Things to consider
- There are up to 8 whale species to encounter in Antarctica. Humpbacks are the most sighted, followed by Minke.
- February and March are best months for sightings.
- Watching from the ship gives you a better viewing angle, but small guided zodiacs could get you that little bit closer to the action.
- If you join a kayak program, there's a chance you'll encounter whales at water level, where you can observe their gentle moves in complete silence.
Whale-watching in Antarctica
Best time to go whale-watching in Antarctica
February and March are the best months to see whales in Antarctica. Whale numbers are at their peak, and more importantly for visitors to the area, this is when they are at their most curious.
The behaviour change in these months comes from their seasonal feeding pattern. After a long fasting period in warmer waters, whales spend the summer months gorging on food, and by February and March they are satiated, full of energy and ready to play. They begin to be far more interested in interacting with their human visitors, having fun, and putting on a bit of a show.
Diving: Although having whales close to the surface is the best time to see them, catching them diving is the best opportunity for that perfect whale tail picture.
Breaching: Ejecting themselves out of the water, and sometimes twisting before smashing back down. Theories are it's done simply for fun, or a way to scratch their itchy bodies due to parasites.
Spyhopping: Lifting their heads out of the water to have a better view of what's around. Having a humpback spyhopping next to your zodiac boat is a guaranteed wow moment!
Lobtailing: Slapping their flukes against the water to create noise. Thought to be a form of communication.
We saw some blows in the distance, approached gently in the zodiac and turned off the boat engine. We drifted slowly and silently, just waiting for the next "pppppffffff", which could happen anywhere. There was more suspense in that moment than in any movie I've seen.
Loli Figueroa Polar Specialist
Protection and research
As an Antarctic traveller, you're in a unique position to help with scientific research on whales. The ground covered by tourist ships is far more extensive than individual research ships can cover, so visitors have many more opportunities for whale sightings. Many voyages run Citizen Science programs, where travellers can help collect data during their trip, and share that data with research teams.
One of the main projects is Happy Whale. Get involved by uploading your whale fluke pictures to help researchers identify different individual whales and track their migration.
What our customers think
The highlight was kayaking alongside a humpback whale in stunning scenery.
Gill & Richard Starling United Kingdom December 2018
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).
Terrie Mandina United States Of America December 2018
The highlight was having humpback whales feeding within five meters of the Zodiac! The Zodiac drivers were very professional and ensured that we got a good position to see them without disturbing them. We got to see all the three species of penguins and all species of seals.
Kushal UAE February 2018
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.
Sue Australia February 2018
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.
Steve and Tina UK February 2017
The whales took our breath away. We all froze when one went under our Zodiac.
Nancy Texas January 2017
Kayaking was a big highlight for me, with whales breaching beside us, penguins swimming in front and beside the kayak and icebergs.
Jenni and James UK January 2017
We saw both humpback and minki whales from the zodiacs. It was truly amazing. I especially liked cruising through the ice floes and seeing all the lounging seals.
Nicole Illinois January 2017
The highlights were seeing humpback whales at close quarters and paddling through brash ice.
Sandy & Tim UK January 2017
The wildlife was endless and the highlight was probably seeing 30 whales feeding right in front of our zodiacs.
Bertie & Jessica Russell United Kingdom March 2017
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.
Deborah Merickel United States Of America February 2019
The trip was amazing. Michael particularly liked the whales that were diving within 10-15 feet of our zodiac; my favorite was seeing all the penguins and, in particular, the chicks.
Joan & Michael New Jersey January 2018
It was amazing. The wildlife was endless and the highlight was probably seeing 30 whales bubble feeding right in front of our zodiacs.
Bertie & Jessica UK February 2017
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.
Jennifer UK November 2017
Highlights were taking zodiacs through thousands of pieces of ice while humpback whales coming up within 1 meter of the zodiac.
Matthew Lambert United States of America December 2018
The highlight for me was being a part of our 9 person kayaking group plus two guides. We were able to paddle into small coves and the most magical of all was being near three feeding humpback whales and hearing their breathing as they rose up every few minutes.
Jane Alexander United States Of America February 2019
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.
Anna UK November 2016
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Our ships adhere to IAATO guidelines on watching whales respectfully, by keeping their distance and letting them carry on with their activities. If the whales are curious and approach, they can get really close.
Types of whale
Baleen whales (Mysticete)
Baleen whales have an upper jaw equipped with a row of long baleen plates made of keratine, which are used as a strainer. Taking huge mouthful of water, they expand their ventral pleats before pushing the water out with their giant tongue. With this technique they capture tonnes of krill as well as other zooplankton, small fish and organisms. The average baleen whale can eat between 2,000 to 4,000 krill a day in feeding season!
This majestic beast of the seas is recognised by its huge pectoral flippers which can reach a third of its total body length, and as long as a zodiac boat. They are normally black but the undersides of flippers and flukes have varying amounts of white and can be used as aids for individual recognition. They measure 11-19 metres and weigh 25.4-35.5 tonnes, males being usually slightly shorter than females.
Their notorious hump, together with its long pectoral flippers, makes them easy to recognise. Being a baleen whale, they have 2 blow holes, which you'll see if one dives close to your boat. They often work co-operatively to hunt, sometimes by 'bobble-net feeding'.
The second smallest of the baleen whales and the most abundant in the Southern Ocean, Minkes have a maximum length of 10.7 metres and weigh up to 9 tonnes. They are usually spotted around the edges of the pack ice during Antarctic summer, with pairing and calving taking place during the winter.
Minkes largely escaped hunting in the first half of the 20th century due to their relatively small size but are now targeted in their hundreds each year by Japanese whalers.
Toothed whales (Odontocete)
As their name suggests, these whales have teeth rather than baleen plates. Their diet typically varies from fish to other marine mammals, depending on the species.
The Orca, or Killer whale (named because one of the three types of Orca does actually hunt and kill certain types of whale), is the largest member of the dolphin family and can be spotted by its enormous dorsal fin, which can grow to 2 metres high in males.
Orcas have a striking black and white pattern, from throat to abdomen, some of their flanks and an oval blaze behind the eye white, with the rest mainly black. They measure from 3 to 9 metres and weigh three to ten tonnes, males are larger than females. Orcas are found throughout the Southern Ocean, with an estimated population of 80,000.
What other whales might I see?
Although lots of other species frequent these waters, they're a lot rarer to spot. The golden ticket sightings include Sperm whales, which have some of the deepest and longest dives of any whale, only returning to the surface every few hours. They've been recorded to dive to 2,000 metres in search of giant squid and large fish. Southern Right whales are also sometimes spotted.
Others to look out for are Blue, Fin and Sei whales, the three largest whales. Blue whale numbers, in particular, are picking up recently after a long period of being endangered, and seeing one is a real cause for celebration.
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