The Antarctic Sound
Antarctica! The name alone conjures up images of boundless ice, towering icebergs, comedic penguins, epic snowstorms, great sailing ships held tightly by ice and the hardy explorers striving to survive wrapped in thick, heavy parkas. All of this is, or once was, true. Today, vessels have changed and the level of safety on a journey to ‘The Great White Continent’ has increased immensely. Antarctica is the truest of wild places, the majesty of its pristine natural landscapes is second to no other location on earth.
The animals that thrive in the rigors of the Antarctic climate are present in such great numbers and concentrations that they must be seen to be believed. This untouched oasis harkens back to a time when the world was untouched by humanity, pure in its natural innocence. Antarctica has been a source of natural inspiration for as long as humans have been aware of its existence -- and it may produce in you one of the most exceptional emotional sensations it is possible to experience on our great planet.
The Aitcho Islands are among the most mysterious areas of the South Shetland Islands chain -- a place of both subtle beauty and quiet solitude. This is a group of 13 small rocky islets, submerged reefs, dramatic outcrops and rugged pinnacles. Extensively carpeted by mosses and lichens, the islands display an unexpected tapestry of colors, in hues of brown, green and yellow. Fog often sits over the islands, adding to their tranquil mood. Charted in 1936, the Aitcho group was named by the British Admiralty Hydrographic Office.
Chinstrap and gentoo penguins nest on the island and can be seen porpoising offshore. Gliding cape and giant petrels dance over the water, as the occasional Weddell seal and gigantic elephant seal laze on the beach. The sea between the islands is dotted with little ‘bergy bits’ and as the sea fog lifts for an instant, we are offered a glimpse into this magic world, where conversations tend to be only a few degrees north of a whisper.
Almirante Brown Base
On a small rocky peninsula deep within Paradise Bay lies one of the few landing spots on the rocky outcrop of the Argentine station of Almirante Brown.
The visually stunning location of the base is one of its most engaging features. With the cluster of bright red buildings at one end and Punta Proa, a 230 foot (70 m) cliff at the other, Almirante Brown is truly dwarfed by its backdrop of vertical ice. Climbing the slope behind the station, you will be rewarded with spectacular views all around and have the chance to hear the distant, loud calving of glaciers as their bergs rumble and thunder into the water.
During the last several decades, gentoo penguins have reclaimed the areas around the base, creating a unique fusion of humans and penguins during the summer months. Opened in 1951 as a meteorological station, it was taken over by the Argentine Antarctic Institute in the mid-sixties and has become one of the most comprehensive biology laboratories in the region.
Antarctic Sound (Scenic Cruising)
Some 30 miles (48 km) long and 12 miles (19 km) wide, the Antarctic Sound is located at the far northern end of the Peninsula. It is renowned for a prevalence of massive tabular icebergs. Sometimes miles in length and towering vertically hundreds of feet above the sea, these awe-inspiring ice islands drift in the current after breaking off the ice shelves along the Weddell Sea.
Often covered by pack ice, the Antarctic Sound is an ever-changing labyrinth of cathedral-like icebergs of various shapes and sizes. Its wildlife is varied and plentiful. Some of the region’s largest Adélie penguin colonies can be found along its shores and a wide diversity of whales and other sea mammals frequent the area.
It was named during the Swedish Antarctic Expedition under Otto Nordenskjold to commemorate the expedition’s ship Antarctica, the first vessel to traverse these waters in 1902. Antarctic Sound is a true wilderness in the raw, and its ‘Iceberg Alley’ will both impress and inspire all those fortunate enough to explore this spectacular environment.
Arktowski Station, King George Island
The Polish Antarctic research station, Arktowski, was established in 1977 on the shoreline of Admiralty Bay on King George Island. It is named for Henryk Arktowski, the Polish geologist, oceanographer and meteorologist of the Belgian Antarctic Expedition from 1897-1899. This was the first expedition to overwinter in Antarctica and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Arktowski was the first scientist to propose the idea of wind chill factor.
