Exploring amid the icebergs, glaciers and ice floes of the White Continent you find an abundance of wildlife. And although it’s thought too cold for plant life to flourish, there are several species of flora to see on an Antarctica expedition.
If there’s any bird associated with Antarctica, it’s the penguin. It’s likely you’ll come across a few, with six species making their home here: the Gentoo, chinstrap, Magellanic, king, southern rockhopper and emperor.
To see courtship rituals, the best time is mid-October to the beginning of December. The prime penguin hatching season is late December to January.
GENTOO – Weighing up to 11 pounds, the Gentoo is the third-largest species of penguin in the Antarctic. It can swim up to 22 miles per hour, making it one of the fastest penguins in the water. It stands out with its red-orange feet and white triangles around the eyes. Travelers can spot a Gentoo penguin colony at the Penguin Post Office in Port Lockroy.
KING – The King penguin is the second largest of its species. It is most often found in the northern regions of Antarctica and the Falkland Islands. They can grow up to three-feet tall. King penguins move around in colonies of up to several thousand individuals.
CHINSTRAP – The Chinstrap penguin gets its name from the signature black marking around its neck resembling just that. These penguins are known for being bold and agile. They are the second-most common species of penguin found in the Antarctic Peninsula.
SOUTHERN ROCKHOPPER – Tufts of yellow feathers on the sides of their heads give the Southern rockhopper penguin a whimsical appearance. Tourists can watch them climb and hop over rocks, as that is how they got their name. They make their nests on cliff tops and rarely come to land except for molting and mating seasons.
MAGELLANIC – These penguins were named after the explorer Ferdinand Magellan. They are the only species of penguin to dig and nest in burrows on the edge of beaches. They communicate through loud cries that sound like the bray of a donkey, and often the entire colony calls back.
EMPEROR – The Emperor penguin stands at the top of its species as it reaches up to 45 kilograms in weight and 48 inches in height. They’re the only penguins that breed during the winter in Antarctica. They are mostly found on fast-ice, islands of packed ice locked by glaciers.
Poems have been written and songs sung about the albatross. With five species that call the region home, each with uniquely enchanting features, it’s easy to see why.
BLACK-BROWED ALBATROSS – The “Prince of the Clouds,” this bird stands out with a nearly all-white plumage and black feathers at the wing tips. The black coloring around the eyes makes them look like they have charcoal markings, giving them their name. They nest in tall cliffs and only lay a single egg in the nest.
SOUTHERN ROYAL ALBATROSS – Second in size to the wandering albatross, the majestic Southern Royal has a wingspan of 9.8 feet (3 meters). You can often spot these when sailing out in the open waters of Antarctica.
LIGHT-MANTLED ALBATROSS – This albatross is distinct from the others of its species due to its fair feathers. But like its brethren, it’s an efficient flier and has glands above the nasal
WANDERING ALBATROSS – These birds claim the longest wingspan of any bird on the planet at a length of 11.5 feet (3.5 meters). This helps them soar for long distances with minimal wing flapping along the way, allowing them to use even less energy during flight than during rest.
TRISTAN ALBATROSS – Even the most expert of birdwatchers often confuse these with the wandering albatross, as they look so similar. The trick is to look for the darker back on the Tristan. It’s also smaller and native to the Tristan da Cunha archipelago.
Birdwatchers will learn to spot the differences between the three species of prions found in Antarctica.
ANTARCTIC PRION – These are the largest of the prion species, but they’re technically part of the Southern Ocean petrel genus. They also go by the names of dove prion and “whale birds” because they like to filter through the water for crustaceans, much like a baleen whale.
FAIRY PRION – These birds are seen throughout the Southern Hemisphere and are almost as abundant as the slender-billed prion. They’re known for their soft cooing as their mates return to nest at night.
SLENDER-BILLED PRION – Also known has thin-billed prions, these seabirds can be found in large quantities, with an estimated population of about 7 million. Their diet consists of zooplankton, a feat achieved by filtering it through their saw-like bill, which gave them their name derived from the Greek prion.
