They look so harmless, warm, and fluffy that everybody loves them. Sometimes too much. Although they’re common throughout the world, seals are mainly found in the Arctic and Antarctica.
Cool fact #1
There are two types of seals. You can tell them apart because some seals don’t have external ears and are better swimmers, while the rest have small, pointed ears and can flex their hind flippers and use them to move swiftly on land.
Keep reading to find out more cool facts about the Seals of Antarctica and where to meet them.
The plight of the seals
Following its discovery, in 1823, the Southern Sea surrounding Antarctica attracted hundreds of explorers and hunters drawn to these cold waters by their abundance of seals whose furs were in demand by the fashion industry. Six of the world’s 33 species are present in Antarctica. The dwindling populations of seals everywhere, along with vocal campaigns by famous stars such as French actress Brigitte Bardot, led global leaders to take action in the 1970s.
The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals was signed in 1972 to prevent their hunt and capture not only along the shores, but also in the high seas south of 60 degrees latitude. Thanks to successful protection programs, nowadays you can observe seals on any of the Antarctica cruise options that sail from either Punta Arenas, Chile or Ushuaia, Argentina, from November to March, which are the local spring-summer months and the time of year when you will enjoy the longest daylight in the Antarctic continent.
Cool fact #2
Seals have whiskers that help them find food in the water, even when they can’t see well. It’s like a sixth sense that allows them to track underwater vibrations.
A popular stop on one of the Antarctica cruise routes, South Georgia Island is known as a wildlife hotspot en route to the white continent and an important site for seals. Five of the six species can be observed there. The only exception is the Ross seal, which is confined to pack ice surrounding the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Pole.
Cool fact #3
Two main differences set Antarctic fur seals apart from the rest of the Antarctica Seals. The first is that, since they don’t have layers of fat, they rely on their thick coat for warmth. The second difference is that, because of their external ears and ability to walk on all four flippers, they can be easily confused with small sea lions.
Antarctic fur seals
The only eared seals in the group, Antarctic fur seals (Arctocephalus gazella) were hunted almost to extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries. Their numbers are currently much higher, having reached a relatively stable world population of over 4 million. Their threats have also changed. At present, scientists believe the impact of climate change on its physical environment and prey populations to be the most serious dangers faced by this species. In fact, the population in the South Shetland Islands is experiencing a sharp decline, coupled with an overall ageing process, because fewer females are giving birth each year.
Mid-November to April are the best months to observe Antarctic fur seals and their pups. While the males will usually abandon the breeding beaches in December after mating, the females spend approximately four months lactating. During that time, they are limited to foraging close to the coast.
Where to see them: In the subantarctic islands. It’s estimated that 95% percent of the world population breeds on South Georgia, followed by the South Shetland Islands and the South Orkney Islands, as well as nine other sites located outside the protection zone.
Cool fact #4
Southern elephant seals can hold their breath for up to two hours. Only whales can last longer without breathing.
Southern elephant seals
These are the largest seals in the world. Although to a lesser extent than Antarctic fur seals, Southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) were also heavily hunted in past centuries, mainly for their blubber or fat, which is used to produce high-quality oil. Their numbers have also increased, and their total population is estimated to have stabilized at approximately 650,000 individuals since the mid-1990s. South Georgia Island is the main breeding site, with almost 50% of total births occurring on its shores.
Southern elephant seals usually live in the open sea for an average of 10 months per year. The rest of the time is spent on beaches or safe places called “haul outs” during the breeding and molting or shedding seasons, usually from September to December. They will travel long distances to forage and feed on squid and fish along the pack ice. Like most seal species, they mate in harems that often gather up to 40 or 50 females. Having a harem isn’t easy, however. It requires territory that must be won from other males. The dominant male or bull stands out due to his huge size, nearly double that of a female.
Where to see them: Tierra del Fuego and the subantarctic islands, particularly the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island, South Orkney Island, and the South Shetland islands.
Cool fact #5
Leopard seals are very vocal creatures. Sometimes, when they’re relaxing on the ice, you’ll hear them chirping like crickets. During the summer, male Leopard seals sing for hours while swimming upside down. Scientists still don’t know if this is a mating call or a territorial warning, or both.