Field work is done at the two large Adélie and gentoo penguin rookeries in the vicinity. Other wildlife includes numerous brown skuas and Wilson’s storm petrels nesting on the rocky cliffs. Thick carpets of moss provide a splash of color here and there in this otherwise monochromatic landscape. Bleached whale bones, relics of the 19th-century whaling history, are scattered around the pebble beach in front of the station, providing a reminder of the past. One of the few lighthouses in Antarctica, Point Thomas lighthouse, is located on the station’s premises.
Baily Head, Deception Island
One of Deception Island’s most spectacular places to visit is Baily Head, the prominent rocky headland on the island's southeastern side. Its steep black-sand beach is exposed to large, rolling ocean swells. Ash-covered ice creates an eerie atmosphere in this alien landscape, where shades of black and grey are interrupted by the rust-red hues of rock.
The largest chinstrap penguin colony in Antarctica is found at Baily Head, numbering in excess of 200,000 birds. The colony dominates the entire landscape, stretching from the beach to the high ridgeline, outlining every hill and occupying every possible expanse of the ground.
The rolling, ashen hills are mottled with literally thousands of black and white specks, and a constant flow of penguins march up and down along the route to and from the ocean continually. Nervously massed on the beach, penguins await the right moment to plunge into the water to avoid the crashing surf and possible attacks by leopard seals. Once in, they swim rapidly from the shallows into deep water.
Brown Bluff (Tabarin Peninsula)
Brown Bluff owes its name to the bright, rust-colored, iron-rich volcanic rocks that form its cliffs above the beach. Towering to 2,444 feet (745 meters), the heavily eroded cliffs are part of an extinct and rare tuya volcano that volcano that erupted beneath the glacier a million years ago. The beach is composed of rounded, water-smoothed pebbles, volcanic rocks and ash, along with enormous, randomly shaped, yellow-brown boulders.
Forty thousand Adélie and twelve hundred gentoo penguins breed here, each choosing their own areas to build their nests. Because of its large penguin population, Brown Bluff can be an excellent place to view hunting leopard seals. Kelp gulls, brown skuas, cape and Wilson’s storm petrels are among the many other species found here.
Giant rock formations loom on shore, as gargantuan tabular icebergs float in the distance, adding drama to the bluff’s breathtaking scenery. Brown Bluff’s unique geology and prolific wildlife make it a highlight of a visit to Antarctica.
Sitting at the northern entrance of the Errera Channel, Cuverville Island is a dome-shaped rock with a permanent snowcap, rising to the height of 825 feet (252 m). It is home to some 13,000 gentoo penguins, one of the largest colonies in the region. Penguin ‘highways’ mark the snow leading to the upper nests, deep furrows created by the birds’ repeated treks between the sea and the breeding areas. Leopard seals cruise the shoreline in search of a penguin meal, while the island’s vertical cliffs are alive with the nests of Antarctic shags.
The expansive, mile-long cobble beach offers plenty of great places to sit, relax and immerse yourself in the subtle rhythm of Antarctic beauty, watching Zodiacs slowly cruising the bay amongst massive icebergs, arrayed in a maze of exquisite frozen forms.
The island was discovered in 1897 by Adrien de Gerlache, commander of the Belgian Antarctic Expedition, and named for J.M.A. Cavalier de Cuverville, a vice admiral of the French navy.
Deception Island is a geological wonder of Antarctica and one of the safest harbors in the South Shetland Islands. Its name dates from 1820, when American captain Nathaniel Palmer discovered the navigable gap in the volcano’s caldera walls as he explored the island and denotes the deceptive unbroken appearance of the island from afar. Today this passage is known as Neptune’s Bellows, for the strong winds that blow through its narrow mouth. After its discovery, Deception Island became a major outpost for the whaling industry in the Southern Ocean. Remains of a whaling station can be seen on the black sand beaches of Whalers Bay.
