Antarctica, a Greek word meaning the opposite of the Arctic, is the fifth largest continent but relatively isolated because of rough seas and even rougher weather. It is also the largest desert in the world with rain/snow less than 200 mm per year. About 98% of the continent is covered with an ice shelf and so there are no terrestrial mammals that can survive there.
The first mariners to glimpse this land in modern times were Russian explorers led by von Bellingshausen of the Imperial Russian Navy.
Very quickly after that, the sealers came in and started harvesting (basically, mass butchery) seals. Very soon, the skins were being extensively processed all over the world and this almost led to the extinction of the Fur Seal and Weddell Seal, pictured below.
In 1959 a moratorium was signed to stop the killing of these animals and the numbers have rebounded spectacularly after that.
The same unfortunately, cannot be said for the whales that have almost been driven to extinction, due to 20 years of whaling in the Antarctica. With seal hunters, came whalers and settled down to the business of killing all kinds of whales starting in the early 19th century. These were rich hunting grounds for such large animals and the blubber had a very ready market in the rapidly mechanizing world.
Consequently, the Sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis), Blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) and the Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) became very scarce. After a moratorium on killing whales was signed in 1984, the numbers have still not risen.
Blue whales breed slowly and live on krill. With the booming seal populations also gobbling up the krill, the Blue whale faces some tough competition. Of course, these whales have lots of territory to cover, so finding mates is also incredibly hard.
It is still incredible that such a parched and infertile land like Antarctica can harbor so much wildlife around it. Apart from the mammals, penguins of various types flourish here and so do a lot of migratory birds.
If the mining and industrial interests can be kept at bay, generations to come will still have at least one pristine continent left to admire, if only from afar.