Enigmatic, majestic, and awe-inspiring whales, the giants of the ocean, give rise to gasps, oohs, and aahs every time they are spotted on an Aurora Expeditions cruise to Antarctica. Every. Single. Time. Witnessing their colossal-yet-graceful form glide through the waters, effortlessly breach, and make that iconic lobtail splash, is truly a sight to behold. Whether it’s a rare blue whale sighting, standing awestruck as a minke whale glides alongside the ship, or spying the tell-tale black-and-white patterns of an orca, expect to be mesmerised!
While there are varies types of whales in Antarctica, in this fascinating guide we share our top three favourites, so you can discover the habits and the characteristics that set them apart. Be warned, you’ll likely want to go to Antarctica to sight one immediately!
Observing ingenious orcas in Antarctica
The stunning black-and-white colouration of orcas distinguishes them from other whales, though that’s not their only differing attribute. For instance, did you know that orcas are actually the largest members of the dolphin family? They’re usually referred to as whales due to their size, which can reach lengths up to nine metres (30 feet). Weight-wise, orcas can grow to a whopping six tons, though you wouldn’t guess from their daring acrobatic displays. That’s about the same as an African bush elephant!
We often get asked if there are killer whales in Antarctica. And then asked if it’s safe to be near them. Yes, and yes! While they’ve got a bad rap since being called killer whales, it’s completely safe to see orcas in the wild – there are no documented cases of wild orcas hunting humans. Sure, they are carnivorous and enjoy feasting on dolphins, seals, penguins, sea lions, and other sizeable marine mammals. However, they have little interest in humans as we’re not seen as prey.
Orcas live in highly complex and close-knit pod structures, with exceptional social bonds. Pod sizes range from a few members to large pods with 30 or more orcas. Their harmonious life is under the guidance of a matriarch, often uniting several generations of orcas together.
The orca’s ingenious hunting strategies are impressive to witness. Orca pods sync to create waves to dislodge seals from ice floes, and they also breach and use their tails to disorient prey. With teeth nearly 10 centimetres (4 inches) long and a wide repertoire of distinct calls, clicks, and whistles, they have everything they need to stay at the top of the food chain.
Orcas are considered one of the most intelligent creatures on the planet. Adept at problem-solving and passing down their cultural and hunting traditions, orcas also have a wide range of acrobatic skills that showcase their agility. In short, expect to be impressed if you are lucky enough to spot one on your Antarctic expedition.
Marvel at Antarctica’s agile minke whales
Spying a minke whale in Antarctica is equally astounding. Minkes are the smallest members of the baleen whale family, typically around 7-10 metres (23-33 feet), tipping the scales at 5-10 tons.
Minke whales have a sleek body with a dark grey or black colouring on their dorsal side and lighter grey or white underbody. Their streamlined shape makes them skilled at diving; they can plunge to 240 metres (800 feet) to lunge feed mouth-wide-open into schools of fish. Mealtimes are like huge buffets for minke whales! Their ability to change direction mid-swim also helps them snag a feast, like cod, anchovies, krill and other crustaceans.
Minke whales have a set of unique sounds, including clicks and ‘boings’. However, their vocalisations are generally low-frequency and without the complex songs and melodies of other whales.
As one of the most prevalent baleen whale species in the wild (numbering around 800,000), minke whales love calling the chilly polar regions home. Typically, minkes don’t migrate as far as other whales, so if you are lucky, you will have ample opportunities to spot some in Antarctica from the viewing platform on the ship, or from a safe distance in a Zodiac or kayak.
When whale-watching for a minke on your Antarctica expedition, look for a sleek, dark body gracefully breaking the surface. Their renowned curiosity and friendliness can draw them close to our purpose-built ships for some amazing photography opportunities.
Be wonderstruck by blue whales in Antarctica
The darlings of the ocean, a blue whale should be on every wildlife lover’s Antarctica wildlife checklist. And it’s not hard to imagine why seeing one of the largest mammals ever to have lived is such a desirable travel goal. When we say large, we mean colossal. They can reach up to 30 metres (100 feet) in length and weigh up to 200 tons – that’s heavier than most single-story homes!
Blueish-grey whales would be a better name to match their actual colouring, though far less catchy, of course. Besides this bluish-grey tone, there are often light grey or white patches on their ventral side. While other whales, like the humpback and sperm whales, have ridges or bumps, blue whales are relatively smooth.
Unlike the big bite of the orca, blue whales have baleen plates instead of teeth. Whereas the minke whale’s baleen plate is 12-20 centimetres (5-8 inches), blue whales are long – each one is up to one metre (three feet). This size means they can chow down on a significant number of small fish and krill – millions, in fact – when they feed.
We’re not sure who tested it, but apparently, you can fit 100 humans in a blue whale’s mouth. Fortunately, humans are not on the must-try list for blue whales, so you’ll never have to check out that theory. They are strictly filter feeders, meaning they strain food particles from the water using their baleen plates. Antarctica’s nutrient-rich waters are popular for blue whales, and they’ll travel great distances (usually thousands of miles annually) to reach them.
Sadly, there are only an estimated 10,000 to 25,000 blue whales left in the world,with 5,000-8,000 blue whales calling Antarctica home. Before early whalers, that number was around 350,000. You can see why emphasis on conservation efforts for whales in Antarctica is critical to keep those numbers from declining more. It’s estimated that 1% of humans will see a blue whale in their lifetime, so to say witnessing the immense size and grace of these gentle giants on your Antarctica voyage is an unforgettable and humbling experience is an understatement.
Happywhale is one of seven Citizen Science programs we support. Passengers participate in destinations we visit around the world by taking identification photographs of whales – notably humpbacks in Antarctica – and other marine mammals. Happywhale uses these photos to track marine life which, over time, helps scientists better understand, conserve and protect whales.
What’s more, you don’t have to be onboard one of our ships to participate. You can submit photos from anywhere in the world, or even images you’ve taken from previous expeditions with us. Once your whales have been identified, you can follow them across the globe in your Happywhale account. Pretty cool, right?