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 humpback whale, Melchior Islands

Diving humpback whale, Melchior Islands

Whale behaviour

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.

Whale Watching in Antarctica

Whale protection & 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.

Citizen science
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Loli says

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

Our best whale watching voyages to Antarctica

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What our customers think of Whale Watching in Antarctica

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The highlight was kayaking alongside a humpback whale in stunning scenery. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2018

Gill & Richard Starling - United Kingdom

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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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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 whales took our breath away. We all froze when one went under our Zodiac.

Travelled: January 2017

Nancy - Texas

Most memorable moment: the humpback whales all around us in the Lemaire Channel. Read the full review

Travelled: February 2022

Tom Crowley - USA

Most memorable moment: whale watching right next to us in the kayak. Read the full review

Travelled: February 2022

Oliver Harris - UK

Seeing a pod of an estimated 45 humpback whales feeding right alongside the Hondius. Even veteran crew members said it was the biggest pod of whales they'd seen, perhaps ever, and they were amazed at how close the whales came to the ship - they just passed by and came up for air one after another for a couple of hours in the Gerlache Strait. Stunning. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2021

Mike Walcher - USA

Our ship encountered a huge group of feeding humpback whales. We were surrounded by them for approx. 1.5 hours as we watched them feed, play, breech, dive...it was an enchanting experience. I never thought I would be so up-close to these beautiful creatures. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2021

Claire Torrey - USA

Most memorable moment: coming across dozens and dozens of feeding humpback whales one morning. Some of them came right up to the ship! Read the full review

Travelled: December 2021

Mohit Kallianpur - USA

My most memorable moment was Fournier Bay kayaking! Epic whale experience. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2021

Randy Smith - USA

I think one highlight was watching nature at work with a leopard seal catching a gentoo penguin. But the scenery at all times was beautiful. We had much sun and warm weather mixed with some grey skies and precipitation. We had incredible whale viewings, sometimes so many at once it was hard to keep track, and of course they were the most awesome. But I would also include penguin rookeries, slowly passing sleeping leopard seals on ice floes. Read the full review

Travelled: February 2020

Mary Boyle Anderson - United States Of America

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 scale and beauty of South Georgia and Antarctica was beyond my expectations. A humpback whale came near the ship to check us out while we were at anchor in Fournier Bay. The whale surfaced, blew, rolled and hung around the ship for quite a while before moving on. The clear water made it easy to see the whale just under the surface. Many good photos and videos were captured! Read the full review

Travelled: February 2020

Monica Scott - United States Of America

Sitting in a kayak surrounded by 10+ humpback whales in Fournier Bay was my most memorable moment. Read the full review

Travelled: February 2020

Zach Mueller - United States Of America

The highlight was definitely seeing the whales from the kayaks (including a minke whale). Read the full review

Travelled: December 2019

David Muenzer - United States Of America

Above and beyond what you can expect. An orka swam right next to us and then peeked up to look at us. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2019

David Lundvall - United States Of America

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 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. Read the full review

Travelled: February 2019

Jane Alexander - United States Of America

Highlights were taking zodiacs through thousands of pieces of ice while humpback whales coming up within 1 meter of the zodiac. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2018

Matthew Lambert - United States of America

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.

Travelled: February 2018

Kushal - UAE

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.

Travelled: January 2018

Joan & Michael - New Jersey

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

The wildlife was endless and the highlight was probably seeing 30 whales feeding right in front of our zodiacs. Read the full review

Travelled: March 2017

Bertie & Jessica Russell - United Kingdom

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

Kayaking was a big highlight for me, with whales breaching beside us, penguins swimming in front and beside the kayak and icebergs.

Travelled: January 2017

Jenni and James - UK

The highlights were seeing humpback whales at close quarters and paddling through brash ice.

Travelled: January 2017

Sandy & Tim - UK

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.

Travelled: January 2017

Nicole - Illinois

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

Whales of Antarctica

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! 

Humpback whale

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 'bubble-net feeding'.

Humpback whale breaching, Wilhelmina Bay, Antarctica

Acrobatic Humpback whale, Wilhelmina Bay

Minke whale

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.

WHALE CLOSE

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.

Orca

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.

Whale Watching in Antarctica

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.

Whale Watching in Antarctica

A humpback whale tail in front of the ship

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Swoop says

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.

Whale watching in Antarctica

Discover Antarctica

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Fly & Cruise Antarctica

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A short two-hour flight quickly and comfortably transports you to the white continent. On arrival you then switch to an awaiting ship, aboard which you’ll spend the next few days…

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Read Swoop’s Guide to find out more about what you’ll do on an Antarctic cruise.

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