Top 5: what to spot in Antarctica

Discover more about Antarctica’s most distinctive and well-known animals including the leopard seal, emperor penguin and minke whale. 

Written by Bradt Travel Guides


Emperor penguin, Aptenodytes forsteri

Emperor penguin Antarctica by Rodrigo Argenton, Wikimedia Commons© Rodrigo Argenton, Wikimedia Commons

The sexes are alike, with blue-grey upperparts and blackish-blue heads decorated with large yellow and white ear patches. Underparts are mostly white but the upper breast shows a pale yellow. Emperors are truly birds of the high Antarctic, seldom seen in sub-Antarctic waters. They are deepdivers, hunting fish and squid in the twilight zone, mostly at about 50m (165ft), but down to as much as 564m (1,850ft), well below the summer levels of plankton abundance.

Leopard seal, Hydrurga leptonyx

Leopard Seal of Antarctica by Papa Lima Whiskey, Wikimedia Commons© Papa Lima Whiskey, Wikimedia Commons 

The spotted coat gives the leopard seal its name, but in looks its head is markedly snake-like, with a huge gape. Unlike the Weddell, its head seems too large for its sleek and slender body. The body is dark grey above and light grey below – the two shades clearly divided – with conspicuous ‘leopard’ spots on the throat, shoulders and sides. The leopard seal is a solitary animal, but not particularly uncommon, especially near penguin colonies, though it ranges widely over the fringes of the pack and fast-ice.

Antarctic minke whale (Piked whale, lesser rorqual), Balaenoptera bonaerensis

Antarctic Minke whale by NOAA, Wikimedia Commons© NOAA, Wikimedia Commons

Smallest and most abundant of the rorquals, with a streamlined but perhaps less slender body than the larger relatives, the Minke whale has a narrow, pointed and triangular rostrum, with a ridge on top of a flat head. The upperparts are black, the underparts white from the chin back. There is pale grey blazing on the flanks, one above and behind the flippers and one in front of the fin. The tall, pointed dorsal fin is set well back on the body. The pectoral fin is light grey, sometimes with a distinct pale band – unlike the dark grey slashed with a white band of the more northern common Minke. They are found close inshore within the pack-ice, often many miles from open water.

Southern giant petrel (Antarctic giant petrel, giant fulmar, stinker, nellie), Macronectes giganteus

The plumage of the southern giant petrel varies over a wide range from almost black to almost white, but is mainly grey. A small but significant proportion is more or less white all over. Spotty juveniles are blackish-brown all over; as they age, their heads and breasts become progressively paler.

Southern Giant Petrel, Antarctica, by Gvasquez, Wikimedia Commons© Gvasquez, Wikimedia Commons

Giant petrels are scavengers, well described as the ‘vultures of the Antarctic’. They gather sociably to feed on carrion of all sorts – whale carcasses, for instance – and they follow ships for galley waste, but they will also fish for krill and squid.

Hourglass dolphin (Sea skunk), Lagenorhynchus cruciger

Hourglass dolphin of Antarctica by Lomvi 2, Wikimedia Commons© Lomvi2, Wikimedia Commons

Strikingly marked in black and white, the hourglass dolphin has an all black body, except for the sides and belly which are white, squeezed black amidships to create an hourglass effect. Robustly built, with a short beak and a prominent dorsal fin, it is tall and sickle-shaped. Hourglass dolphins regularly swim in groups of half a dozen to several dozen, often in company with larger whales.

If you’re like to read more about Antarctica’s wildlife, buy our guide:

Antarctica, Bradt Travel Guides

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