South Shetland Islands
The South Shetland Islands are rich in wildlife and are a major stopping point on any Antarctic Cruise...
Home to the greatest biological diversity in Antarctica, the South Shetland Islands are the first stop on any cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula. Positioned 600 miles south of Tierra del Fuego, the string of twenty islands, lie parallel to the North West Coast of the Antarctic Peninsula at the point where it juts upwards towards South America. Mostly made up of volcanic rock and bordering the Drake Passage, the islands are relatively warmer than other parts of Antarctica, making them a popular spot for wildlife and eye-catchingly colourful plants.
One of the most famous islands is the small rocky outcrop known as Elephant Island, with its large colony of chinstrap penguins and mossy banks dating back 2000 years. The island is best known for having played host to 22 members of Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic ‘Endurance’ expedition who were stranded in an area named Point Wild for 105 days in 1916 after their ship was crushed in Weddell Sea pack ice. They miraculously survived until their rescue in August 2016, despite the onset of winter and having very few supplies.
Frequently visited is King George Island the unofficial capital of Antarctica, and the largest of the South Shetland Islands. The island doesn’t have the same feeling of isolation as other places in Antarctica, having its own airstrip and being home to scientific stations from twelve different countries. Fly and cruise itineraries will often fly into King George Island to avoid the turbulent seas of the Drake Passage.
Perhaps one of the most interesting islands is Deception Island a horse-shoe shaped island which is actually an active volcano. The volcano erupted over 10 000 years ago, forming a caldera which has been flooded by seawater, forming a naturally protected harbour. For this reason, it played an important part in the seal and whaling industries and is now one of the most popular places to visit for Antarctica Cruise boats. Whaler’s Bay holds the relics of a large Norwegian whaling station and a British military base, built during World War II.
The island is home to over 140 000 pairs of chinstrap penguins - one of the largest colonies being found at Baily Head, otherwise known as Rancho Point, and 18 species of plants, including mosses, liverworts and lichens which can’t be found anywhere else in Antarctica. A popular landing point is Pendulum Cove where water warmed by the island’s volcanic activity mixes with cold seawater, sometimes, but not always (!), creating conditions warm enough for swimming.
Hannah Point on Livingstone Island is one of the most biodiverse sites in Antarctica; it is a nesting site for giant petrels, chinstrap, gentoo and macaroni penguins and a favourite haunt for moulting southern elephant seals who huddle together along the beach. Yankee Harbour on Greenwhich Island takes its name from its use as a base for American sealers in the 1820s. Boats will stop here to see the old iron pot used to boil sea blubber, and to see the seals, which continue to use the island as a resting stop.
An equally rewarding stopping point are the green and mossy Aticho Islands, which provide a home to baby elephant seals as they grow strong enough to go out to sea. Known for their fearlessness you may find a brave seal approaches you asking you for food!