The Antarctic Peninsula and Southern Ocean islands are populated by five seal and sea lion species, which you can easily spot from a respectful distance. Enjoy stories and some fun facts about these five iconic Antarctic species.
The Antarctic fur seal is one of the first species that you will encounter upon arrival to the Antarctic Peninsula and the Southern Ocean’s islands early in the travel season—but it’s not a seal at all! It is in fact related to sea lions (family Otariidae) and can walk on its long, articulated front and back flippers, unlike true seals (family Phocidae) that move more like worms.
The species gets its name for its fine woolly coat, sought after by sealers in the olden days of Antarctic exploration. It is found in large numbers on subantarctic islands such as South Georgia. Fur seals are agile and fast in water, propelled by their long pectoral fins. They often porpoise clear out of the water to gain speed while travelling.
Males defend their small beach territories from November onwards, hoping to form a harem with the females that arrive a little later. They defend this territory by grunting loudly and with mock or even real attacks on any neighbouring male perceived to trespass. Sometimes the sheer number of males lined up on the beach makes Zodiac landings tricky, and your expedition team will have to search for an opening in that gauntlet of ornery fur seals.
Like the rest of the species listed below, the crabeater seal is a true seal (family Phocidae). Phocids are unable to support their own weight with their relatively small front and rear flippers. Despite their name, crabeaters don’t eat crabs. Ninety-five per cent of their food comes from krill, an extremely abundant shrimp-like schooling invertebrate, which they filter-feed upon using modified teeth. It is thought that perhaps the species was given its misnomer name by early sealers and whalers; the word for krill in the Germanic languages of those mariners sounds like “kreb”.
Crabeaters are the most abundant seal species on the ice around the Antarctic peninsula and islands. You are likely to see them during a Zodiac cruise along the pack ice. These seals number many millions around Antarctica, but only a fraction of them are resting on ice floes at any given time. They spend many hours a day diving to find krill, often around 100 metres but sometimes as deep as 600 metres. They haul out in small groups on pack ice to rest from these feeding bouts.
The Weddell seal was discovered by a British sealing captain, James Weddell. Its spotted coat and smaller size distinguish it from the crabeater seal. It prefers to haul out on fast ice (sea ice that is attached to land) and sometimes on snowy beaches.
I once even found one on a stony beach, looking perfectly happy and sleeping on its side, apparently dreaming of something quite pleasant! Weddell seals are not as abundant as crabeaters or fur seals, but you are likely to see a few during your adventure to Antarctica.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable sights you’ll see on the subantarctic islands is the sparring of two bull elephant seals. These giants amongst seals are disproportionally big compared to the females of the species. They use their enormous size, tusk-like teeth, and snorting sounds from their inflatable noses to challenge each other.
Like fur seals, the winner asserts dominance over his area of beach and rounds up a harem of females to breed in the early Austral summer. About half of the Southern Ocean’s population of elephant seals come to shore on South Georgia’s beaches, where you are most likely to see this awesome spectacle.
Females, a fraction of the size of the bull males, give birth on the beach to wide-eyed pups. Their huge eyes are a reminder that they will ultimately spend their life diving deep like their parents—their excellent vision helps them hunt underwater.
Outside of the mating season, southern elephant seals are solitary and spread out to feed over the Southern Ocean. Elephant seals spend 90% of their time at sea but at times choose rest on land. They also come to shore again once per year to moult for over a month.
With some luck, on the Antarctic Peninsula and its surrounding islands, you might find a young male resting, like this one clearly bloodied from failed attempts to secure a harem. You might also find a juvenile or even a large bull male getting much needed rest from its feeding dives. Most elephant seals dive to depths between 400 to 1,000 metres, seeking squid and fish. Record dives by bulls were made down to more than 2,300 metres.
The leopard seal is an iconic species of the Southern Ocean, known for its skill at catching penguins, its mainstay prey, but also other seals. It is very large—the second largest seal species in these waters after the elephant seal. Curiously, its head has a bizarre reptilian appearance.
One must be quite vigilant to spot a leopard seal in the water, as it is very stealthy. It hides behind ice floes or glacier chunks, trying to get close to penguins or seals when they dive from their haul outs to go feed at sea. Like crabeater seals, leopard seals also haul out on ice floes, and they may even share a floe together. In this situation, they are easy to identify; their long, thin profile betrays them when compared to the shorter and rounder crabeater seals.
Leopard seals are curious and have been known on occasion to approach Zodiacs to investigate them. Attacks on humans are very rare but have been documented in a few cases where the victims were in the water or on an ice floe. Nevertheless, it is recommended to keep one’s hands, loose articles of clothing, or bags well inside the Zodiac, away from the edge of the pontoons, and to avoid leaning towards the water when a leopard seal has been spotted.
Pierre is a north Atlantic and Arctic marine mammal specialist, an avid birder, and a naturalist. He was one of the first naturalists on board Saint Lawrence whale-watching cruises in the 1970s and has been an Adventure Canada marine biologist and guide for nearly twenty years.
For thirty years, Pierre was employed as a marine biologist and scientist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, during which time he conducted field research on beluga whales, narwhals, and walrus. He has authored many scientific publications and three nature guides on marine mammals.