Seabirds are not all created equal. Bird-lovers will amaze at the diversity of avian life spending the austral summers on the frozen shores of Antarctica. Snow petrels, blue-eyed shags, and millions of tuxedoed penguins amuse your senses from shore. Huge albatrosses glide and soar overhead while playful seals drift by on ice floes. You'll be captivated by curious humpback and killer whales as they approach your ship for a closer look.
More than anything else, visitors to Antarctica are drawn by the promise of witnessing its exotic wildlife. Probably the first thing that comes to mind for most people are the penguins. There are seventeen species of penguins in the Antarctic region, four of which breed on the continent itself. Huge rookeries of Adelie, Emperor, Chinstrap, and Gentoo penguins form breeding colonies of over 180,000 birds! These charming yet comical, flightless birds spend seventy-five of their lives at sea. Onlookers can observe them porpoising and diving for fish and squid in an amazing display of underwater flight. The sights, noise, and smells made by colonies of these hardy birds is an experience not soon forgotten.
Besides penguins, bird lovers will thrill at the sight of thirty-five other species of seabirds found south of the Antarctic Convergence. At the close of a long winter, nineteen species including cormorants, fulmars, gulls, petrels, sheathbills, terns, skuas, and albatrosses migrate to Antarctica to breed on the continent itself. First to arrive are the Adelie penguins, who make the fifty kilometer trek across the sea ice to their nesting grounds. The penguins' arrival is followed by the petrels and skuas, who fly in from the open sea. Last to arrive are the magnificent free-ranging albatrosses and petrels. The seabirds of Antarctica are equipped with special adaptations. Waterproof plumage, a layer of subcutaneous fat, and large, compact bodies help protect the birds from the elements.
There are six species of seals found south of the Antarctic Convergence that will steal your heart. The crabeater, leopard, Ross, Weddell, fur, and Southern Elephant seals are signature species of the Southern Ocean, however only the first four are considered true Antarctic species. Fur and Southern Elephant species prefer the warmer, more northerly islands of the sub Antarctic seas. Seals are found throughout the entire Antarctic region, with some species living farther south than any other mammal. Antarctica supports a much larger seal population than the Arctic due to more productive, nutrient-rich waters for feeding, as well as the lack of an important Arctic predator, the polar bear. Seals were the first Antarctic animals to become commercially hunted during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, exploitations for the seals' fur, skins, and oils are what led to the early exploration of the frozen continent.
Often the most dramatic and breathtaking wildlife displays come in the form of Antarctica's cetaceans, or whales. The telltale flukes and breaths of eight different species can be spotted from ship decks traversing the Antarctic seas, begging one to call out "Thar she blows!" Blue, fin, humpback, minke, sei, and Southern right whales are among the baleen whales who migrate long distances to feed in the cold, zooplankton-rich waters of the Southern oceans during the austral summer. In the winter, these whales head to warmer northern waters to breed and give birth to calves. Hearing the exhalation blow of a killer whale (orcas) or sperm whale will take your breath away. These toothed whales are often seen cruising among the ice floes, foraging for fish, squid, seals, and penguins.
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