More than a half dozen varieties of this sea bird make their home in Antarctica, flying over ice floes or sitting with their flocks atop icebergs.
The courting season for Antarctica’s seabirds lasts from November to December, making this a good time for birders to visit.
SNOW PETREL – This all-white bird is found mostly in South Georgia, the South Sandwich Islands, and the Antarctic Peninsula. They are often seen in flocks sitting atop icebergs or flying over ice floes. The black bill and blue- gray feet are the only colors on its body that distinguish it from the snow and ice scenery.
ANTARCTIC PETREL – These are the southernmost breeding birds on the planet. They appear to run over the water before taking flight and can be seen as far north as New Zealand and Australia during the Antarctic winter.
BLUE PETREL – This is a prime example of pelagic birds, as they stay at sea for most of their lives and only come to shore to breed. You can often see them in flocks that include various species of prion. They’re most often spotted throughout navigation of the Drake Passage and Scotia Sea.
BLACK-BELLIED STORM PETREL – It was once believed that catching sight of these birds portended an oncoming storm, thus how they came by their name. They’ve also been called Mother Carey’s chickens – a slang term for the Virgin Mary – water witches, birds of the devil, and many other monikers. You can usually see them around South Georgia.
WILSON’S STORM PETREL – This is the smallest breeding bird in Antarctica. They art apt at avoiding buffeting winds of a storm by flying in the channels created by the waves. They were named after Alexander Wilson, a Scottish- American naturalist known as the “Father of American Ornithology.”
GIANT PETREL – There are two kinds of giant petrel – Southern with pale green beaks and Northern with red-pink beaks. These are the only birds of the Procellariidae family that have legs strong enough to walk about on land.
DIVING PETRELS – There are three kinds: South Georgia, common, and Magellanic. These are small, plump birds similar to an auk. The common diving petrels are distinguished by an inner web of brown, primary feathers while the Magellanic petrel has a coloring of white below and bLack on top.
WHITE-CHINNED PETREL – This petrel is also known as a Cape hen, breeding in South Georgia, Campbell Island, and even sometimes in the Falklands. Their name derives from the light coloring of their beaks.
More than one species of seal call Antarctica home. Elephant, Weddell and Fur seals hunt the waters and come to land for some R&R…and to mate.
Elephant and fur seals start to mark their preferred territories from mid-October to the beginning of December. To see seal pups on South Georgia and the Falklands, travel between mid-December and January. Towards the end of the summer in February and March, fur seals are more abundant on the peninsula.
ELEPHANT SEAL – The males of this species reach sizes of up to 20 feet in length and 4 tons in weight. The females are usually half that size. Adult males develop the trunk around the age of six and use it to amplify their calls during mating season. They come ashore annually to molt and mate. They can most often be spotted in South Georgia.
FUR SEAL – In the Antarctic Peninsula, only immature males can be observed. The fur seal is a carnivorous pinniped like other seals and walruses. It’s a social animal that favors beaches and finds shelter in the surrounding rocks. Mature fur seals are often found in the South Shetland Islands, as well as South Georgia.
WEDDELL SEAL – These seals get their name from where they are found in the Weddell Sea. They are recognized by their small heads, short muzzles, and large hind flippers. The Weddell Seal can stay submerged for over an hour when hunting. It spends most of its day in the water or resting on coastal ice.
You’ll be delighted to catch sight of a pod of whales. Humpback whales, orcas and fin whales are known to swim in these waters.
Late January to early March is the best time to see whales such as orcas, minkes, sperms and humpbacks.
HUMPBACK WHALE – The humpback whale is one of the most active of its species as it often breaches the ocean surface. Passengers sailing around the Antarctic Peninsula and Cape Horn may see these whales slapping their fins and tails on the water’s surface. Humpback whales are most well-known for their haunting, melodious song during mating season.
FIN WHALE – The fin whale is a member of the baleen whale family. In this species, the females are slightly larger than the males. Fin whales are mostly in open ocean waters away from ice, but sometimes can be spotted in the Antarctic Peninsula in areas where the Antarctic waters mix with more temperate water. It is currently an endangered species.