Despite its dormant status, Deception Island continues to display regular signs of thermal activity. If lucky, you may spot elusive clouds of steam rising along the shoreline.
Eight miles in diameter, this dormant volcano with its flooded caldera and narrow entrance has been a natural safe heaven amidst the frequent fury of the Southern Ocean for sealers, whalers, explorers and modern visitors alike.
Deep in the Weddell Sea lies the one-and-a-half-mile (2 km) long Devil Island, which was discovered and named during Otto Nordenskjold’s 1901-04 Swedish Antarctic Expedition. The island owes its name to the resemblance of two hills, one at each end, to a devil’s horns when seen from a distance.
Snow petrels, Antarctic terns, and Wilson's petrels find nesting sites among the scree on its upper slopes. Its most abundant inhabitants, however, are some 30,000 Adélie penguins, which form a large colony sprawling along the entire shoreline. The ice-free hillsides of Devil Island offer incredible views of the surrounding region of Erebus and Terror gulf.
In the late Austral summer, the dark brown cliffs of adjacent Vargas Island are adorned with stark, white strings of waterfalls spilling from the glaciers above. Trapped in the shallows at low tide, icebergs often create an intricate, jigsaw-puzzle maze of frozen ice along the island’s shores.
Cruising the Drake Passage
A voyage to Antarctica necessarily entails crossing the legendary, 600-mile-wide (966 km) Drake Passage. Notorious for its changeable, and often rough weather during the age of sail, the Drake Passage owes its reputation to the fact that currents and westerly winds at this latitude meet no resistance from any landmass. In reality, however, crossing the Drake can frequently be tranquil. Affectionately known as the ‘Drake Lake’, the stillness of such a day is barely disturbed by the sound of the waves splashing behind the ship.
Chances for spotting wildlife along the way are high, whether it be Wilson's petrels, soaring albatrosses or occasionally appearances by whales and dolphins.
The passage is named for the English explorer Sir Francis Drake, who in 1578 led the first English expedition to sail around the southern tip of South America. Whether rough or calm, it will soon be eclipsed as a memory, when you arrive in Antarctica and immerse yourself in the unparalleled wonders of the Great White Continent.
Elephant Island, at the northeastern end of the South Shetland chain, is a narrow, rugged island constantly battered by the southern seas and frequently swept by strong winds. Its steep, ice-covered cliffs rise straight from sea level and are crowned by the protruding nunataks of Pardo Ridge. Resembling a formidable fortress, the stronghold of Elephant Island has only a few existing entry points allowing access its inner domain.
Early sealers named it for the abundance of elephant seals on the island’s shores. Nowadays, the majority of the accessible shoreline is occupied by a large colony of chinstrap penguins, although elephant seals and Antarctic fur seals are also present.
It is here that the crew of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition scrambled ashore to endure a long, desperate 135 days awaiting rescue after their ship was stranded and crushed by sea ice in 1915. Few areas on earth serve to inspire the human spirit for adventure as does the forbidding landscape of Elephant Island.
Cruising Gerlache Strait
The Western Antarctic Peninsula possesses some of the most dramatic scenery in coastal Antarctica. Rugged mountain peaks rise to a height of 9,800 feet (3,000 meters). Jagged rock nunataks protrude upward through an endless rolling sea of glaciers, set against a backdrop of numerous islands, protected bays and narrow channels.
Gerlache Strait runs from the northern fringes of the peninsula along its coast southward to the entrance of the Lemaire Channel, like a grand, glittering boulevard through this frozen kingdom. Nearly 200 miles (320 km) long, the strait spans 30 miles (50 km) at its northern end and slowly narrows to a mere 6 miles (10 km) at its southern end. It separates the icy islands of the Palmer Archipelago from the Peninsula and was named in honor of Adrien de Gerlache, the leader of the 1897-1899 Belgian Expedition. It is home to pods of orca whales and large populations of humpback and minke whales.
