One of the world's giants, known for their remarkable speed through the water
Information about Fin Whale
Our Expert Says… "We don't tend to see Fin Whales in the Antarctic itself, but they are a real highlight on the way in and out of the area, as they tend to prefer the edge of the continental shelf. We've had many close encounters where fin whales have come close to ships and have rather easily overtaken them in order to feed on prey ahead of us!"
The fin whale is second in size only to the blue whale and is one of the world’s largest creatures. Also known as the finback whale, and formerly the razorback whale, they can grow up to 27m (90ft) long and weigh in at 72 tons. They are found throughout the Atlantic ocean and at both polar regions, although northerly fin whales are smaller and lighter than the southern ocean population.
Despite their size, they have been described as “the greyhound of the sea”. This is because their body shape is slender and very streamlined, allowing them to swim at a greater speed than other whales. They have been recorded swimming at a sustained 25mph and can hit 30mph for short bursts.
Fin whales are more social than other baleen whales and tend to live in loose groups of 6 to 10 individuals. However, large congregations of up to 100 individuals have been observed feeding in particularly rich waters.
The brown-gray colored fin whale is, like the blue whale, a baleen whale. This means they use special plates in their mouths to filter the seawater of krill and small crustaceans, squid, and small fish. As was the case with their larger cousins, fin whales were heavily hunted in the southern oceans by commercial whalers during most of the 20th century. The Antarctic population was particularly badly affected, and by 1997 the population in the southern hemisphere was estimated to be only 38,000. The entire worldwide population is thought to be only around 100,000 individuals. They have made a slow recovery since the moratorium on commercial whaling and they are therefore listed as vulnerable.
On your polar expedition, you are most likely to spot fin whales offshore while you sail between landing sites. Your expert naturalist guides will be on hand to help you distinguish between fin whale and blue whale sightings and to answer any questions you have about these magnificent animals.
Interesting facts about Fin Whale
The Fin Whale has asymmetrical pigmentation with a white jaw and baleen on the right that is dark on the left. It is thought this helps to scare prey, and it also helps to distinguish the Fin Whale from the similar but smaller Sei Whale.
Pictures of Fin Whale
Highlights where the Fin Whale can be seen
Cape Horn (known as Cabo de Hornos in Spanish) is the southernmost point of South America. It’s not technically part of the mainland, as it is the Tierra del Fuego archipelago’s most southerly headland.
Before the Panama Canal opened, it was the route used by shipping to go from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and its waters have a reputation for being treacherous. Thanks to the fierce currents, huge waves, strong winds, and frequent icebergs, Cape Horn is still a challenge to navigate and is seen as a “bucket list” passage for many yachtsmen.
It is also amazing for a wide range of seabirds, and marine mammals. Do look out for the Dusky Dolphin as well as the more regularly encountered Peale's Dolphin.
If your cruise vessel “rounds the Horn” then you can join the privileged ranks of those who have sailed between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans off the southernmost tip of South America!
The outer bay can be a very good area for whale watching and an area where Blue Whale can be seen for cruise ships departing or arriving at the mouth of the fjord.
Isfjorden is the largest fjord system in Svalbard with spectacular geology, such as the Devonian sediments along Dicksonfjord and Ekmanfjordat. Most cruise ships sail out the first evening, a chance to enjoy the scenery, to explore the rest of Svalbard, before coming back to consider landings and explore parts of Isfjorden on the last full day.
Elephant Island is one of the outermost of the South Shetland Islands. The roots of its name are argued to be one of two reasons. Either the fact that Elephant seals were seen hauled out here in large numbers by the first person to discover and map the island, Captain George Powell in 1821, or that the island’s shape is uncannily like that of a baby elephant’s head with trunk extended!
The island remained unexplored for many years thanks in part to its lack of resources (just small numbers of seals and penguins and no native plants) and partly because of its steep volcanic rocks, presenting few landing points.
However, in 1916 Elephant Island became immortalized as the scene of the beyond-all-odds survival story that was Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition.
After their ship Endurance was lost to the treacherous ice in the Weddell Sea, the 28 crew were forced to make a perilous escape attempt. After months in open boats and stuck on drifting ice sheets, the team arrived at Elephant Island. Here they set up a base to stay at Point Wild while Shackleton and five members of his crew set sail in an open lifeboat for South Georgia - a journey of over 800 miles - to seek a rescue ship.
This stunning tale of endurance, determination, and the human spirit is brought home to visitors to Elephant Island by the Endurance Memorial at Point Wild. You can also see breathtaking views of the Endurance Glacier - named after Shackleton’s lost ship - as well as the stunning rocky terrain and its Chinstrap Penguins and seals.
Exploring the pack ice
The highlight of many Svalbard cruises is to explore the pack ice, and the best conditions occur when there is an obvious edge to pack ice to sail past, or calm seas where some ships go into the loose pack ice.
It is a unique and unforgettable experience to explore the pack ice ‘at the top of the World’. Seabirds feed along the edge, that can also be good for Harp Seals, and whales. The highlight is to spot a bear. Sometimes they are at a distance, sometimes a few hundred metres away, sometimes they come right up to the ship. What is crucial is to bring binoculars to enjoy and observe the Polar Bear in the heart of their realm, the pack ice, whatever the distance.
