife FAQs

  • When is the best time to see Antarctica's wildlife?

    Antarctica's wildlife experience changes throughout the season so there's no 'best time' to visit as you'll enjoy amazing encounters whenever you travel. Travelling early in the season offers busy penguin colonies displaying breeding behaviour, high season brings penguin chicks, while late season is the peak time for whale encounters.

    For a month-by-month guide to what the wildlife will be doing during your visit, see our page about the best time to visit Antarctica.

  • How close to the wildlife do you really get?

    Very close! Antarctica's wildlife has no fear of people so the challenge isn't getting close to wildlife, it's giving them enough space. It's not uncommon to find yourself being approached by a curious penguin or a fur seal pup full of false bravado.

    To avoid disturbing the wildlife and to maintain important biosecurity rules, you must keep a distance of 15 feet (5m) from wildlife at all times, and 33 feet (10m) from the edge of penguin colonies. If an animal approaches you, slowly move away. Remember that wildlife in Antarctica always has the right of way and if anything you do causes an animal to change their behaviour, you're too close and should quietly move away.

  • Do all ships have naturalists on board?

    Absolutely. On board you'll find a variety of guides with a wealth of wildlife experience to tell you more about the animals you're seeing – both while you're on shore and during dedicated talks on the ship. Expert guides are an integral part of the expedition cruise experience, so don't be surprised if your guides have a background in scientific research in the region as well as working with tourists.

  • How much time is spent on shore for wildlife photographers?

    Antarctica is something of a wildlife photographer's paradise so it attracts a higher than usual proportion of travellers who are seriously dedicated to their cameras. Landings are always planned to maximise your time on shore. Many ships will also have their own photography guide on board who are there to help you capture your best shot. 

  • I want to see penguin chicks – when should I visit?

    Visitors to Antarctica in the early season will see lots of breeding and nesting behaviour among penguins, but the chicks don't typically hatch until the very end of December (in time for Christmas!) and throughout January. From this time you'll see lots of chicks, growing fatter and becoming more curious about their environment until the end of the tourist season when they're getting ready to fledge in time for winter. 

    South Georgia is a notable exception: due to the curiously long 14-month breeding cycle of the king penguin, you'll see wooly brown chicks in the penguin colonies here whatever time of year you visit. 

  • When should I travel for the best whale watching?

    You can see whales at any time through the Antarctic season, but the numbers of sightings typically increase as the season progresses. At the start of the season in November many whales are migrating south from the tropics to their polar feeding grounds. Conversely, by the close of the season in February and March they'll have spent a summer happily gorging on krill and will often approach zodiacs out of curiosity now their hunger has been sated. 

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