ORCA – Better known as killer whales, orcas are teethed whales that feed on fish and squid, as well as seals, penguins, and smaller whales. The orca is the only whale known to breed in Antarctic waters. They are known to hunt in packs, much like wolves on land. Orcas can be found in the Antarctic Peninsula and parts of South Georgia.
SPERM WHALE – Only the male sperm whale is found in Antarctica. They often dive down to 500 meters, but some have even been known to dive as far as 3,000 meters. These teethed whales live on a healthy diet of giant squid, their staple prey.
SOUTHERN RIGHT WHALE – Southern right whales can grow up to 57 feet, weigh up to 100 tons and live for up to 80 years. Feeding primarily on krill, they enjoy shallow waters and often come up to breach the water’s surface in greeting. You can see their V-shaped spray, created by two blow holes, from a great distance.
BLUE WHALE – The biggest animal in the world living today is the Antarctic blue whale weighing up to 120 tons and growing up to 98 feet long. Even their hearts are huge, growing up to the size of a small car and pumping 10 tons of blood throughout their bodies. Although they’re actually gray, they were named blue whales because when seen through the water’s surface, they appear to glow blue.
MINKE WHALE – Minkes are the second-smallest whale species in the world and are the ones you will most likely spot on an Antarctica expedition. They are highly inquisitive and often approach boats and swim alongside them in pods of up to 20 whales.
Found near the Antarctic Convergence, where the freezing waters meet more temperate waters, hourglass dolphins are one of the few cetaceans that enjoy the cold climate of Antarctica. They’re shorter and stockier than their counterparts, with a color pattern like that of an orca. You may just spot them while they ride alongside the ship or at its bow, or swim with the whales all summer long.
FLORA IN ANTARCTICA
Although the frozen land and lack of moisture keep most plant life from growing in Antarctica, there are still a few types of organisms that will pique the interest of the scientific mind. Mosses and liverworts of the algae, lichen, fungi and bryophyte variety grow plenty in the Seventh Continent. That’s because these plants tend to have dormant life cycles. This means they don’t have roots, so they don’t have to take in nutrients the way other plants do to survive and thrive.
Of the lichen that lives in Antarctica, there are three types that can be found distributed throughout Maritime Antarctica and the Peninsula:
Foliose – You can identify these by their leaf-like lobes.
Crustose – These form a thin crust on the sub-surfaces on which they
Fruticose – When you see a shrubby type of plant growing, you’ve found this lichen.
There’s also snow algae, a distinct subset of the 700 terrestrial and aquatic algae varieties found in Antarctica. It grows in semi-permanent to permanent snow or ice in alpine and polar regions around the world. It’s believed that snow algae mostly appear as chlamydomonads, green algae distinguished by single cells with two flagella at their anterior ends.
Only two vascular plants can be found in the continent: Antarctic hair grass and Antarctic pearlwort. Hair grass undergoes a growth spurt in the summer and is incredibly durable, as it survives the constant trampling of the wildlife in the area. Pearlwort can be found in rocky areas, growing between the cracks of stones like tufts of weed.
The largest marine plant life found in Antarctica is kelp. Durvillaea antarctica – bull kelp – is believed to be the strongest variety in the world, with the ability to withstand the Southern Ocean’s massive seas. It has the one of the fastest growth rates among marine plant life. Kelp provides many organisms with refuge from harsh physical environments.
SOUTH GEORGIA AND THE SOUTH SANDWICH ISLANDS
On South Georgia Island, you will find 26 nonnative species of vascular plants, brought there both intentionally and unintentionally by the people that passed through. These seeds were often spread by the whalers and sealers who made their stations there during the height of those practices. Since the island has milder winters than the Antarctic Peninsula and there’s a lack of predators, these plants have thrived here.
The most prevalent vegetation that has made South Georgia home is tussac grassland. Typically found in coastal regions, it’s an important habitat for nesting birds and high diversity of invertebrates.