Half Moon Island
Half Moon Island is a small, mile-and-a-half (2.4 km)-long, crescent-shaped island located in the South Shetland Island chain. It was named by 19th-century sealers because of its unmistakable half-moon shape.
The island houses the Argentine research station ‘Camara,’ but the main attraction is undoubtedly Half Moon’s wildlife, plant life, colors and scenery. A chinstrap penguin rookery of some 2,000 breeding pairs occupies the plateau above the beach. Wildlife abounds on this tiny outpost – Wilson’s petrels, kelp gulls, brown skuas and about 125 pairs of Antarctic terns nest on its rocky outcrops. Various seals can often be seen snoozing around the island. Given the island’s relatively small area, it is possible to spot several species at once.
Distinctively picturesque rocky outcrops and the distant glacier-covered backdrop of Livingston Island create one of the most dramatic landscapes in the South Shetlands. Vibrant orange, yellow and black lichens decorate the island’s cliffs and rocky outcrops, creating the most beautiful abstract patterns.
Hannah Point, Livingston Island
Hannah Point, named after the British sealing vessel Hannah that wrecked here in 1820, is an ice-free rocky peninsula on the southern coast of Livingston Island in the South Shetlands. It teems with life, displaying a wide variety of Antarctic wildlife. Chinstrap and gentoo penguins nest here and the rare macaroni penguin may occasionally be found as well. Giant southern petrels, blue-eyed shags, Antarctic terns and kelp gulls can be spotted nesting throughout the area. A large diversity of sea mammals may also be found here. Depending on the time of year, Antarctic fur, Weddell and leopard seals may be seen, while huge molting elephant seals lounge on the beach.
For something out of ordinary, visitors can catch a glimpse into the prehistoric past of Antarctica by admiring the occasional fossil found on the shores of nearby Walker Bay. From 1957-58 the British Antarctic Program kept a base camp, ‘Station P’ on the eastern side of the peninsula.
Hope Bay marks the northernmost tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. It was discovered by Otto Nordenskjold and was named to honor the Swedish Antarctic Expedition members Andersson, Duse and Grunden, who were forced to spend a desperate winter there in 1903. Remains of their humble stone hut are still there, beside the brightly colored red buildings of the nearby Argentine Esperanza station. With a school, chapel, post office, infirmary, several family houses and almost two kilometers of gravel roads, Esperanza station resembles a village more than a base. Several children have been born there, comprising amongst the first native-born Antarcticans.
Hope Bay is home to one of the largest colonies of Adélie penguins on the Peninsula. Hundreds of penguins scurry to and fro between the colony and shoreside, congregating on the beach in a classic scene of hesitation before entering the water. None of them wants to be first, but eventually one jumps in and then a cavalcade of plunging penguins follows.
King George Island
King George Island, the largest island in the South Shetlands, is 43 miles (69 km) long and 16 miles (25 km) wide. Its discovery is attributed to British captain William Smith who explored the island in 1819 and named it in honor of King George III.
It is probably one of the most multinational islands in the world, thanks to its scientific community. Eight countries maintain permanent year-round bases here: Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Russia, China, South Korea and Poland. Holland, Germany, Peru and the United States also have stations on the island but operate them only in the summer. The Antarctic Marathon, the region’s first non-profit international sporting event, takes place on King George Island each year.
There are more than 12 miles (20 km) of roads connecting bases, as well as an active airplane runway attracting multiple flights throughout a year. There is no other place on earth where you can walk from Chile to Russia with a side trip to China along the way!
The Lemaire Channel is undoubtedly one of the most breathtaking nautical passages anywhere and has become an iconic photographic image of Antarctica. Seven miles (11 km) long and a mere 700 yards (.6 km) wide at its narrowest point, the Lemaire is framed by the sheer cliffs of Booth Island on one side and towering mountains of the Peninsula on the other. Mount Scott rises to 2,890 feet (881 m), marking its southern periphery, crowning the grandeur of the Channel’s un-scrolling vertical landscape, in which massive glaciers cling to the cliffs on either side as you proceed slowly along the narrow passage.
