Guide to Wildlife on the Antarctic Peninsula & South Shetland Islands

Guide to Wildlife on South Georgia

Penguins of Antarctica

Perhaps the main attraction in Antarctica, six species of penguin can be found nesting in colonies throughout the Antarctic Peninsula, in the Falkland Islands and in their thousands in South Georgia. Most nest high up on the rocks, away from any potential dangers and spend their days waddling back and forth from the sea to bring their young fish along 'penguin highways'. Find out more about individual species and the best places to see them.

Adelie Penguin

The Adelie penguin gets its name from the French explorer Jules Durmont d'Urville who named them after his wife, Adèle. The Adelie can be found all along the Antarctic coast and there are currently about 2.5 million breeding pairs known in 177 locations, where breeding occurs in large colonies during the summer.

Chinstrap Penguin

This penguin derives its name from the interesting mark around its chin. Like the Adelie, the Chinstrap lives throughout the Antarctic Peninsula as well as the sub-Antarctic regions, with over 1.5 million pairs breeding on the South Sandwich Islands. One of the best time to see the four million pairs of Chinstraps in the Peninsula is during December and January when young Chinstrap penguins hatch from their eggs.

Gentoo Penguin

Bigger than the Adelie and Chinstraps, the Gentoo penguin is one of the most common penguins to see in the Antarctic Peninsula and one of the largest colonies is found in the South Shetland Islands on Ardley Island. The Gentoo is largely distinguishable by the white patch above its eye and its orange beak and feet. Estimates suggest that there are approximately 300,000 breeding pairs with around 100,000 in South Georgia and 70,000 in the Falkland Islands alone.

Macaroni Penguin

This incredibly funny-looking penguin is known for its yellow tasselled plumage, which distinguishes it from fellow penguins (although it is similar to the slightly smaller Rockhopper penguin). The Macaroni is abundant throughout the sub-Antarctic islands heading eastwards to Heard Island off the Peninsula and their astonishing number of breeding pairs (11.8 million) are mainly concentrated throughout South Georgia where you're bound to catch sight of some of the over 5 million pairs. One of the most interesting things about this penguin is its breeding cycle - two eggs are produced, the first smaller than the second and the first egg is kicked out of the nest soon after the second egg has been laid, meaning only 1 hatches.  

King Penguin

Closely related to the Emperor penguin, the elegant King penguin is the second largest penguin standing at 80cm tall. King penguins are not found in Antarctica but live in the sub Antarctic islands such as South Georgia with a breeding population at around 1-1.5 million pairs. One of the best places to see them is at South Georgia's St Andrews Bay, a wildlife site without parallel. Several large glaciers provide a dramatic backdrop for the several hundred thousand king penguins that breed in this remarkable ecosystem. Like the Emperor penguin, the King lays one egg and this is carried around on the feet of both parents until it hatches 55 days later. Their breeding cycle is unusually long for a penguin, lasting 14-16 months. This means that only breed twice every three years – but also that wherever you see king penguins you'll almost certainly see their fluffy brown chicks as well. 

Emperor Penguin

Standing at one metre high and weighing up to 40kg, the Emperor penguin is found at a select and more difficult to reach number of locations in Antarctica and the sub Antarctic islands including the Weddell Sea, Queen Maud Land, Enderby and Princess Elizabeth Land in East Antarctica and the Ross Sea. They are also found close to the French research station in Southern Antarctica, which is also close to the location where they spend each winter breeding (the only Antarctic bird to do this). People are so keen to see Emperor penguins that several cruise operators run trips that focus exclusively on seeing them in their natural habitat.

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Swoop says

In order for Antarctica's wildlife to thrive, IAATO, an organisation founded to protect and promote environmentally responsible travel to Antarctica, has set up a list of rules when visiting Antarctica, one of which requires visitors to maintain a distance of 5 metres from penguins.


Watching a pod of whales from up close is perhaps one of the most exciting experiences you can have in Antarctica. The use of small Zodiac boats carrying around 8 people means that you can go with a pod, sailing not far from a mother and calf and watching them dip and dive into the water.

The likelihood of seeing whales in Antarctica is greatly increased if you visit between February and March (the end of the season).

