Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands lie just 120 kilometres north of the Antarctic Peninsula, making the archipelago the first point of call for Antarctic cruises. With spectacular frosted scenery and excellent wildlife-watching opportunities, the South Shetlands are the perfect introduction to the white continent.
The islands are used by multiple countries for research purposes without sovereignty, under the agreement of the Antarctic Treaty. Many of the research stations can be found on King George Island.
There are 11 main islands, four major groups of islands, as well as 150 unique islets (not to mention the occasional drifting iceberg), so there is plenty to see and do in the area. Covering 3,688 square kilometres and with 80% of the land glaciated, the islands provide ample photo opportunities. The highest peak is Mount Foster on Smith Island, which reaches 2,105 metres and was first conquered in 1996.
One of the most notable of the islands is Deception, the horseshoe-shaped caldera of an active Antarctic volcano. The volcano’s last major eruptions were in 1967 and 1969; however, both went unpredicted despite research based on the island studying the region’s volcanic activity. The mystery of Deception makes for an intriguing visit, and the volcanic activity raises the surrounding ocean temperatures, making this region popular for those looking to take the “polar plunge” and swim in the waters of Antarctica.
In terms of wildlife, you’ll likely encounter humpback and minke whales in these waters, as well as visits from pods of orcas. In the skies, keep your eyes peeled for seabirds, such as the giant albatross. For more birdwatching opportunities, visit Half Moon Island, an Important Bird Area (IBA) noted for the breeding colony of south polar skuas that call the island home.
From the dramatic ice cliffs and ice formations of Livingston Island to the fascinating volcanic activity of Deception, the South Shetlands provide a diverse range of polar activities which will leave you eager for the next stop on your Antarctica cruise.