Trapped by wind and tide, icebergs of surprising shapes and sizes often dominate the channel. Barely passable at times, the Lemaire Channel leaves its fortunate visitors reflecting in awe on this magnificently pristine environment. It was the Belgian explorer Adrien de Gerlache who first traversed the channel in 1898, naming this strikingly beautiful passage for his friend, Charles Lemaire. The Lemaire is truly a place of vertical wonder and serves as a gateway south to the Antarctic Circle.
Neko Harbor is a very small cove indenting the shoreline of Andvord Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula and is most renowned for its proximity to one of the most active calving tidewater glaciers in Antarctica. Massive ice walls, deep-blue crevasses and rugged ice caves surround the harbor. The constant crackling of sea ice is interrupted only by the booming, rumbling and distant thunder of icebergs tumbling into the sea.
Kelp gulls nest on the rocky ledges, hiding their fluffy chicks amongst the boulders. Weddell seals come and go, unperturbed by visitors. A gentoo penguin colony sprawls from the shoreline to the rocky slopes high above. From this high viewpoint, there are spectacular vistas of the Gerlache and Bismarck straits, set against a backdrop of magnificent, distant peaks.
Neko Harbor takes its name from the Scottish whaling factory ship, Neko, captained by Christian Salvensen. The Neko operated in the area between 1911 and 1924 and used the harbor to shelter from the perils of the southern seas.
The Neumayer Channel is a true jewel among the scenic passages of Antarctica stretching for 16 miles (26 km) through the islands of the Palmer Archipelago. Glacier-covered mountains, glistening under the bright Antarctic skies, rise to great heights over the dark waters of the passage. Strewn with brash ice and larger icebergs, the Neumayer is merely one mile (1.5 km) in width. Its curves create the illusion of impassability, resembling an enchanting labyrinth of icebergs and icy cliffs. Whales occasionally traverse this icy realm, where a variety of seals and penguins are frequent visitors atop its floating ice.
The southwestern entry of the channel was discovered during the German Antarctic Expedition of 1873-1874 under the command of Eduard Dallmann. However, Belgian explorer Adrien de Gerlache was the first to sail through the passage during the Belgica Expedition of 1897-1899. He named it in honor of German scientist and renowned polar explorer Georg von Neumayer.
Paradise Harbor is located on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula behind Bryde and Lemaire Islands. It was first named by 19th-century whalers for its serenity and its majestic scenery and became renowned during the early 1900’s for calm waters that provided ships a refuge from blistering winds and rough seas.
Glaciers surround the harbor, forming an amphitheater of tall, snowcapped mountains. Ice-cliffs rise sheer out of the water and towering ice pillars known as seracs rise from deep crevasses. Massive iridescent-blue ice caves dwarf the buildings of the two nearby scientific stations, Almirante Brown and Gonzalez Videla. Nesting gentoo penguins occupy every available space surrounding the buildings. On the water, brash ice forms a delicate cover amongst the large, sculpted icebergs that drift in the current. Solitary seals lounge on ice floes, oblivious to the rumble of distant glaciers tumbling into the sea. Humpback and orca whales navigate the ice as Antarctic terns fly above.
Paradise Harbor is one of Antarctica's most indescribably beautiful destinations!
Paulet Island is a circular volcanic island in the Weddell Sea, topped by a cinder cone with a small summit crater. It was discovered by British captain James Clark Ross on his expedition of 1839-43 and was named for Royal Navy captain Lord George Paulet.
Although Paulet Island is less than one and a half miles (2 km) in diameter, it is home to one of the largest Adélie penguin colonies in Antarctica. Over 100,000 pairs nest on the island. The colony is bustling with activity. Raucous penguin calls fill the air, parents and chicks pursue each other, neighbors argue and steal nest stones from one another, adults return from the sea and call for their offspring, while skuas patrol the sky in search of unguarded chicks.
