Situated 600 miles south of Tierra del Fuego and 100 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula, the South Shetland Islands are a popular stopover for almost all Antarctica cruises. Not owned by any single nation but home to sixteen research stations of various countries, some permanent, the islands are rich in history, wildlife and spectacular scenery.
The South Shetlands include 11 major islands, several minor ones, and more than 100 islets, skerries and rocks. Most of the islands are glaciated, with only a small percentage free of ice. These rocky strips are usually found along the coast, and this is where you’ll see most of the wildlife, including an abundance of penguins, seals and seabirds.
Main Visitor Sites
King George Island – King George is the largest of the South Shetland Islands, and is typically considered the unofficial capital of Antarctica. Here you’ll find the majority of the permanent research bases, as well as an airstrip at the Chilean station. The coastline is dotted with bays and fjords. Despite the comparatively large human presence, it’s still a great place for wildlife spotting, including Antarctic terns, chinstrap penguins, Adélie penguins, southern giant petrels and blue-eyed shags.
Elephant Island – If you know a little about the history of Antarctica, then Elephant Island might ring a bell. It was here that the British explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew were stranded in 1916 during the Endurance expedition. Some of the wreckage of the ship can still be seen at Wreck Bay on the island’s southwestern side. Other notable sights include seals, chinstrap penguin rookeries and a 2000-year-old moss bank.
Deception Island – Despite the ominous name, Deception Island is actually one of the safest natural harbors in Antarctica. Formed from a collapsed volcanic cone, the sunken center of the caldera has provided a perfect harbor for whalers, researchers and, more recently, visitors who come to see the island’s huge colonies of chinstrap penguins. Another novel aspect of the island is the volcanically heated water. Visitors can swim, or at least sit, in the shallows of Pendulum Cove, in the sweet-spot between the boiling waters of the caldera and the icy Antarctic Ocean. Add to this the otherworldly landscape of dark volcanic sand and black rock, and you have a truly unique experience.
Penguin Island – This small, oval-shaped volcanic island is largely ice-free. Despite its small size, it’s nonetheless a popular destination due to the accessibility of its highest point, Deacon Peak. Visitors have a relatively easy walk to the top, from where they can enjoy spectacular views of the surrounding seas and islands. And, as the name suggests, the island is home to plenty of penguins, including chinstrap and Adélie penguins. It has also been designated an Important Bird Area (IBA) thanks to a breeding colony of over 600 pairs of southern giant petrels, as well as being a nesting site for Antarctic terns and kelp gulls. You might spot some Weddell and southern elephant seals, too.
Livingston Island – The second largest island in the South Shetlands is also one of the most historic. Livingston Island is home to the largest concentration of 19th-century historical sites in Antarctica, including the San Telmo Cairn, which commemorates the 644 seamen lost when the Spanish warship San Telmo sank just off the island, and the Lame Dog Hut, the oldest preserved building on Livingston, built by the First Bulgarian Antarctic Expedition in 1988. Then there’s Hannah Point, one of the most popular Antarctic tourist sites on the cruise ship circuit. It’s one of the best places for viewing wildlife up close, with large chinstrap and gentoo penguin rookeries, and sometimes some macaroni penguins too. You can also see plenty of blue-eyed shags, skuas, storm petrels, kelp gulls, snowy sheathbills and southern elephant and southern fur seals.
Recommended South Shetland Islands Tours
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