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What our customers think of Antarctic Wildlife

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Most memorable moment was seeing penguins for the first time as we were on the mountaineering walk. Chinstrap penguins - they were so close! 🥰 Read the full review

Travelled: December 2019

Sarah Gillett - Switzerland

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My wife and I were amazed at the amount of wildlife we got to experience (Adelie, Gentoo, and Chinstrap penguins; Leopard, Crabeater, Weddell and Elephant seals; Humpback whales and a pod of over 20 Orcas that swam right by the ship). Read the full review

Travelled: December 2018

Terrie Mandina - United States Of America

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We loved the antics of the penguins and the curiosity of the chicks. Up close viewing of seals and whales was awe inspiring. Our outstanding leaders helped to deepen our understanding and appreciation of this amazing world.

Travelled: February 2018

Sue - Australia

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The extraordinary landscapes and phenomenal wildlife were highlights of the trip. I fell in love with penguins, and can't get enough of them.

Travelled: December 2017

Susan & Jay - Washington

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Seeing the landscape and the animals: simply unmatched; unperturbed, unadulterated, and pristine.

Travelled: December 2017

Yiheli - Chile

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We were privileged to see a large pod of humpback whales in a feeding frenzy one evening; the captain stopped the ship for an hour or so and the whales were feeding all around us.

Travelled: February 2017

Steve and Tina - UK

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The Captain spotted about 25 whales corralling, and circled these animals for about an hour for our enjoyment.

Travelled: February 2017

Patricia - Canada

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As a bird watcher and photographer, the penguins were the standout act, followed by the landscapes, and ice. I had wondered about the point of visiting the Falklands but after visiting the black-browed Albatross colony I quickly became enchanted.

Travelled: February 2017

Grahame - Australia

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The trip was exceptional! One of the things I most enjoyed and was a surprise to me was hearing a leopard seal singing into an iceberg underwater! I didn't know they did that, and it was such a beautiful sound.

Travelled: January 2017

Colette - UK

On one zodiac cruise we got to see a group of 4-5 humpback whales up close, and another we got to see several sleeping leopard seals. Read the full review

Travelled: February 2023

Leanne Matthews - USA

I really enjoyed the opportunity to see the various penguins in their natural habitat - I loved watching them waddle around, swim or just lay on the snow. Read the full review

Travelled: January 2023

Dave Lo - USA

My expectations about the wildlife in Antarctica were blown away! We saw colonies of Adelie, gentoo, and chinstrap penguins. There was a whale sighting just about every day. We mainly found humpbacks, but saw a few minke whales and one afternoon we ran into a pod of killer whales! They must have been hunting or potentially practicing because we saw a group of humpbacks in the crowd and many seabirds checking out the scene. Read the full review

Travelled: January 2023

Maricela Alaniz - USA

The wildlife was extraordinary. I could have watched the penguins for hours and my photos are wonderful but no substitute for observing the animals with my own eyes. Read the full review

Travelled: January 2023

Rebecca Klein - USA

Amazing encounter? A leopard seal (penguin predator) was asleep on the beach at Whaler's Cove, and a couple of penguins walked right up to it, and one penguin poked it in the belly. Turns out penguins can outrun leopard seals on land - so the seal didn't even bother with the penguin. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2022

Marg Macleod - Canada

The opportunities to see, hear, and move among the penguins, sea birds, seals, and whales was truly special. We learned so much, experienced so much it is hard to pick a favorite moment. Many truly 'close encounters.' Read the full review

Travelled: December 2022

Michael Cox - USA

Being able to set foot on Antarctica almost twice a day was incredible, and my most memorable moment was visiting Brown Bluff and seeing thousands of penguins! Read the full review

Travelled: December 2022

Joseph Gabriano - USA

The wildlife was so amazing. We saw an innumerable amount of penguins, whales, and seals. We got so many incredible images and videos of penguins with their “derpy” personalities. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2022

Michael Bucher - USA

Stepping on the continent and being surrounded by penguins. The beauty of the landscape was something we’ve never seen before. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2022

Sarah Moore - USA

I had no idea penguins were so dirty! But in the water there was a joy in their swimming. That was a treat as was seeing whales and orcas. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2022

Deborah Lindsay -

The wildlife we saw on a daily basis was more than we could have imagined. From the varieties of penguins, seals, whales and birds we were able to be feet away from these incredible animals. One of my favorite encounters was on a zodiac cruise where we had 6 humpbacks breaching close to us. The crew also made sure we were respectful to the wildlife’s space and regulations for Antarctica. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2022

