Most Antarctica cruises visit both the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands. (The South Shetlands — while not part of the mainland — are still considered part of Antarctica.) Antarctica cruises leaving from the most common embarkation point of Ushuaia, Argentina, typically visit the South Shetlands en route to the Peninsula, which lies about 75 miles to their east.
The Antarctic Peninsula is not only the part of the mainland closest to South America, it usually offers the best weather conditions on the continent for cruise ship landings (zodiacs, inflatable rubber boats, are used to take passengers to shore). The scenery and wildlife on both the Peninsula and South Shetlands are magnificent and unlike any other in the world. In both locations, huge penguin rookeries and seals crowd the beaches while sea birds and whales fill the surrounding air and waters.
Other than the wildlife, no permanent residents occupy either area. Human habitation consists of scientific researchers and support personnel who work in temporary stints at stations sponsored by a variety of countries. Chances are you’ll be able to visit at least one working research station during your cruise, though ship captains must first get an OK from the station personnel.
Much of the surface of both the South Shetlands and the Peninsula is covered with ice throughout the year, but the austral summer (roughly November through March into early April) permits ships to anchor close enough to shore to make landings possible. Keep in mind, though, that Antarctic weather conditions can change fast, so ship captains frequently change course when necessary, and even if they’re on your itinerary, some of these eight sites may have to wait for your next visit.
Key Visitor Sites, South Shetlands:
Formed by a collapsed but still active volcanic cone, Deception Island is shaped like a circular neck pillow with a narrow entrance and wide inner lake (which forms the “deception” for which the island is named). Once cruise ships pass through “Neptune’s Bellows” – as the entranceway is dubbed – they can peacefully sail around the entire crater lake, offering views of chinstrap penguin colonies as well as old whaling stations at colorful Whaler’s Bay. Rocky cliffs serve as backdrop. Sub-surface volcanic activity heats certain points of the lake just enough to allow for a brief swim (or at least immersion) in the normally frigid Antarctic waters, a challenge that lures a number of hearty cruise ship passengers. Caution: the waters can also get scalding hot at times!
The main attraction here is the tiny rocky beach at Point Wild where nearly two dozen men were stranded for four and a half months in 1916 during Sir Ernest Shackleton’s doomed “Endurance” expedition, when their ship broke up in pack ice. Remarkably, all survived after Shackleton improbably made his way by lifeboat to South Georgia Island to find help. A glimpse at the remote, cramped beach offers a stark reminder of one of history’s most incredible survival stories. Zodiac landings on Elephant Island are chancy due to often treacherous weather and ice conditions, so bring a pair of good binoculars to get a good look at the beach while your ship hovers offshore.
King George Island
The largest of the South Shetlands is home to the greatest number of scientific research stations in the chain, and is the site of the archipelago’s only air strip. (Some cruises start here after passengers fly in, avoiding crossing the notoriously rocky Drake’s Passage.) The United States operates a summer-only base on King George, while several other nations are there year-round. Chances are good that at least one will open itself to visitors if your cruise ship stops here. Chinstrap and Adelie penguins occupy the beaches while Antarctic terns and giant petrels fly overhead.
With the highest point in the South Shetlands (7,800 feet), mountainous Livingston Island is often shrouded by clouds, but its shoreline wildlife — gentoo and chinstrap penguin colonies, fur and elephant seals, Weddell seals, skuas and storm petrels — remain on view. Those interested in history may be able to visit abandoned sealing stations dating from the 19th century.
Key Visitor Sites, Antarctic Peninsula:
The Lemaire Channel
Weather and ice conditions permitting, the scenic four-mile-long Lemaire Channel is a staple of most Antarctica cruise itineraries. Situated near the southern end of the Peninsula, the channel separates the mainland from nearby Booth Island and reaches its narrowest point at a width of just 2,000 feet. Its soaring mountains and cliffs will make you want to keep your camera handy at all times.
With up to 10,000 visitors per year, Port Lockroy is the most visited location in Antarctica. Reached by a memorably scenic passage through the Neumayer Channel, Port Lockroy is situated on little Goudier Island on the channel’s eastern shore. It’s home to an historic British base that now serves as a museum of Antarctic life in the mid- 20th century, complete with gift shop and post office, one of the few outposts of the wider world in Antarctica. (Don’t expect your post cards to arrive anytime soon.) Colonies of gentoo penguins breed nearby.
Hope Bay, also dubbed “Iceberg Alley” because of the number of icebergs that get trapped in the region, lies in the 30-mile-long Antarctic Sound (the passageway between the northeastern tip of the Peninsula and the three Joinville Islands). Besides viewing icebergs that resemble huge flat-topped tables, Antarctica’s largest colony of Adélie penguins is on display. You may get to visit Argentina’s Esperanza research station, which was the site of the first baby birth in Antarctica in 1978. The remains of a stone winter hut from a 1903 Swedish expedition are also on view.
Another favorite of Antarctica cruise itineraries, Paradise Bay, on the Peninsula’s west side, was so named by whalers in honor of its incredible mountain and glacial scenery and passing parade of icebergs. Gentoo penguins, seals, and minke whales add to the allure of this icy paradise.