The Antarctic Circle is one of the most isolated and remote destinations in the world. So naturally, it’s many a traveler’s dream to explore the vast white wilderness of the Antarctic islands. This is Earth’s final frontier—a pristine continent of elemental forces. Less than a century ago, only a handful of humans had experienced its dynamic environment of ice, snow, rock, and water.
Nowadays, cruises to the Antarctic islands generally depart from South America, with Ushuaia in Argentina being the busiest tourist port. But before exploring the Antarctic Circle, most passengers spend two days at sea. The Drake Passage is a notorious body of water between Cape Horn, Chile and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. During rough crossings, it can feel like being thrown into a washing machine.
With unpredictable ocean conditions, it’s impossible to know whether you’ll experience the “Drake Lake” or the “Drake Shake.” An easy passage might have 6 to 16-foot waves, or you could see them swell to 40+ feet. This shouldn’t prevent you from taking an Antarctic expedition; but it does mean that all travelers should be prepared with seasickness remedies, and understand that there may be a period of adjustment when finding your sea legs.
Just remember that there’s an incredible continent awaiting you on the other side of the Drake Passage. The following are a few of the many memorable experiences you can expect when exploring the Antarctic islands.
Deception Island is one of the most unique of the Antarctic islands. An active volcano in the South Shetland Islands, its landscape is comprised of ash-layered glaciers, steaming beaches, and barren volcanic slopes. It’s a far cry from the Antarctic stereotype.
This is one of the only places in the world where ships can sail directly into the center of a restless volcano. It has a distinctive horseshoe shape and a large flooded caldera which opens via a narrow channel to the sea.
It’s one of the most visited tourist sites in Antarctica, with the opportunity to learn about volcanoes and geothermal activity, plus the chance to strip down to a swimsuit and take the famous polar plunge! You can also explore the dilapidated shells of boats, buildings, and whaling equipment. These are relics of the various roles the island has played over the years, serving as a whaling station, scientific research center, and even a strategic base for the British during World War II.
In terms of wildlife, nine species of birds breed on Deception Island, and it is home to the world’s largest rookery of chinstrap penguins. It is estimated that 100,000 mating pairs nest on Baily Head.
Enterprise Island is technically a small lump of rock north of Nansen Island in Wilhelmina Bay. The two islands were originally charted as one, and named “Ile Nansen” in 1898 by a Belgian Antarctica expedition. These Antarctic islands became popular outposts for whalers in the 1900s, named North and South Nansen Island in order to distinguish between them.
The island boasts a dramatic coastline, and is home to a Norwegian shipwreck from its whaling days. The Governoren was deliberately run ashore by the crew after a fire broke out, and today it sits half submerged as a historic reminder. Only its bow can be seen above water, but the rest of the whaling boat is visible below the surface on days when the sea is calm and clear.
The wreck is home to a colony of Antarctic terns, and there’s also a small colony of Antarctic cormorants in the area. Cruise ships regularly stop here to appreciate the sheer beauty of the surrounding mountains, floating icebergs, and seals, which rest on the many rocky beaches. The whales that attracted hunters a century ago are still present, and this is a great spot for humpback sightings.
Neko Harbour is one of the most frequently visited tourist destinations in Antarctica, primarily because it is one of the few places where tourists can make a continental landing and set foot on mainland Antarctica.
Located deep in Andvord Bay, the harbor is surrounded by some seriously spectacular scenery. Enormous, sparkling glaciers frequently calve with a thunderous roar just a few hundred yards from the landing site. This provides great opportunities for dramatic video footage and stunning photos of a bay full of brash glacial ice.
The harbor is also home to a colossal range of wildlife, with hundreds of gentoo penguins huddling together on the hillsides. You can also spot kelp gulls, minke whales, and leopard seals lurking in the water or chilling out on the floating ice.
Paradise Harbour (also known as Paradise Bay) is another of the most visited tourist sites in the Antarctic islands. Located within close proximity of Neko Harbour, it’s normal for cruise ships to take in both in the same day.
The harbor is surrounded by glaciated mountains and high, icy cliffs which pierce the sky. This is another chance for a continental landing, and to catch glaciers calving—a natural phenomenon wherein chunks of ice break away from a glacier and plummet into the water below.
When the glaciers aren’t calving, the water in the bay is very calm. The glassy surface reflects the surrounding mountains and ice cliffs, which make for stunning photo opportunities. If it’s calm, Zodiacs are a popular way to explore the bay’s smaller inlets and channels.
In terms of wildlife, keep your eyes peeled for gentoo and chinstrap penguins, as hundreds of pairs call the area home. There’s also the chance to tour a scientific research base, as both Chile and Argentina operate research stations here. If they give the green light for visitors, it’s a great way to gain insight into the daily lives of the scientists who live and work in the Antarctic Circle.
Detaille Island is a small island on the western coast of the Arrowsmith Peninsula. It’s reasonably well-sheltered from weather, but it’s difficult for most ships to reach due to the ice-choked waters which surround it. Thankfully, the island becomes more accessible during the peak summer months of December and January.
There’s a small colony of Adelie penguins here. More interestingly, the island is home to Base W, a deserted British research base that still feels as if they only just left. The base was deemed unsuitable in 1959, after heavy ice prevented ship access. In a rush to evacuate the base, the researchers took almost nothing with them.
Today, it acts as an eerily preserved time capsule of life in the Antarctic islands in the late 1950s, with artifacts offering insight into the science and living conditions that existed when the Antarctic Treaty was first signed. It’s no surprise that Detaille Island has been declared a Historic Site and Monument, and is maintained by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust.
The Lemaire Channel & Pleneau Island
The Lemaire Channel is one of the most famous and visually impressive parts of the Antarctic Peninsula. This narrow channel dividing Booth Island and the Antarctic mainland is flanked on both sides by steep mountain peaks which drop straight into the sea. The area is so scenic that it has been dubbed “Kodak Gap,” because it draws visitors’ cameras out in full force.
The channel’s waters are a stunning maze of glistening icebergs. With natural protection from the weather, the Lemaire Channel is often as still and mirror-like as a placid lake. Icebergs do have a habit of clogging up the channel, forcing ships to re-navigate. But if this happens you’ll still have plenty of time to see the channel itself.
There will also be opportunities here for Zodiac cruising, allowing you to get up close to crabeater and leopard seals who have hauled out onto the ice. And, make sure you also keep an eye out for orca, minke, and humpback whales.
Pleneau Island is particularly rich in marine life, and is well known for its variety of ice. The aptly-named Iceberg Alley is close by, where you’ll cruise between all different types of icebergs. You’ll see some with stalagmites, arches, iridescent blue cracks, and caves that glow, making this one of our favorite Antarctic islands.
Megan Jerrard is an Australian Journalist and the founder and Senior Editor of Mapping Megan, an award-winning travel blog bringing you the latest in adventure travel from all over the globe.