Alyson Winemberg - USA

Penguins are one of the funniest animals and thieves I have ever seen! Whale sightings from the deck and Zodiac boats was one of the best and top listings on my bucket list. Thanks! Read the full review

Travelled: December 2022

Steve Rimel - USA

Walking among our first gentoo colony and seeing how clumsy they are on land but graceful they are in the water - and the sun was shining, it felt so warm that everyone was stripping off their layers! Read the full review

Travelled: December 2022

Alison Kubinski - USA

Wildlife is that, wild, you can't plan it, but Antarctica is a great place that gives you good chances to encounter wildlife. We were lucky to encounter whales (orcas, minkes, humpbacks), seals (elephant, leopard), penguins (gentoo, Adelie, etc.) and many birds. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2022

Christian Cancino Martinez - USA

Most memorable moment was watching a leopard seal capture, kill and devour a gentoo penguin. Very sad but survival of the fittest. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2022

Gerry Garber - USA

We’ve been to Alaska several times, as well as Africa and some of the great deserts, but this is a different kind of awe inspiring experience…really impossible to grasp…even with prior research. Favorite encounters were watching the penguins from a respectful distance…..amazing. Read the full review

Travelled: November 2022

Joe Brubaker - USA

Most memorable moment: it’s a tie between: a leopard seal trying to mate with our boat, the polar plunge, and the wonderful friends I made. Read the full review

Travelled: March 2022

Kiera Rumbough - USA

The wildlife lectures were my favourite and one on krill stands out as I didnt think it could be so interesting. Read the full review

Travelled: February 2022

Sue Gatenby - UK

The wildlife was FANTASTIC. AWESOME. INCREDIBLE. Did not see orcas but did see 5 species of whales. Read the full review

Travelled: February 2022

Alison Collins - Canada

Best encounter with penguins was the final day. If you sat down, some of the more curious youngsters would come up to you and check you out. Made for some memorable pictures. Read the full review

Travelled: February 2022

Tom Hoster - USA

We were very lucky on the trip. Saw large numbers of all three of the bristletail penguins in colonies and elsewhere. Likewise, we saw tons of whales. Great sightings of seals of all types: leopard, elephant, crabeater, Weddell and fur. Read the full review

Travelled: January 2022

Mark Golan - USA

Most memorable moment: hard to choose just one! Penguins swimming underwater en masse. A huge, unusually large pod of orca feeding. The magnificent mountain peaks and sunlit valleys beneath them, and on and on. Truly something I will remember every day of my life! Read the full review

Travelled: December 2021

Kent Kimball - USA

Saw three penguin species, three species of seals, plus humpback, fin and minke whales. Birds galore as well. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2021

Mike Walcher - USA

It was amazing to be able to see penguins and other birds, plus seals up-close on the excursions. We also saw lots of wildlife from the ship. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2021

Claire Torrey - USA

The feeding humpback whales encounter was spectacular. Seeing the three difference types of penguins in such close proximity was amazing. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2021

Mohit Kallianpur - USA

Our guide, Steffie, told us to put down our cameras when we were on an outing on the zodiac, and just listen! It was surreal - the peace that surrounded us, the sound of the whales, blowing through their blowhole, the water lapping around us - I realized, I have not actually been listening for years! Read the full review

Travelled: February 2020

Rosarii Nuala Falvey - United States Of America

The humpback whales in Charlotte Bay, they were ALL around us in our little Zodiac! Absolutely epic experience! Read the full review

Travelled: February 2020

Patty Hunt - United States Of America

Our favourite encounters were the whales near us while kayaking. Penguins & close encounters with seals were also great. Read the full review

Travelled: February 2020

Tracey Coleman - Australia

Nothing is ever guaranteed when it comes to wildlife and when it comes to trips like this, it's hard to tick everything off the 'must see' list. With this in mind, I decided that I'd just be happy with whatever we came across. It just so happened that we got really lucky in seeing the rare Ross seal (so rare that none of the staff or crew had ever seen one before!), orcas, humpback whales leopard, crabeater, Wendell, elephant seals and 3 different species of penguins. Couldn't have asked for more! Read the full review

Travelled: February 2020

Kirstin Jen - Thailand

Penguins and whales and seals and albatrosses offered themselves up for some phenomenal pictures. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2019

