Antarctic Islands


The frozen continent may be the goal of your trip, but rushing straight there will mean you bypass many of the island jewels that lie in the Southern Ocean, between South America, New Zealand and Antarctica. Many Antarctic cruise itineraries include detours to these remote scraps of land that shelter penguins in their hundreds of thousands, seals, research stations and the graves of fallen explorers.

The Falkland Islands

480km east of Argentina, the Falkland Islands are the first stop on many Antarctic itineraries – and a tantalising introduction to the wealth of wildlife that can be found in the Southern Ocean. This craggy archipelago is a surreal juxtaposition of red telephone boxes and hundreds of thousands of penguins; a slice of Britain at the wind-battered end of the world. In October and November, bull elephant seals boisterously battle for mates – and tiny new pups can be seen on the beaches. In December and January, you’ll find fluffy penguin chicks, while February and March are the peak whale watching months.
The hardy Falkland Islanders are year-round inhabitants, of course, and walking round the compact capital of Stanley, meeting those who live on this particularly isolated archipelago and learning about their history at the Historic Dockyard Museum adds an unusual – and very human – dimension to your Antarctic expedition.

South Georgia

They don’t come much more remote and inhospitable than this, yet for decades this British Overseas Territory was home to whalers, who risked their lives hunting whales for their valuable oil. South Georgia no longer has permanent inhabitants, but for today’s visitors the island is just as treasured – its huge king penguin and elephant seal colonies making it a rewarding stop on the long journey to Antarctica, with the opportunity to pay your respects at Shackleton’s grave.
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South Shetland Islands

Landings can never be guaranteed due to the treacherous waters and unpredictable conditions, but if you’re lucky, you may be able to reach Deception Island, a collapsed volcanic cone. The water in its natural harbour is heated by submarine volcanic activity – take a dip if you’re feeling brave! Elephant Island is even harder to reach – which makes it all the more impressive that this was the home, for four and a half bitter months, of Ernest Shackleton’ stranded crew. The most visited island in the South Shetlands is King George – home to several international research stations, an airstrip, and the continent’s only church.

Australia & NZ Subantarctic Islands

The New Zealand and Australian Subantarctic Islands are a kind of bizarre Galapagos of the south; half a dozen tiny archipelagos each as distant from each other as they are from New Zealand. This isolation and extreme environment has led to a flourishing of freakish, endemic flora, dominated by bright green ‘megaherbs’ that sprout up in cartoonish, oversized clusters. The fauna here is more easily recognisable: penguins, petrel, albatross, sea lions and elephant seals. But even several of these are found nowhere else in the world; the endangered, erect crested penguins are found only on the Bounty and Antipodes Islands, while royal penguins are only found on Macquarie Island – all three million of them. New Zealand (Hooker’s) sea lions breed mostly in the Subantarctic Islands, and are the world’s rarest sea lion species.
The Antipodean Subantarctic Islands can be visited on Antarctic expedition cruises departing from New Zealand and heading into the little-visited reaches of East Antarctica and the Ross Sea. On these long voyages – lasting around four weeks – you’ll spot whales and pelagic birds, enjoying on board lectures along the way which reveal the fascinating biology and history of these virtually unknown archipelagos.
Photo credits: [The Falkland Islands: Ben Tubby] [South Georgia: nomis-simon] [South Shetland Islands: NOAA Photo Library] [Australia & NZ Subantarctic Islands: Roderick Eime]
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