They are the second-largest Antarctic seal species, and the most predatory of them all. Leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) are the only ones known to prey on other warm-blooded animals, mainly Fur and Crabeater seal pups and penguins, although they also consume krill, fish, and squids. Because they don’t rely solely on deep-sea species for their diet, they’re not very good divers. In fact, they rarely reach depths beyond 50 m (164 ft). Rather than hunting, they rely on their ability to ambush their prey. They are known to patrol and station themselves close to penguin colonies and lie in wait to chase any unsuspecting bird trying to reach safety on land.
The exact size of their population is one of the ocean’s best kept secrets. Scientists find it hard to study these seals in their habitat, since they live mainly on floating ice. Hence, population estimates range from as low as 18,000 to as high as 160,000 individuals. Leopard seal females tend to be a bit larger than males and can reach up to 3.8 m (12.4 ft) and weigh more than 500 kg (0.5 ton). They usually give birth on sea ice anytime between early October and early January.
Where to see them: On the floating ice surrounding the subantarctic islands and the South Pole. They are found year-round in South Georgia.
Cool fact #6
Weddell seals can travel to and from a breathing hole 3 km (1.9 miles) away under pack ice before they run out of oxygen. These breathing holes freeze during the winter, forcing the seals to use their teeth to open the new ice and be able to surface.
Named after British Captain James Weddell, who in 1823 set the record for the Antarctic explorer having travelled furthest south, Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii) are the most southerly mammal permanently inhabiting the white continent. They live mainly underneath the floating ice and create holes to take a breath when needed. Population estimates for this species range from 200,000 to one million individuals, and scientists are also relying on satellite images to enhance their knowledge of these seals. Although they face few threats underneath the ice, they were hunted by humans well into the 1990s to feed sled dogs operating in Antarctica.
Weddell seals are known for returning to breed in the same area each year, always on stable fast ice or on land, where they also haul out for molting or shedding skin. This allows them to establish small groups or breeding colonies at specific sites. Pups are usually born between September and November.
Where to see them: In small breeding sites on South Georgia, South Sandwich, South Orkney, and South Shetland islands, as well as in the Antarctic Peninsula.
Cool fact #7
Right before or after a female Crabeater seal gives birth, she will be joined by a protector male that will defend her and her pup, as well as mate with her when she’s ready.
Despite their name, Crabeater seals (Lobodon carcinophaga) actually don’t feed on crabs but on krill, small crustaceans similar to prawns or shrimps. With a population estimated at approximately 15 million (and up to 75 million), they are the most abundant seals in the world and they mostly live on floating ice in the Southern Ocean. Obtaining accurate figures is difficult, however, because of their remote location and the logistics hurdles of transporting the necessary equipment. That’s why researchers are now using satellite images to discover new breeding habitats and improve population counts.
Some scientists believe that the large numbers of Crabeater seals are an indirect result of heavy hunting of large Baleen whales, their main competitor for krill as a food source, and the lack of other serious threats. These mainly consist of attacks by leopard seals and killer whales, along with global warming that melts the pack ice they rely on. The best time to observe Crabeater seals is during their breeding period, roughly between late September and early November.
Where to see them: On the Antarctic pack ice floating around the South Pole.
Cool fact #8
Ross seals are great divers, reaching depths between 100 and 300 m (328-984 ft), while their deepest dive has been recorded at 792 m (2,598 ft).
Discovered by British explorer James Ross in 1841, Ross seals (Ommatophoca rossii) are the least studied of the Antarctica seals. That’s because they tend to be solitary and only live on pack ice surrounding the South Pole and their habitat can only be reached with ice-breaking ships or long-range aircraft.
Ross seals are also known for their singing, both below and above water, although scientists still haven’t been able to figure out the meaning of these vocalizations. Their population is estimated at 78,500 individuals. However, researchers warn that their actual population size may vary significantly due to the difficulties for surveying the species.
Where to see them: On the Antarctic pack ice floating around the South Pole.
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Born in Santiago, Chile, Marcela is a freelance bilingual journalist and expert on outdoor travel who writes for several magazines and websites. She’s earned a master’s degree in tourism with an emphasis on ecotourism in Australia, operated a tour company, and co-authored a Spanish-language guidebook about Chile’s national parks. Her travel career has taken her all over South America, and she has also lived in Australia, Costa Rica, and the United States.
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