Rex - Len Hunt - United States Of America

The wildlife was more than I could have ever dreamed. The first day we were surrounded by over 20 + humpback whales breaching and feeding in Fournier bay. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2019

Katie Salva - United States Of America

The Zodiac rides were safe (aided by calm seas) and usually took us to places that we couldn't travel to on the ship. I especially liked it when the guides took us out a little further to see if there was any new wildlife that we could interact with. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2019

Steve Kelemen - United States Of America

Loved it! We saw lots of penguins, whales, and some seals! We got more and better pictures than expected :) Read the full review

Travelled: December 2019

Kayla Kissane - United States Of America

Now I can tell the difference between Chinstrap, Gentoo and Adelie Penguins! Read the full review

Travelled: December 2019

Filip Lievens - Belgium

Getting to see so much unique wildlife up close was definitely one of the highlights of the trip, aside from the amazing landscapes. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2019

Mark Jongewaard - United States Of America

The expedition staff far surpassed all my expectations. My favourite moment was just sitting with the penguin colonies and watching them interact with each other. An absolutely incredible experience! Read the full review

Travelled: December 2019

Jill Pickett - United States Of America

We saw four types of whales, three types of penguins, and four types of seals. Not to mention tons of ocean birds. We have so many amazing pics and videos! Read the full review

Travelled: December 2019

Nancy Jones - Canada

We were lucky to have 11 excursions and all were wonderful. My favourite was my personal encounter with a Minke Whale, who spent 30 minutes among our zodiacs and came up close enough for me to see eye to eye! A baby penguin biting my boot was fun as well. Read the full review

Travelled: February 2019

Deborah Merickel - United States Of America

The highlight was probably seeing humpback whales breaching the water. The landscapes and wildlife were fantastic and we were able to get very close to whales, penguins, seals and sea birds. Read the full review

Travelled: February 2019

Brian Murphy - United Kingdom

The stark beauty of Antarctica really opened my eyes to this part of the world. We were able to see numerous types of penquins, two types of whales, many seals, etc. And seeing the chicks was a highlight for me.

Travelled: December 2017

Karen & Kristen - Nevada

The Antarctic was amazing and the cruise delivered everything promised. The highlight was the wildlife. We saw penguins, seals and three types of whales. The landscape is absolutely stunning.

Travelled: November 2017

Jennifer - UK

Antarctica exceeded my expectations and each day was a new adventure, often seeing thousands of penguins and seals and beautiful glaciers.

Travelled: March 2017

Oscar - Massachusetts

It was amazing. The wildlife was endless and the highlight was probably seeing 30 whales bubble feeding right in front of our zodiacs.

Travelled: February 2017

Bertie & Jessica - UK

Very happy with the wildlife we saw - the best thing was the killer whales hunting a seal by creating waves and breaking the ice from below.

Travelled: November 2016

Anna - UK

The king penguins on Salisbury Plain were something I've never experienced before - unbelievable; the wildlife was fantastic.

Travelled: March 2016

Glyn - UK



Seals, brutally hunted for their skin during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, are found in their thousands throughout Antarctica, breeding on shore on the beaches and rocks or on the pack ice, depending on their species. With 7 species living in the Peninsula and Peri-Antarctic islands (South Georgia or South Shetland Islands), the likelihood of seeing a diverse range of seals whilst you're there is high, but it's best to maintain a safe distance as they can bite.

Southern Elephant Seal

Famed for its ugly elephant-like trunk, the Elephant seal is the largest in the world, with males weighing as much as 3.5 tonnes and growing up to 5 metres in length. Elephant seals are found on most of the Southern Islands and throughout the Antarctic Peninsula, particularly at Livingston Island, where they spend the winter at sea, returning to the beaches in August to engage in a complicated mating ritual which sees one 'beachmaster' with mating rights to harem of females. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Elephant Seal was widely hunted for the oil that could be rendered from its blubber by hunters known as 'elephanters'. This led to a decline in the species, but today the estimated total population stands at around 750,000.

Weddell Seal

Named in 1820 after the respected British sealing Captain, James Weddell, (who also gives his name to the Weddell Sea), the Weddell Seal lives further south than any other mammal (apart from humans) and can even be found at McMurdo Sound, some 77 degrees south throughout the year. The Weddell Seal reaches 3.3 metres in length, weigh around 550kg and can live up to 20 years. They can also dive up to 600 metres and stay under the water for up to an hour. Impressive, but not as impressive as the Elephant Seal that can spend up to two hours under the water during a dive for squid. With population figures estimated at around 1 million, the Weddell is one of the most visible seals in Antarctica, and can be seen on sea ice that has frozen along coasts.

