Antarctica: Wildlife Cruises
Also known as ‘Drake Lake’ or ‘Drake Shake’ depending on the sea conditions you experience, the notorious passage between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula takes around two days to navigate. You won’t get a better opportunity to break in your sea legs or test your seabird identification skills as you attempt to track the wheeling flight of albatrosses and petrels from the pitching deck of a ship.
Albatrosses commonly sighted include wandering, northern and southern royal, grey-headed and light-mantled. Southern giant petrel can also be seen, along with smaller members of the tube-nosed seabird family, such as southern fulmar, cape petrel and Wilson’s storm petrel.
Keep scanning the horizon for whale blows. From around mid-December onwards, Drake Passage will be heaving with humpbacks, lured south by the promise of summer krill blooms. Orcas are also commonly sighted, along with fin whale and hourglass dolphin. The southern bottlenose whale is decidedly rarer – as are other species of beaked whale.
As you voyage south across Drake Passage, you enter the Antarctic Convergence, where warmer sub-Antarctic currents meet polar waters. Birds like the Antarctic prion start to be seen – heralds of the great white continent that lies just over the horizon.
South Shetland Islands
Located about 120km north of the Antarctic Peninsula, the mountainous, glacier-covered South Shetlands include Elephant Island, where Shackleton and his crew were stranded for 135 days in 1915. The South Shetland Islands are renowned for their large colonies of chinstrap, gentoo and Adélie penguins, southern elephant seals and fur seals. Largest of the South Shetlands, King George Island (site of several scientific bases) is also a good place to see Antarctic tern, blue-eyed shag and southern giant petrel. The flooded caldera of Deception Island, accessed by a 230m wide entrance known as Neptunes Bellows, has several chinstrap penguin rookeries, while Livingston Island supports breeding populations of both chinstraps and gentoos.
Sailing from the South Shetland Islands, expedition ships navigate Bransfield Strait to reach the Antarctic Peninsula, a magnificent polar wilderness of ice-clad peaks rearing above channels strewn with colossal, blue-tinted icebergs. Two of the most spectacular areas are the Lemaire Channel and Paradise Harbour where you can witness the full cast of Antarctic wildlife – from minke whales, crabeater seals and orcas to penguins, petrels and sheathbills – against a dramatic backdrop of sheer cliffs, calving glaciers and snow fields. If conditions allow, this is a wonderful area to explore by sea kayak, nosing about in sheltered bays, drifting warily past leopard seals lounging on ice floes or paddling alongside humpback whales. Some voyages also offer camping and cross-country skiing.
Weddell Sea & South Orkney Islands
Sailing along the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, some expedition voyages attempt to cross the Polar Circle before retreating north. Other itineraries probe the peninsula’s eastern shores, edging through ‘iceberg alley’ into the Weddell Sea. Popular landing sites here include Paulet Island (Adélie penguin, blue-eyed shag, sheathbill) and Half Moon Island where chinstrap, gentoo and macaroni penguins can be found along with elephant seals, cape pigeons and southern giant petrels. Icebreaker ships (with the extended reach of their helicopters) can get you to Snow Hill Island – site of Antarctica’s northernmost emperor penguin colony.
Sometimes included on cruises that voyage clockwise from the Falklands and South Georgia to the Antarctic Peninsula, the wild and windy South Orkneys are difficult to land on – but promise fabulous birdlife if the weather is on your side.
Ross Sea & Ross Ice Shelf
Accessible only to icebreakers, voyages to the Ross Sea and Ross Ice Shelf include visits to Scott’s Discovery and Terra Nova huts, as well as Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds and the impressive colony of Adélie penguins at Cape Adare. Onboard helicopters, meanwhile, bring the ‘Dry Valleys’ of the Antarctic interior within range.
Falklands' star species: Black-browed albatross • King penguin • Magellanic penguin • Orca • Gentoo penguin
Bluff Cove Few beaches are more remote, but don’t expect to have Bluff Cove all to yourself. Some 3,000 gentoo penguins (and a small colony of kings) stake out the powder-white sands of this pristine bay, pacing well-trammelled ‘highways’ between their raucous rookeries and the South Atlantic surf. To reach this penguin paradise join a 4WD tour from Stanley. Sit quietly on the beach and the curious gentoos will waddle right up to you (the kings tend to remain aloof). Magellanic penguins and sea lions frequently surf onto the scene, but you can always escape the crowds at Bluff Cove’s Sea Cabbage Café. You won’t find a better cream tea within 7,000 miles. Don’t miss the Bluff Cove Museum (falklandpenguins.com) at the Sea Cabbage Café to discover how people, as well as penguins, fare in this far-flung outpost.
Sparrow Cove & Kidney Cove Join a Land Rover safari from Stanley with local farmer Adrian Lowe to visit this wild stretch of coastline that became the resting place of Brunel’s SS Great Britain. Four species of penguin breed here (gentoo, king, Magellanic and rockhopper).
Volunteer Point Home to the largest king penguin colony in the Falklands (around 500 pairs), Volunteer Point on East Falkland also has rookeries of gentoo and Magellanic penguins.
Carcass & West Point Islands A pick-up point for boat trips to West Point Island, Carcass also boasts superb wildlife. Gentoo and Magellanic penguins can be found at Leopard Beach, while striated caracaras and various small birds (such as Cobb’s wren) are common around the McGill’s settlement. Keep an eye out for Commerson’s dolphins offshore.
Pebble Island Named after the agate pebbles found on its beaches, this 31km-long island is a gem for birdwatchers. Not only do gentoo, macaroni, Magellanic and rockhopper penguins breed here in good numbers, but there are also large colonies of king cormorants. The ponds on the eastern side of the island, meanwhile, are a magnet to waterfowl and waders.
