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The Ways and Wildlife of the Weddell Sea

by Dee Lawlor Blog

The Weddell Sea is located off the coast of Antarctica, at the very south of the Atlantic. Its geographical location is 75 degrees south and 47 degrees west, and it covers the Argentine, Chilean, and British territories of Antarctica. The harsh weather conditions and abundant pack ice have made the Weddell Sea difficult for people to access, but modern icebreaker ships have started to open up this area to explorers.
Antarctic Peninsula

The Ways and Wildlife of the Weddell Sea

The Weddell Sea is located off the coast of Antarctica, at the very south of the Atlantic. Its geographical location is 75 degrees south and 47 degrees west, and it covers the Argentine, Chilean, and British territories of Antarctica. The harsh weather conditions and abundant pack ice have made the Weddell Sea difficult for people to access, but modern icebreaker ships have started to open up this area to explorers.

The environment of the Weddell Sea

The climate of the Weddell Sea is exceedingly severe. The wind is very strong and cold, and the water is rich in pack ice. The Weddell Sea is a site of special importance to the global climate and the circulation of the ocean waters. The technical term for this is thermohaline circulation. “Thermo” refers to the temperature, and “haline” refers to salt levels. Thermohaline circulation is a natural process whereby variations in water heat and salinity promote ocean waters to flow around the planet. The Weddell Sea is known to be a major contributor to this water cycle, providing cold northward moving water. The Weddell Sea is also noted as having some of the clearest waters of any saltwater location in the world. The clarity is so good that researchers report being able to see objects as far down as 262 feet. That’s as clear as distilled water.

Weddell Sea history

The Weddell Sea is named after James Weddell, a Scottish explorer and seal hunter. Weddell first sailed the area in 1823, and named it “the sea of King George IV.” The area was later renamed the Weddell Sea in honour of James Weddell. The Weddell Sea is famously the location where Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to cross the Antarctic was thwarted. In 1915, Shackleton had the ambitious plan to cross the Antarctic, including passing by the South Pole. Unfortunately, his ship, the Endurance, became trapped in the ice. Shackleton and his crew remained with the ship for ten months until it was eventually crushed by the ice. The men then spent a further five months trekking over the ice, eventually making it to Elephant Island via lifeboat. There they were eventually rescued and returned home. The failed expedition took a total of two years, but despite the bleak conditions, every man survived.

The Wildlife of the Weddell Sea

Although the Weddell Sea is a harsh environment, it is rich in wildlife. Colossal swarms of krill support populations of seals, penguins, and baleen whales. This in turn attracts hunters, such as the orca whale (Orcinus orca). The abundance of pack ice contributes to making this an ideal habitat for many species of seal and penguin, some of the key wildlife attractions of Antarctica cruises.

Seals (Weddell and non)

The Weddell seal (Leptonychotes weddellii) is a common sight in the area. They mostly prefer in-shore habitats, and despite being named after the Weddell Sea, they are found all over Antarctica. They are known to be a docile species, and thus are easy to observe. The crabeater seal (Lobodon carcinophaga) is another common seal in the region. They are slightly smaller than the Weddell seal – about two meters long. Found all over the coast of Antarctica, they can mostly be seen out on the pack-ice. The crabeater seal is a common prey to the leopard seal. The leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx) is one of the top predators in the Antarctic region, preying on the other seal species. Leopard seals have been known to attack humans, so while they are beautiful, they are best admired from a distance.

Weddell Sea penguins

The Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) is an abundant species in the Antarctic region. It is a small penguin, but it very distinctive due to the white circles around its eyes. In recent years, researchers have discovered a colony of emperor penguins (the largest penguin species) at Snow Hill Island.

Whales of the Weddell Sea

The vast amounts of Antarctic krill attract a number of large baleen whale species. The southern minke whale (Balaenoptera bonaerensis) and the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) are the two most commonly seen whale species in the Weddell Sea. However, the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), the southern right whale (Balaena glacialis), the sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis), the fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), and the sperm whale (Physeter microcephalus) are all visitors to the Antarctic region. The populations of seals and penguins also attract pods of orca whales (Orcinus orca). These highly intelligent predators are regularly seen in the Weddell sea. Orca whales are known for their group hunting skills, including creating waves to wash seals off of pack ice and into the water.

Weddell Sea Antarctica cruises

Intrepid adventurers can reach the Weddell Sea via ice-strengthened ships – and then only the farthest northwest reaches, since the rest is sealed in impenetrable ice. There are many routes you can take when travelling to Antarctica, but the Weddell Sea is closest to Argentina. Weddell Sea cruises leave from the small resort town of Ushuaia. Visitors passing though Ushuaia can enjoy some skiing, tour the Tierra del Fuego National Park, or visit the Martial Glacier. Upon embarkation from Ushuaia, the journey to the Weddell Sea takes around four days (depending on the weather conditions). Once there, you can explore the area via land, sea, and even the sky on Weddell Sea voyages that include helicopter flights. There are dozens of interesting species to see, as well as old whaling stations and research facilities. How far you can go depends on the ice, but rest assured there is always plenty of adventure to be had in the Weddell Sea.

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