Leopard Seal

You'll recognise this seal by its razor-like teeth which make it uncharacteristically aggressive looking for a seal. The Leopard's large head and formidable jaws enable it to hunt penguin, other seals (especially pups) as well as fish, squid and krill. Seeing a penguin catch is high up on the list of many visitors to Antarctica. The leopard female is larger than the male, growing to 3.6 metres and weighing 590kg, whilst he male reaches 3.4 metres and weighs around 450kg. There are as many as 200,000 Leopard seals throughout Antarctica, particularly in the South Shetland Islands, so the species is not thought to be at risk at the moment.

Crabeater Seal

Although the name would suggest otherwise, Crabeater seals eat krill, not crabs. Although their population is estimated at somewhere in the region of 12 to 15 million, Crabeaters generally prefer to live on pack ice rather than in the open sea, which makes reaching them to assess them, difficult. Because of this, relatively little is known about their breeding process, although it does occur between September to November on the pack ice in the Antarctic Peninsula, with pups growing quickly and being weaned within 3 weeks. These slim seals (especially when compared to rounded Weddell Seals), reach about 2.5 metres in length and weight around 200kg.

Fur Seal

Heavily hunted for their thick fur in the 19th century in South Georgia and the South Shetlands, their population has now rebounded. They breed in South Georgia but young bulls make their way to the South Shetlands Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula from January to March. Up to 315kg and between 1 and 2m in length, they feed on fish, krill, squid and penguins. They are better adapted to move on land than true seals (such as Leopard and Crabeater Seals) as they can use their fore flippers to walk. Young Bulls are curious and fast on land so beware of their pointy teeth!

Antarctic Wildlife

Sea birds

Antarctica and South Georgia are home to a dizzying array of sea birds from albatrosses to gulls and petrels. Here's a selection of some of the seabirds that you're most likely to see whilst you're out there.

Wandering Albatross

The albatross is synonymous with the Southern Ocean. There are a staggering 17 types of Albatross found on the islands in the Southern Ocean and you're likely to find them following your ship en route to South Georgia. You'll see colonies of Albatrosses on the tussock-grass covered islet of Prion Island. The Wandering Albatross is the king of the Southern Ocean, with a wingspan of up to 3.5 metres and a brilliant white body with grey feathered wings. It mainly feeds on squid, fish and crustaceans and sadly are now the most threatened of the avian families.


This bird survives by snatching and eating penguin eggs and this is why they can often be seen hovering nearby and above a penguin rookery. When under attack, the penguins generally huddle together and screech loudly in order to scare the Skua away, but they are usually able to steal an egg from one of the more vulnerable nests. Skuas can be found more or less wherever there's a penguin colony, this photo in particular was taken at Neko Harbour in the Antarctic Peninsula (one of the spots where you can set foot on the Continent). Skuas have a wingspan of 120cm.

Cape Petrel

This dark brownish/black and white speckled bird comes from the 'Petrel' family, a group of seabirds known for its habit of pattering across the surface of the water as if they were walking across it. 'Petrel' means 'little Peter', the apostle who walked on water with Christ on the Sea of Galilee. Found throughout Antarctica and in parts of South Africa, South America and Australia, the Cape Petrel feeds of pretty much anything it can find in the water. In the days of whaling, this bird was seen in huge number around the whaling stations of South Georgia, such as Grytviken, now a whaling museum and resting place of Sir Ernest Shackleton. Cape Petrel have a wingspan of 86cm.

Blue eyed shag

Blue-eyed Cormorants or Shags inhabit the Southern Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula and as of yet, there has been no firm agreement on how many species exist. The bright blue eyed species stands out for obvious reasons, and can be spotted at many of the top landmarks in the Antarctic peninsula.  Cormorants are known particularly for their distinctive fast-flapping flight and as inshore-feeding birds, they are not normally seen out of sight of land. They breed in summer making nests of seaweed in colonies high up on cliff tops and ledges directly above the sea. They have a wingspan of around 1 metre.

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A guide to Antarctic travel

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