Antarctica is vast desert. 5.4 million square miles, or roughly 10% of the earth’s land surface, and virtually all covered by a permanent ice sheet (at times more than 2 miles thick). During the long Austral winters the sea ice more than doubles the size of the continent. It is at this time that Antarctica is at its most formidable - dominating and unpredictable - greater than most life, and seemingly devoid of life.
During the Austral summer however Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands will be teeming with life. When the sun finally emerges from the long winter night, the sea ice melts, and life returns - to breed! With a background of glittering white mountains and blue-green icebergs, come face to face with incredibly large colonies of penguins. Approach colonies of albatrosses, petrels, and shags (cormorants). Walk and cruise among many species of pinnipeds, including large colonies of massive Southern elephant seals and roaring Antarctic fur seals. At sea be rewarded with great views of pelagic sea birds gliding nearby as well as several species of whales.
The Southern Ocean ecosystem is the world’s largest, and most fertile. It spans from Antarctica north to the Antarctic Convergence; the boundary where northward-moving cold Antarctic waters meet the warmer Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. Here the Antarctic circumpolar current carries more water than any other system in the world – the richness of this system, and the wildlife supported, is beyond belief.
The history of Antarctic exploration is legendary, with names such as Cook, Scott, Amundson, and Shackleton. Each had incredible, heroic, adventures. Go where they have gone and learn what they accomplished, and endured. Particularly around the Ross Sea it is possible to still visit several of their historic huts/camps. On Elephant Island one might see where Shackleton’s men camped, and on South Georgia you can often walk the last section of his epic hike across the island.
If you have already experienced the Galápagos Islands you will be surprised at both the similarities, and differences. The wildlife is generally as approachable as you experienced in the Galápagos, although with colonies typically far larger. Another difference is the relative freedom afforded in Antarctica; rather than staying with your guide you are more likely to be able to explore an area more at your own pace, within sight of the expedition team, lingering where you wish. The photographic opportunities are unmatched.
Galápagos Travel first started traveling south in 1998, taking our first group there in early 2000. We’ve been back every year or two since! On the continent we’ve traveled to, and shared, the Antarctic Peninsula, Weddell Sea, and the Ross Sea. In the sub-Antarctic we’ve been to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island, South Shetland Islands (including Elephant Island), South Orkney Islands, as well as the sub-Antarctic islands of New Zealand; Snares, Campbell and Auckland Islands. Each region or island is wonderfully unique, and all worth a serious visit!
Antarctica, the Falkland Islands & South Georgia
Without a doubt the easiest part of Antarctic to reach is the Peninsula. From the southern reaches of South America the Peninsula is just 600 miles, or 2 days by ship (or a few hours by plane). While most of Antarctica is frozen throughout the year, an exception is the long panhandle of the Antarctic Peninsula, and surrounding South Shetland Islands, which stretches far enough north to be largely ice-free in the summer.
As wonderful as the Antarctica Peninsula and South Shetlands are, and they are truly wonderful, the best part of a voyage to this region is the Falklands Islands archipelago and South Georgia Island.
The Falkland Islands archipelago is home to amazingly varied populations of sea birds, including the world’s largest colony of the magnificent Black-browed Albatross. These wild islands are also home to four species of penguins, petrels, shags and more. Myriad land birds also thrive on these remote islands, including caracara, geese, ducks, finches, pipits…
If the Antarctic Peninsula (and adjacent islands) is the heart of a voyage south, South Georgia is certainly the soul. Not included on most Antarctica itineraries, South Georgia is always the highlight for anyone taking the time to visit. Here you will find one of the world’s highest concentrations of sea birds, with colonies in the hundreds of thousands. King, Macaroni, Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins all nest on South Georgia. There are also 4 species of albatross here, including the Wandering Albatross, with its 13 foot wingspan!
There are not enough superlatives to describe South Georgia – this is the highlight of any voyage to the area. Here you will find one of the world’s highest concentrations of sea birds, with colonies in the hundreds of thousands. King, Macaroni, Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins all nest on South Georgia. There are also 4 species of albatross here, including the Wandering Albatross, with its 13 foot wingspan!
In addition to the sea birds, half of the world’s population of Southern Elephant Seals breed on South Georgia. Like the Elephant Seal, the Antarctic fur Seal is restricted largely to the sub-Antarctic islands; ninety-five percent of its world population breeds on South Georgia alone.
Other endemic species include the South Georgia Pintail, and the South Georgia Pipit.
New Zealand & Australian sub-Antarctic Islands
The sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand and Australia are tiny havens for some of the most abundant and unique wildlife on the planet. They lie in the cool temperate or sub-Antarctic Zone to the south and east of New Zealand in the great southern ocean that encircles Antarctica. They are comprised of six island groups: the Bounty Islands, the Antipodes, the Snares, the Auckland Islands, Campbell Island and Macquarie Island.
Long recognized for their rich biodiversity, these islands are afforded the highest levels of conservation status and protection by the New Zealand and Australian governments, as well as being recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage sites. Nicknamed by some the “Galápagos of the Southern Ocean,” these islands are a wildlife refuge like no other; they are home to a vast array of wildlife including albatross (7 species), penguins (7 species), petrels, prions, shearwaters and marine mammals like sea lions, fur seals and elephant seals. The flora is equally fascinating; the majority of it being endemic to these islands.
Because the islands are close to New Zealand the “at sea” days are minimal, the overall voyages a bit shorter, and the prices a bit lower.
Weddell Sea & Emperor Penguins
Few Antarctica images fire the imagination the way Emperor Penguins might, whether huddled together against the weather, or the curious fluffy grey chicks wobbling about.
More than just Emperors, the Weddell Sea is home to a wonderful range of wildlife: Gentoo, Adélie and Chinstrap Penguins, Cape, Snow & Giant Petrels, Kelp Gulls, Skuas, Wilson's Storm Petrels, and much more.
The scenery is stunning with landscapes of layered sandstones, lava flows, glaciers tumbling into the sea and ice-bergs and pack-ice as far as the eye can see. This is a region of immense tabular icebergs and vast panoramas.
These early-season expeditions to the Weddell Sea will be a true "winter wonderland" with lots of snow and ice. There is no more spectacular way to experience the scenery than scenic overflights by helicopter (helicopter flights are included in the voyages) - maybe you'll even land on a tabular berg!