Notching up sightings of the 'Big Five' is in the back of every African safari-goer’s mind. So, in the interests of fairness, below is our equivalent list for another wildlife wonderland – Antarctica. Whether you’re taking in the sub-Antarctic Islands, Antarctic Peninsula or to the Ross Sea, the marine and birdlife of this frigid world offer memorable moments among a mesmerising land- and seascape.
The boss of the beach, male elephant seals weigh up to a whopping three tonnes, and seeing these blubbery titans lording it over their domain, harem of females nearby, is a classic Antarctic wildlife moment. Perhaps even more iconic, however, is hearing the roar of the bull. The noise produced by that extraordinary proboscis is astounding, a deafening thunder designed to warn and intimidate. It works. South Georgia is a great place to spot the elephant seal, and you may also see them around the Antarctic Peninsula, where they feast on the fish and squid-rich waters. The bulls are said to be such sound sleepers that one could sit on them without fear of disturbing their slumber. Perhaps best leaving this as a theoretical exercise – they can outrun humans, and, as anyone who has seen two males vie for supremacy will know, have one heck of a temper.
One for those heading to South Georgia – and believe us it’s worth making the trip to see these regal birds. Your first sight of Salisbury Plains stays with you forever – hundreds of thousands of king penguins gathered on beaches and hillsides, bracketed by the Atlantic and the immense, glacier-bound mountains of the Allardyce Range. An extraordinary sight – the largely piebald plumage of the adults, ornamented with flashes of burning amber, and the brown fluffball chicks – but other senses are awakened too – the cacophonous noise equally memorable. As a bonus, Antarctic fur seals also abound, the pups making for a sociable, enthusiastic greeting party on your landing beach.
If you’re heading to the seventh continent, keep your fingers crossed you see a humpback whale in a playful mood – although enormous (up to 45 tonnes), this is an agile creature than can put on a spectacular display, with breaching, rolling and spyhopping all in a day’s work. They are truly remarkable animals, producing the most melodious of whale song, and catching their prey (krill) by ‘net bubbling’, an ingenuous hunting method that involves encircling the krill in an ever-shrinking ring of bubbles then swooping from beneath to have their fill. Above the surface, seeing one emerge from icy depths close to your ship is simply thrilling.
The greatest wingspan of all birds – up to four metres – and a companion of many a ship in the southern seas, the wandering albatross is one of life’s great travellers. They are perfectly engineered for long distance travel, their powerful wings and aerodynamic shape giving them a seemingly effortless aerial grace, gliding up to 500km in a single day. Famously devoted to their mate (catching the birds’ courtship ritual is an emotional moment), tragically, long line fishing and pollution pose significant risks to the albatross, both contributing to a shrinking population. We’ve raised money for projects that aim to save the albatross - you can read a little more here. Trips like this one are great for spotting the majestic creatures, with populations in both the Antarctic Peninsula and the sub-Antarctic islands.
It may look a little weedy in comparison to the elephant seal, but the Antarctic region’s second largest seal is nonetheless an impressive, ferocious beast, a solitary animal that has all but perfected the art of hunting. Swift, sleek and quiet, with some seriously sharp 2.5cm teeth and a mouth that opens a worryingly long way, the ‘sea leopard’ has been known to eat other seals, but is more commonly spotted stalking penguin colonies for its next meal. Lying patiently in wait for the first penguin to enter the water, the distinctively spotted seal will then take its prey by the feet and bash it against the water’s surface until the penguin is dead – gruesome but effective.