Saunders Island Another birding paradise, Saunders has large numbers of penguin, cormorant and black-browed albatross. Head to The Neck for the greatest concentrations.
Sea Lion Island Lying 16km south of East Falkland, Sea Lion Island is like a sub-Antarctic Galápagos. The 9-sq-km island is home to a fabulous array of birds, including 6,000 gentoo penguins, 1,000 rockhoppers and a smaller population of Magellanic penguins. A large colony of king cormorants can be found on dramatic cliffs on the south side of the island, while a special hide provides views of around 20 pairs of giant petrel (highly vulnerable to disturbance) nesting behind a beach in the north. A chain of freshwater ponds attracts Chiloe wigeon, crested duck, speckled and silver teal, silvery grebe and a variety of waders, such as rufous-chested dotterel and two-banded plover. The surrounding grassy areas are a good place to look for Magellanic snipe, crested caracara, ruddy-headed goose and endemic Cobb’s wren. Around 2,000 elephant seals haul out on the beaches of Sea Lion Island, pupping between October and November. Orca have been observed hunting elephant seal pups in large tidal pools on the island’s southeastern coast. Sea lions can be seen at the base of cliffs from viewpoints around the island, while Peale’s dolphin are sometimes seen offshore.
Getting there LAN (lan.com) flies to Santiago, with onward flights to Mount Pleasant via Punta Arenas. Direct MoD flights from RAF Brize Norton, UK, take 18 hours. Cruise ship operators visit the islands.
Getting around The Falkland Islands Government Air Service runs light aircraft between most islands. Wildlife tours are available from Falkland Islands Holidays.
Places to stay Stanley’s Malvina House Hotel has comfortable rooms and excellent food. Carcass Island (contact via tourist board) has a cosy, welcoming farmhouse, full of character and sheltered by an exotic garden. Superb walks, Land Rover tours and delicious home cooking. Sea Lion Lodge is a smart single-storey lodge overlooking gentoo penguin rookeries. Saunders Island has self-catering cottages, plus a cabin with bunk beds on the wildlife-rich Neck.
When to go Summer (October to March) has long daylight hours, lots of sunshine and an average temperature of 15C. Several species of wildlife return to the islands to breed in September. GMT-4 (FI winter), GMT-3 (FI summer)
South Georgia's star species: King penguin • Southern elephant seal • Wandering albatross
A ravaged scimitar of land over 2,000km east of Tierra del Fuego, South Georgia defies the brutal storms of the Southern Ocean, its mountainous backbone shielding bays along the island’s north coast where one of the world’s greatest annual gatherings of seabirds takes place.
No less than 60 million birds are thought to breed on this wild, uninhabited and strikingly beautiful island. Wandering albatross hunker down on clifftop nests, Antarctic shags stake out rocky shores, and storm petrels seek gaps and crevices in screes in which to lay their eggs. Of the 81 species of birds recorded in South Georgia, 27 are breeding seabirds. The island is home to around half of the world’s population of macaroni penguins, grey-headed albatrosses, northern giant petrels, white-chinned petrels and Antarctic prions, the most numerous seabird on South Georgia.
Southern elephant seals and Antarctic fur seals commandeer beaches, littering the strandline in vast, twitching hordes, but nothing can upstage the birds on South Georgia – and there is one species in particular that steals the show. King penguins breed in such numbers on the island that their massed ranks transform entire bays into a monochromatic mêlée of sleek black-and-white bodies, speckled with the bright orange flashes of their ear patches and the shaggy brown coats of chicks. As biennial breeders, king penguin rookeries are in constant use. Birds incubating eggs can be found alongside crèches of 12-month-old chicks, making it possible to witness almost every stage of rearing young.
A 3km stretch of dark sand, St Andrews Bay is backed by a glacial outwash plain, meltwater streams flowing from the Cook, Heaney and Buxton Glaciers past large breeding colonies of king penguin and elephant seal. Light-mantled sooty albatross, white-chinned petrel, snowy sheathbill, brown skua and Antarctic tern also nest in the area. At Cooper Bay, cobbled coves indent a shoreline of low cliffs, wave-cut platforms and scree slopes to form ideal breeding conditions for macaroni penguins. Fur seals haul out here, while the South Georgia pipit (the island’s only endemic land bird) can be seen among lichen-covered boulders. Located 20km north of Cape Vahsel, Gold Harbour is ringed by spectacular hanging glaciers and cliffs and has a pool-studded glacial outwash plain where a large king penguin rookery can be found. Another superb site for king penguins, Salisbury Plain lies between the Grace and Lucas Glaciers and is also a good place to see elephant seals and fur seals, as well as gentoo penguin, light-mantled sooty albatross, snowy sheathbill, kelp gull and giant petrel. Marking the southern entrance of King Haakon Bay, Cape Rosa has nesting colonies of wandering albatross and various burrow-nesting petrels. A cave in one of the shoreline coves was used as a shelter by Shackleton’s expedition. The last section of the route taken across South Georgia by Shackleton, Crean and Worsley in 1914 can be traced on a 5.5km hike across the mountain pass between Fortuna Bay and Stromness Harbour. Breeding birds in the area include light-mantled sooty albatross, southern giant petrel, white-chinned petrel and Wilson’s storm petrel. King penguin, gentoo penguin and elephant seals can be seen in Fortuna Bay.
Shackleton’s Grave is located in the small cemetery at Grytviken near the remains of the old whaling station. The South Georgia Museum illustrates various aspects of the island’s history and natural history and is managed by the South Georgia Heritage Trust.
Further info sgisland.gs