Remnants of a stone hut and a lonely grave recall a long-ago drama that unfolded on the island's shores in 1903, when survivors of Otto Nordenskjold’s Swedish Antarctic Expedition came ashore after their ship Antarctic was crushed and sunk by the sea ice.
Pendulum Cove, Deception Island
Deception Island is one of the most unusual islands in the South Shetlands chain. A semi-dormant volcano with a flooded caldera, it has captured the imagination of sailors and explorers alike since its discovery. The calm inner harbor has provided a safe haven for numerous whaling, sealing and exploration vessels. Pendulum Cove was named after British captain Henry Foster made scientific pendulum and magnetic observations there in 1829. Its gently sloping beach is composed entirely of coarse volcanic ash, black sand, and cinders of various sizes, colored in shades of black and red.
Pendulum Cove is a site of constant thermal activity. Steam, often very thick, rises from the beach, indicating that the water along the shoreline could easily reach scalding temperatures. A Chilean station, Pedro Aguirre Cerda, was established on the shores of Pendulum Cove in 1955 to monitor the volcanic activity. In 1969, it was destroyed in an eruption and subsequently abandoned.
Several miles south of the Lemaire Channel lies mile-long (1.6 km) Petermann Island. Set against a background of the impressive mountains of the peninsula, Petermann is often surrounded by massive icebergs grounded in its shallow coves. Known as an ‘iceberg graveyard’, this phenomenon creates a display of unimaginable icy beauty and attracts a variety of sea mammals including leopard and crabeater seals, and humpback whales.
The presence of some 3,000 breeding pairs of penguins brings this small rocky outcrop to life in an endless cacophony of sounds and movement. Petermann is home to one of the most southerly gentoo penguin colonies, as well as one of the most northerly Adélie colonies in Antarctica.
The island was discovered by whaling captain Eduard Dallmann, during the German Expedition of 1873-74 and named for August Petermann, a noted German geographer. A large cross overlooking the bay commemorates three members of the British Antarctic Survey who perished nearby in 1982.
There is no better place to experience the true wonder and beauty of sculpted ice than the shallow shoreline of Pleneau Island. Deposited by wind and tide, huge and bizarrely sculpted icebergs lie grounded in the shallows. Affectionately known as ‘Iceberg Alley’, the large concentration of icebergs stranded along the eastern shore of Pleneau Island must be seen to be believed. A frozen labyrinth of amazing shapes and colors: free-standing pinnacles, arches, Caribbean-blue lagoons and sculptural ice-castles greet the eye. Those with an artistic imagination can perceive animals and faces shaped in the ice by the forces of erosion, warmth and waves. At closer range, they metamorphose into massive murals of delicate designs: blue veins, crystalline icicles and scalloped waterfalls. In addition to ice, Pleneau hosts a number of gentoo penguin colonies, which attract leopard seals to hunt just offshore. Whales may also be seen navigating through the ice.
Explored by Jean-Baptiste Charcot during the French Antarctic Expedition 1903-05, the island was named for the expedition’s photographer Paul Pleneau.
Point Wild, Elephant Island
The infamous historical outpost of Point Wild is on the northern coast of Elephant Island. The rocky outcrop, set against a vertical cliff and only a yard above high tide, is densely occupied by a colony of chinstrap penguins. It was here, in one of the most inhospitable locations for human habitation on earth, that 22 men of the Shackleton Endurance Expedition were marooned for some four-and-a-half long months awaiting rescue. Shackleton himself had undertaken one of the most epic open-boat journeys in history, travelling 828 miles (1,333 km) to the closest civilization on South Georgia Island. Surviving on rations of penguin meat and sleeping under the overturned hulls of their two wooden boats, the men anxiously awaited Shackleton’s unlikely return. On August 30th, 1916, he finally returned with assistance to rescue his companions.