Sometimes a bear is seen quickly, sometimes it takes a few hours, sometimes it takes most of the day. Other times two days can be spent exploring the pack without seeing a bear. It is important to patient, enjoy the whole experience, with a bear sighting being the icing on … the pack ice! Conditions can change quickly. Mists often come in to reduce visibility. Currents can spread out the ice into widely scattered pack, making bear sightings less likely. Strong winds and a swell can mean keeping further away from the pack ice edge. In the early season the whole northern coast is in the grip of the pack, plus fast ice in the deeper parts of the fjords on the western side. Ships explore the ice edge to the NW of Spitsbergen at this time, with more options as the ice retreats north. As the pack ice retreats north it gradually ‘unzips’ from west to east, clearing the coast of northern Spitsbergen first, then the northern end of Hinlopenstretet, (enabling circumnavigations of Spitsbergen, exactly when varying from season to season), then the northern coast of Nordaustlandet and Sjuøyane.
Some years the ice edge can end up a long way to the north, enabling a circumnavigation of the whole archipelago, even to reach remote Kvitøya. Other years, pack ice remains along the northern coast of Nordaustlandet, caught up among the offshore islands. This prevents a circumnavigation of the archipelago, but the areas of drifting pack ice around and places like Lagøya and Sjuøyane can be superb for ship cruising and even Zodiac cruise amongst the pack.
The sound between Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet in the high Arctic, in contrast to the milder coast of western Spitsbergen. Early in the season it is locked in ice that slowly clears from the south.
The northern end can be blocked by the pack for a while, varying from season to season. Once open, it enables circumnavigation of Spitsbergen, although ice can still drift in on strong currents and block Hinlopenstretet. When Hinlopenstretet is open, but the northern end is still blocked, ships will come into the area, typically sailing along Freemansundet between Edgeøya and Barentsøya, then return.
The area is superb for Zodiac cruises and landings, and can be superb even as a ship cruise. There are plenty of seabirds, the sound can be good for whales, there are various fjords to explore, like the surprisingly arid and desert-like Wahlenbergfjorden, various island groups to explore, like Wahlbergøya, and the chance to experience what is described as the polar desert. Three locations stand out as highlights in whole of Svalbard, the ice cliff Bråsvellbreen, the Walrus Haul out at Torellneset , and the bird cliff at Alkefjellet.
Not part of Greenland, this is a volcanic Island on the mid-Atlantic Ridge that ships often visit it on route between Svalbard and Iceland as part of the cruise. However, it is a bit of detour south for ships heading across from Svalbard to the very NE of Greenland, with the chance to explore the ice edge as they approach the East Greenland current, an area where they might encounter Walrus and Polar Bears on the sea ice (both more elusive when exploring NE Greenland), and even Narwhal and Bowhead Whales on the edge of the sea ice.
For ships that do sail past or visit Jan Mayen, it is a volcanic island on the mid-Atlantic ridge, like Iceland to the SW. It is great for a range of breeding seabirds, and for whale watching.
Point Wild is an unassuming, narrow sand and rock point, with steep tidewater glaciers and cliffs on its edges. It lies on the north coast of Elephant Island (part of the South Shetland Islands) 7 miles west of Cape Valentine.
Despite its lack of grandeur, this small bit of land has a starring role in history - it was named after Frank Wild, the leader of the survivors of Sir Ernest Shackleton's shipwrecked expedition. 15 men camped here and managed to survive for four months of Antarctic winter before they were rescued by a Chilean naval ship in August 1916.
There is a memorial commemorating the captain of the rescuing vessel with an impressive bronze bust to be found here, as well as several inscriptions. You will often find members of a colony of chinstrap penguins “guarding” the monolith!
The waters around Point Wild are famous for “snagging” icebergs on their hidden underwater rocks, and there is always a chance to witness the nearby glacier carving into the waters. Due to the sea conditions, landing is not always possible here, but Zodiac cruise or a close passage by the ship will let you marvel at the isolation and inhospitable conditions that Shackleton’s team endured. You can also admire the amazing glaciers and stunning geology of the area around the point.
It is also the site of a Chinstrap Penguin colony and the surrounding waters can be great for whales and seabirds like the Black-browed Albatross.
This small sheltered cove is found on the southern shore of Coronation Island, in Iceberg Bay. Shingle Cove is notable for both its fascinating geology and its large colony of Adelie Penguins.
Two gravel beaches allow for an easy landing and give access to the higher ground beyond. From the beach, you can see outcrops of metamorphic schist, with visible layers of quartz and feldspar. Your expert Antarctic guides will also show you areas of Shingle Cove where other mineral deposits have eroded to the surface, including red garnet and green amphibole.
To either side of your landing site, petrels will be seen flying to and from their rocky burrows in the low cliffs. You’ll also be unable to miss the noise from the impressive Adelie Penguin colony here - over 13,000 strong!
