Antarctica is one of the last places on Earth where animals are in charge

A curious gentoo penguin chick checks out my camera.

Liz Carlson

A curious gentoo penguin chick checks out my camera.

Antarctica tops the bucket list of travel destinations for so many people around the world. Whether you want to tick off the elusive seventh continent, roll around in the snow at the bottom of the planet or walk alongside thousands of penguins, there is no limit to the once in a lifetime experiences you can have down on the ice.

Even if you don’t come down for the wildlife, there’s no escaping it. Antarctica is one of the last places on Earth where animals are in charge. This is no accident either. Back in December 1959, 12 countries with scientists who were active in Antarctica came together to sign a treaty to both preserve Antarctica for “peaceful purpose” (no military) and for scientific study.

We zoomed through the short summer night on our way to the Antarctic Peninsula from South Georgia through some of the roughest seas on the planet in the wake of Shackleton’s iconic rescue before arriving down on the white continent. Giddy with excitement, I was up for sunrise and looked out of my porthole only to see dozens of enormous tails slapping the surface of the water.


Waking up to humpback whales feeding all around our ship was an unforgettable experience.

Liz Carlson

Waking up to humpback whales feeding all around our ship was an unforgettable experience.

Yelling for my friend to wake up before tossing a jacket over my pyjamas, I ran out onto the deck to be greeted by dozens of humpback whales feeding alongside the ship. With just us, the Russian crew and a whole lot of whales, we couldn’t help but smile knowing we were witnessing something spectacular.

:
* Go to Antarctica without leaving NZ
* Polarising choices: Should you visit the Arctic or Antarctica?
* Hundreds of penguins filmed hunting in Antarctica
* Antarctica: Journey to the bottom of the world

By the end of any trip down to the Antarctic, you will have likely seen many whales. From orca to humpbacks to sei to right whales, and if you’re really lucky, blue whales, the largest animal on Earth. Many whales migrate to Antarctica in the summer to take advantage of krill.

They used to tell stories that there were so many whales in the harbours you could walk across their backs from the ship to the shore. Sadly there are far fewer whales now around Antarctica than there used to be.

Many whale skeletons cover the beaches around Antarctica, a reminder of the grim past of whaling here.

Liz Carlson

Many whale skeletons cover the beaches around Antarctica, a reminder of the grim past of whaling here.

Once Antarctica was discovered it wasn’t long before whalers and sealers arrived to take advantage of the abundance of wildlife, with over 1.3 million whales killed in 70 years around Antarctica.

Their bleached bones on the shore are a grim reminder to us today why we protect these kinds of places. You can explore the more remote corners of Antarctica and the stories of polar history with the Antarctica Heritage Trust’s Virtual Reality experiences.

No-one ever talks about how much Antarctica stinks. Getting up close and personal with large wildlife colonies, especially penguins, is a messy business. Thousands of penguins mean a lot of penguin poo.

Two Adélie penguins on an iceberg within the Antarctic Circle.

Liz Carlson

Two Adélie penguins on an iceberg within the Antarctic Circle.

Thoroughly bundled up and wearing nice tall muck boots when you go to land in Antarctica means that you get used to it rather quickly, and washing off when coming back on board your ship.

Walking on land through penguin colonies is one of the coolest experiences you can have in Antarctica.

Of the 18 species of penguins around the world, there are between 8-9 that live across the continent and its sub-Antarctic islands.

You won’t likely see any emperor penguins as they live in very remote places, but it is common to see lots of chinstraps, Adélies and gentoos, and perhaps a few rarer species if you’re lucky!

Seals and sea lions are one of the few groups of marine mammals that live in the Antarctic, and you’ll come to spot them lounging around on sea ice and icebergs or even quietly napping on land – watch where you step! And just like the penguins, you can smell them before you see them.

There are six species of seals that inhabit the wild waters of Antarctica, and you’ll definitely see the crabeater seal and leopard seal.

Leopard seals are one of the coolest and slightly frightening creatures you might meet in Antarctica.

Liz Carlson

Leopard seals are one of the coolest and slightly frightening creatures you might meet in Antarctica.

The leopard seal is by far the most impressive and slightly scary, coming in at around three metres long with unmistakably large heads.

Along with the orca, these creatures are the kings of the continent.

Staying safe: New Zealand is currently under Covid-19 restrictions. Check covid19.govt.nz and safetravel.govt.nz prior to travelling to stay updated on the latest travel advisories.

The writer travelled to Antarctica as a guest of Intrepid Travel.