Visiting Point Wild is a thrilling experience not only for those intrigued by heroic stories of early explorations in Antarctica, but also for those wishing to experience the rugged, forbidding and austere beauty of remote Elephant Island.
Port Charcot, Booth Island
Located on the back steps of the Lemaire Channel, the small sheltered bay of Port Charcot hides along the western side of Booth Island. This is a place of rather quiet, subtle beauty, its gently curving shorelines and shallow waters are often crowded with brash ice and accentuated by massive grounded icebergs.
The low-lying shoreline is home to three species of penguins. Gentoo, Adélie and chinstrap penguins all nest within Port Charcot and can be seen all at once, a very unique and rare occurrence in Antarctica.
In 1904, the bay served as the winter refuge for the third French Antarctic Expedition under the command of Jean-Baptiste Charcot. They spent several long months here on their ship Francais. Charcot subsequently named the site for his father, Jean-Martin Charcot. Historical remnants include a commemorative cairn inscribed with the names of the members of the expedition that sits atop the hill, a stone hut and, nearby, the planks of a small wooden boat can be seen.
Port Lockroy, Goudier Island
Few sites in Antarctica convey the intrepid spirit of the early explorers as does Port Lockroy. As one enters the bay, the neatly painted brown and red huts of a station come into view. Perched on the small islet of Goudier Island, Lockroy is dwarfed by the massive crevasses of the glacier above. The colorful Union Jack flutters in the breeze as the music of Vera Lynn echoes in the bay. Welcome to the Port Lockroy living history museum, renovated in 1996 and operated by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. Port Lockroy is also the world’s most southerly Post Office, selling its own postage stamps and imprinting the mail with its unique Antarctic stamp.
Indifferent to the human presence, gentoo penguins nest close beside the buildings, while breathtaking majestic mountains and glaciers all around reveal this remote human outpost as only a drop of water in the vast sea of ice that is Antarctica.
South Shetland Islands
The South Shetland Islands are a remote chain of isolated volcanic islands separated from the Antarctic Peninsula by 75-mile (120 km)-wide Bransfield Strait. They are one of the true highlights of a visit to Antarctica, their diversity of wildlife and dramatic mountain scenery make them a ‘must-see’ destination on a voyage to Antarctica.
The South Shetlands are heavily glaciated and, due to their more temperate climate, are often hidden in mist and fog. The islands offer a number of opportunities to get ashore and explore. Historic remnants of the former whaling era, modern-day research stations, unusual geological formations, evidence of volcanic activity and an overwhelming number of penguin rookeries make the South Shetlands a unique outpost on the way to the Great White Continent.
The discovery of the islands is attributed to British captain William Smith who, while attempting to find favorable winds for rounding Cape Horn in 1819, sailed further south than anticipated and accidentally stumbled onto the islands.
For centuries Ushuaia’s harsh climate was deemed too forbidding for the establishment of a European settlement, thereby leaving the land to its native inhabitants, the Yahgan people.
Today Ushuaia is considered the southernmost city on earth, often referred to as ‘the end of the world.’ Nestled on the banks of the Beagle Channel, Ushuaia greets visitors with a jumble of colorful houses dotted against an amphitheater of dramatic snowcapped mountains. The jagged peaks of Monte Olivia, which tower some 4,530 feet (1,318 m) above, dominate the landscape. Dense forests of southern beech trees extend from the shoreline to alpine levels. Thanks to its location and relative proximity to the Antarctic Peninsula, Ushuaia is the transportation gateway to the Great White Continent. Rich in natural history, indigenous peoples’ heritage and the spirit of exploration, Ushuaia offers something for everyone, from spectacular trekking in nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park to discovering the colorful stories and historical heritage at The End of the World Museum.
The Ukrainian research station of Vernadsky, is situated in the Argentine Islands, a labyrinth of small picturesque rocky islets and often ice-choked channels. It began its existence in 1934 as the small wooden hut ‘Wordie House’. Now preserved as a museum, Wordie House was built on Winter Island as part of the British Graham Land Expedition of 1934-37.
