If you go on an Antarctic cruise, one of the destinations you are likely to stop off at during your trip is the South Shetland Islands. The archipelago is split into four distinct groups of isles, with research stations providing the only permanent habitation.
There are many reasons to visit this unusual destination as part of your Antarctic exploration, so here’s a brief guide to some of its attractions.
You won’t land on Elephant Island, but as you pass it keep an eye out for the large colony of chinstrap penguins that live here. However, it is not only these fascinating birds that make Elephant Island interesting, but also its connection with Sir Ernest Shackleton. This is where the famous explorer and his party in the Endurance were wrecked on his South Pole expedition in 1915. Remarkably, Shackleton and five of his group managed to travel from here to South Georgia to get help.
This is probably the most famous of the South Shetland Islands, as it is an active volcano, even though the cone itself has collapsed and the caldera is now flooded. It is a horseshoe-shaped bay protected by the remaining volcanic slopes and is a natural harbour.
If you book a tour with Explore Worldwide, your vessel will aim to enter this sheltered area of water during your cruise, conditions permitting. The geology of Deception Island is fascinating, but it is also home to the largest colony of chinstrap penguins in the world – they can be seen at Baily Head.
King George Island
This is the largest of the isles in the group at 1,295 sq km in size and is also where you’ll find the greatest number of bases, with 12 countries having outposts here, although four of these are only used during the summer.
Despite its size, these bases are all in a relatively small area because the majority of the island is covered in glaciers – which are in themselves a spectacular sight.
This is an excellent place to pass by to give you a chance to see some of Antarctica’s amazing wildlife close up. There are several seabird colonies here, including chinstrap and gentoo penguins, blue-eyed shags, skuas and Wilson’s storm petrels.
There are also populations of southern elephant and fur seals on the island, all of which are well worth viewing from the comfort of your boat.
Half Moon Island
This is a very small isle in the South Shetland archipelago, measuring just 2 km in length. As its name suggests, it is a crescent moon shape and one of the main reasons to visit the isle is to see the large colonies of nesting sea birds. The Subantarctic skua, south polar skua, black-bellied storm petrel, kelp gull, Antarctic cormorant and Antarctic tern are all known to breed here.
The islands provide a home to a wide variety of creatures, although some of the wildlife you’ll be looking out for will be in the water, rather than on land. During the summer months (which is the only time you can go on Antarctic voyages), you are likely to see a several kinds of seal, including the impressive leopard seal, as well as various whale species, such as humpback, minke and orca whales.
There are also numerous types of penguins that inhabit the region, in addition to the chinstrap colonies already mentioned, with adelie, macaroni, gentoo and giant king penguins among those that you can spot while you travel.
Photo: Liam Quinn