Graceful but comical, curious and sociable, penguins are irresistibly endearing. Awkward on land, they are happiest in the water and it is understandable that the early explorers classified them as fish. Living in large single-species rookeries of up to 180,000, there are 17 different species of penguin, of which only four breed in Antarctica: Adélie, Emperor, Chinstrap and Gentoo. Other species are found in South Georgia, including King, Rockhoppers and Magellanic penguins.
A visit to a penguin colony is something extraordinary. The noise (and smell) and movement is incredible and fortunately on all our vessels you have the greatest commodity of all there: time. Penguins are rarely scared of man and their range of interpersonal skills are amazing: quite apart from their raucous chatter, they also communicate with each other by bobbing their heads, waving flippers, preening and grooming. The huge rookeries of South Georgia are among the best wildlife spectacles on earth but any of the colonies on the peninsula are also superb with the adelie one on Paulet Island of over 100,000 being truly amazing.
There are no large predators in Antarctica, which might explain why there are just so many seals: true Antarctic species include Weddell, Ross, Crab-eater and Leopard seals, with southern Elephant seals and Fur seals found on the warmer islands just outside the Circle.
Southern elephant seals and fur seals breed in colonies, with battle-scarred males defending their personal harems, while the true Antarctic species breed alone. Seals hunt using echo-location and the excellent vision from their large, soulful eyes. Seals are common all over the world but to see a lone Weddell lounging lazily on an ice flow or to watch a Leopard seal hunting penguins is somewhat different from a Grey seal on a grey beach on a grey February in Lincolnshire.
The icy waters of the southern seas are rich in nutrients and it's not for nothing that the earliest explorers were whalers: the sub-Antarctic region sees the whales at their most prolific and relaxed.
Orca, Blue, Humpback, Minke, Southern Right and Sperm whales are amongst those thronging the region from January to March (although many arrive early), blowing, breaching and mating in chilly waters of unbelievable clarity. For many this is the highlight of any expedition especially in late season. Many past passengers, with eyes still burning with evangelical zeal recount how they spent hours within feet of curious Minkes or Humpbacks. Yes, it is possible to see these pelagics elsewhere in the world, but in this utopian pristine environment with blocks of jade ice the size of Westminster Abby as the backdrop, it takes some beating.
As the austral sun warms Antarctica, 100 million birds fly south to feed and breed, 35 main species live below the Atlantic convergence and many will ride shotgun to the stern as you journey South. If there is just a whisper of wind the Albatrosses, which can stay in the air for years on end, will keep a constant presence as will the Storm and Snow Petrels.
Pelagic birds such as the Albatross, Fulmar, Petrel and Shearwater are spectacular, with coastal species such as Cormorant, Skua, Tern and Sheathbills busy along the shores. The shortage of ice-free nesting land means the birds nest together in huge colonies, with almost unlimited food close by in the sea.