Vernadsky has a reputation as one of the friendliest research stations in Antarctica and welcomes all visitors for tours of the base. In addition to scientific laboratories and equipment storage rooms, the station boasts the southernmost traditional-style English pub in the world.
The environment surrounding the base is renowned for its well-protected waterways, for its beautiful views of the high mountains to the east, and for a variety of wildlife. Numerous seals, penguins and seabirds can often be seen while Zodiac cruising. Offshore in more open water, an occasional whale may be seen.
The true scale of the Antarctic landscape becomes apparent at Waterboat Point. Located on a small rocky point of land, the Chilean station of Gonzales Videla is named after the first head of state to visit Antarctica, Chilean President Gabriel Gonzales Videla. Surrounded by thousands of nesting gentoo penguins, it sits perched beneath one of the most impressive glacial landscapes on earth.
Located between Andvord Bay and Paradise Harbor, Waterboat Point is surrounded by water during high tides, but connected to the mainland by an isthmus of rocks during low tides. Icebergs usually lie entrapped in the small bay surrounding the station, which is often a great location to view wildlife. Orca, humpback and minke whales have been seen here in the past. Crabeater seals are regular visitors to the ice floes in the bay.
The name originated in 1921, when two young British researches, Thomas Bagshawe and Maxime Lester, spent a winter here sheltered beneath the overturned hull of a wooden waterboat.
Scenic Cruising, Weddell Sea
The birth place of massive tabular icebergs, the less-visited Weddell Sea is some 1,200 miles (2,000 km) wide. It stretches eastward from the Antarctic Peninsula to the fringes of Queen Maud Land. Bounded by gigantic floating ice shelves, some larger than many U.S. states, the Weddell Sea is truly one of the grandest and most isolated areas on earth. Gargantuan tabular icebergs, sometimes many miles in length and towering vertically hundreds of feet above the sea, break from the ice shelves to become massive, moving ice islands.
One can only imagine the fortitude of the early explorers who challenged this perilous wilderness. The Scottish captain James Weddell first recorded the discovery of this remote sea in 1823. In 1915, Shackleton’s ship Endurance became trapped, crushed and sank within the confines of its pack ice. The Weddell Sea is a place of astounding history and raw beauty.
Whalers Bay, Deception Island
Ever since its discovery in the early 19th century, the flooded volcano of Deception Island has earned a reputation as one of the safest harbors in Antarctic waters. Surrounded by high lava cliffs and ridges of volcanic ash, the main anchorage of Whalers Bay is only accessible through a small cleft in the caldera cliffs known as Neptune’s Bellows.
The shores of Whalers Bay hold many stories. One can explore the remains of the old whaling station with its rusty boilers and huge rusted tanks used to store whale oil. The stark white crosses of the whalers’ cemetery can be viewed against the barren landscape of gray and brown. Penguins come ashore on the black lava-sand beaches amidst a landscape of historic buildings, derelict wooden boats and steam rising from the sand as magma far below heats the deep ocean water. Deception Island is a truly unique and beautiful destination.
Located in the South Shetland Islands, Yankee Harbour is home to some 2,000 pairs of nesting gentoo penguins, easily identified by the long, stiff tail feathers that stick out behind as they walk. They are also often viewed from the water as they swim. Depending on the time of year, the site also attracts a variety of abundant sea mammals. Antarctic fur, Weddell and leopard seals may be seen cruising offshore, while huge molting elephant seals lounge on the beach. Overhead, predatory brown skuas and giant petrels patrol the rookery for unguarded penguin chicks.
Set against the backdrop of the towering peaks of Livingston Island, Yankee Harbour welcomes visitors with the promise of a stroll over a narrow gravel spit of land protruding half a mile into the sea. The harbor’s large, protected anchorage is sheltered from the strong swells of the temperamental Southern Ocean. During the 19th century it was a place of respite for decades for American sealers and British whalers.