Although you can wander freely on the landing beach, your walk to the penguin colony will be carefully marked and must be followed under supervision. This is to protect petrel burrows which are easily disturbed.
Only groups of 20 visitors at a time are allowed into the colony to avoid too much disturbance, but this is an excellent opportunity to walk into the heart of the Shingle Cove penguin colony with all its sounds, sights, and smells!
South Georgia and Scotia Sea
South Georgia Island (known as Isla San Pedro in Spanish) is often described, quite rightly, as a highlight of many peoples’ Antarctic cruise experience.
The remote, rocky main island is 850 miles from the Falkland Islands and the same distance from the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s quite mountainous, with a central high ridge and plenty of bays and fjords on its coast, making for some stunning views and remarkable photographs.
There are 8 smaller islands (the South Sandwich Islands) located 400 miles to the southeast which are rarely visited.
South Georgia has a human history mainly centered around the sealing and whaling industries, with relics such as try pots and sunken whaling ships to be discovered. Many people also pay a visit to the grave of Ernest Shackleton, one of the most famous Antarctic explorers, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack while in South Georgia.
Part of one of the world’s largest marine reserves, the variety of the wildlife to be found in South Georgia is what attracts most of its visitors. From the world’s largest king penguin colonies to beaches crammed with elephant and fur seals, to breeding colonies of the bird with the largest wingspan in the world, the wandering albatross, to innumerable species of seabirds, South Georgia is a destination that serves up “days of a lifetime” every day!
South Shetland Islands
The South Shetland Islands are a group of rocky islands only about 75 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Several countries have research stations on the islands, with most being found on the largest island, King George Island. It’s here, at the Chilean Base Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva, that there is a 4000ft runway that sees over 200 flights a year bringing people and supplies to and from the Islands and wider Antarctica.
Most of the islands are covered in ice for much of the year, but they are still home to large populations of Elephant and fur seals, as well as huge numbers of penguins and Antarctic sea birds, being the most diverse area in the whole 'peninsula' region. Frequent encounters here include gentoo, chinstrap (often one of the key species for landings in the South Shetlands), a few Adélie penguins colonies, and the odd Macaroni penguin pair or lone bird. Also Weddell, crabeater, and leopard seals, as well as and orca, humpback, and minke whales, with fin whales, and even southern bottlenose Whales, see on the approach close to the drop off to deeper waters.
Black-browed Albatross do not breed but can be seen, usually offshore in the Southern ocean, but also in the Bransfield Strait.
The Falkland Islands
The Falkland Islands (known in Argentina as Islas Malvinas) is an archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean. Most people may be familiar with them because of the conflict that was fought here by armed forces from Argentina and the UK in 1982, but there is so much more to the Falklands.
Inhabited since 1764, these remote islands have been colonized and claimed by many countries - France and Spain have claimed them (and Argentina since its formation and former Spanish colony) although it’s the British descendants who make up the majority of the islands’ 4,000 population. As a British Overseas Territory, the Falklands are self-governing, but the UK is responsible for defense and foreign affairs. Argentina still disputes the sovereignty of the islands they call the Malvinas.
Made up of two large islands (East and West Falkland) and over 700 smaller islands and islets, the Falklands are as beautiful as they are rugged and remote. Despite its history as a base for South Atlantic whalers and sealers, and more recently extensive sheep farming, the Falkland Islands have retained great biodiversity, and modern conservation has ensured many previously struggling wild species are now returning.
The Falklands is home to important populations of albatross, having some of the largest breeding sites in the world. They are also home to the rare striated caracara, 63 species of nesting land bird, and 5 penguin species. Seals, whales, dolphins, and other marine life are also abundant. Finally, the rugged landscape itself has a stark beauty, and the islanders, although hardy, offer everyone the warmest of welcomes, usually accompanied by a hearty Falklands Tea.
Fishing and farming account for the vast majority of the Falklands Islands income, although tourism is increasingly important. Many of the farms on the islands are now managed with wildlife conservation in mind, and the Falklands is a wildlife management success story.
Although most ships visit Stanley (usually for a day), the main focus on 'expedition' cruises are the outer islands with all the wildlife, and some of the special breeding birds like Black-browed Albatross and Southern Rockhopper Penguins and some Patagonia specialists like the Striated Caracara. Also bear in mind, with cruises that also go to South Georgia and the peninsula, only 2 or 3 days are normally spent in the Falklands, although some cruises spend longer here.
Town on small island of the same name with a prominent peak at the entrance of Uummannaq Fjord.
Photogenic location for the town, the largest north of Ilulissat, with a museum and the chance to experience a Greenland community. The fjords great for the scenery and icebergs and whale watching. In the region is Qilakitsaq, where there is a site with Innuit burial remains.
The shallow seas off South West Svalbard and the drop-off into deeper waters are probably the best places for whale watching in Svalbard.
In addition to the Humpback Whale, Fin Whale, and Blue Whale, the SW is a good area to see White-beaked Dolphins (more elusive to the NW), whilst heading further out to deeper waters, there is the chance of spotting Sperm Whales and the Northern Bottlenose Whale.