Emperor penguins (British Antarctic Survey)
Article Words : Mark Carwardine | 01 April

Wildlife in Antarctica

Bitterly cold, extreme and astonishing – at every turn the inhabitants and sights at the southern hemisphere are awe-inspiring

It’s hard not to use clichés when talking about Antarctica. It bombards you with sensory overload at every turn. I’ve just returned from my 18th visit – and I’m already planning my next. I just can’t get enough of it.

I go mainly for the whalewatching. Imagine being accompanied by a school of boisterous Peale’s dolphins as your ship rounds Cape Horn, spotting hourglass dolphins or long-finned pilot whales in the open ocean, quietly following a pod of orcas as they search for penguins and seals among broken ice floes, or watching a humpback whale breach in front of a snowy-white iceberg. We even saw a lone blue whale.

These are experiences that encourage many visitors to describe Antarctica as the ultimate whalewatching destination. Not only does it harbour more whales than almost anywhere else, it also provides a spectacular icy setting that lends the animals an incredible air of majesty.

But even whale addicts can’t fail to be impressed by the noisy rookeries of nesting penguins – mainly chinstraps, gentoos and Adélies – and the plethora of seals. Not surprisingly, the last great wilderness on earth is home to the greatest concentration of wildlife. In just a few days we saw Weddell, crabeater and leopard seals resting on ice floes, southern elephant seals burping and farting in muddy wallows, and Antarctic fur seals asserting their dominance on pebbly beaches. In between, we had time to enjoy the breathtaking scenery ofice-choked waterways, glaciers and icebergs.

On the last day of the trip, I could have pointed my camera in almost any direction and taken a dozen cover shots: a crabeater seal posing in front of an astonishing ice sculpture, a resting humpback whale’s distinctive bushy blow, a breathtaking mountain of weathered rocks, ice and snow, a huge white and blue glacier calving in the sunshine.

When asked why he returned there again and again to bitter cold and uncertain survival, Frank Wild, who was second-in-command on Ernest Shackleton’s famed Endurance expedition of 1914-16, said he couldn’t escape the ‘little voices’. It’s hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t already been there, but the same little voices have captured the imagination of entire nations, as well as explorers, scientists, artists and writers ever since the White Continent was discovered less than two centuries ago. And I hope they’ll be calling me back for many more years to come.