The iconic "leaping" whale of the southern oceans
What you need to know about the Humpback Whale
Our Expert Says… "Young Humpbacks can be very curious once they are weaned and in their adolescence, and close encounters with young whales from the Zodiacs are a delightful experience. It's really encouraging to see their numbers increasing, and it has been very pleasing to see the Australian population come off the endangered list recently."
The humpback whale is one of the most well-recognized of the baleen whales, thanks to its long pectoral fins and obviously humped back, as well as its “signature” habit of breaching - throwing most of its body out of the water, to crash down on their backs.
There are populations of humpback whales in all of the world’s oceans, although it’s thought that they don’t frequently mix. Humpbacks feed in the polar regions during the summer, laying down fat reserves that they need to sustain them as they move towards the equator to breed and give birth in the winter. Because of this migratory behavior, humpback whales can travel up to 16,000 miles every year.
Humpbacks grow to around 15m (50ft) in length and weigh about 33 tons. Their pectoral fins grow to about one third the length of their body, with the longest ever measured being over 6m (20ft)!
In common with other baleen whales, humpbacks feed primarily on krill, small crustaceans, and schools of small fish. They show a wide range of hunting techniques including stunning prey with surface slaps of their pectoral fins, and the remarkable “bubble netting” behavior. Here they hunt in groups, and individual whales blow a steady stream of bubbles while swimming together in decreasing circles around a school of prey. The bubbles trap the prey, and as the whales come closer and closer, the school is compacted into a tighter and tighter ball. The whales then rush upward into the center of the school with mouths open, filtering the food out of the water using their baleen plates.
Juvenile humpback whales are known to be attacked by orcas, and adult humpbacks have been observed using their pectoral fins to defend calves against attack, “clubbing” the orcas to deter them. Great white sharks have also recently been witnessed hunting in a group to attack and kill an adult humpback whale. How common these attacks are is unknown.
Sadly, these magnificent creatures were commercially hunted during the 20th century to the point where they were on the verge of extinction. At the time of the 1966 moratorium on whaling, there were thought to be fewer than 5,000 humpback whales in existence. Although numbers have recovered since then to around 80,000 they are still down from their pre-whaling population of about 125,000. Humpbacks are still potentially vulnerable to the effects of climate change and from collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear, as well as disturbance from underwater noise pollution.
Humpback Whale: Pictures & Videos
Spots where the Humpback Whale can be observed
A gateway to the ultimate adventure that only a few will be lucky enough to experience.
Located at the northerly tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, the Sound is a remarkable onslaught for the senses as you come face-to-face with monstrous slabs of ice, now floating free as enormous tabular icebergs. These have broke away from ice shelves in the Weddell Sea and drifted into the Sound.
Treacherous to early explorers, the first vessel to successfully navigate the Sound was The Antarctic, the vessel of the Swedish Nordenskjold expedition of 1903. Unfortunately, she was trapped in the Weddell Sea by ice the following year and crushed - one of several vessels to have that fate over the decade.
Fortunately, modern polar cruising vessels have no such worries with their strengthened hulls and modern navigation technology. As you enter the monochromatic beauty of white ice and grey sea you will know that that you are soon going to experience some of the remarkable sights and encounter the wonderful wildlife that makes its home in these islands of snow, ice, and rock.
Austfonna and Bråsvellbreen
The ice cliff here is so impressive it features in the opening credits of The Frozen Planet. It is where the massive ice cap of Austfonna, covering 58% of Nordaustlandet, meets the sea, and the third largest ice cap in the World.
The ice cliff is about 180km long, apart from few rocky out¬crops, and roughly 24m high, with a series of waterfalls along the length when it is warmer. The ice cliff is routinely referred to as Bråsvellbreen, but it is the huge glacier streaming out of Austfonna. It often surges forward and is known as the Sudden Swell Glacier. The section at the southern end of Hinlopenstretet is the most accessible, often as a combined ship cruise and a Zodiac cruise, and it is simply breath taking, a bit like the ice wall in the Game of Thrones!
There is also the chance to check out wildlife on the ice floes and the bergy bits.
Bjørnøya (Bear Island)
Bear Island is considered Svalbard’s southernmost island, roughly half way between Spitsbergen and Norway’s North Cape. Although the last polar bears were seen in 2004, the name goes back to Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz and his visit in 1596.
The island has been used to hunt walrus, for whaling, and even coal mining has taken place. The strategic location on the border of the Norwegian Sea and the Barents Sea has led to a meteorological station being set up by Norway near Gravodden on Bear Island’s north coast. Some two thirds of the island is a relatively flat plain with shallow freshwater lakes and Ramsar Wetland, while the entire island and the surrounding waters are a Nature Reserve.
Bear Island has also been designated an Import Bird Area as it is a staging area for Pink-footed and Barnacle Geese and the steep cliffs south of Sørhamna are home to thousands of breeding seabirds,the area of most interest for a ship cruise, and even a Zodiac cruise on the few occasions the seas is calm.
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!
In northwest Greenland in Melville Bay, the ice sheet comes right down to the coast, separating the very northwest part of Greenland from the rest of western Greenland.
Cape York is one of the first locations on this northwest coast that has tundra and lakes to explore. The mountains and icebergs match this remote location that, in many ways, has far more of a link with the Canadian Arctic, rather than Greenland.
It is one of the most important locations in NW Greenland for breeding seabirds and it can be good for marine mammals. Including traditional hunting ground, whalers and explorers have also visited the area, and the family of Admiral Robert Peary's family placed a monument in honour of his explorations on the cape.
Nice area to explore the tundra and enjoy the magnificent views.
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.
This small, steep-sided island is only 1.5 by 1.25 miles and two-thirds of it sits under a permanent ice-cap. On its northern shore is a pebble and boulder beach backed by steep cliffs where you will arrive by zodiac from your Antarctic cruise vessel and come ashore.
At both ends of this beach are the impressive Gentoo penguin colonies that Cuverville is famed for. You will be able to clearly see the trails they use to make their way to and from the water. There are other colonies and nesting sites on the higher ground behind the beach, and throughout the island.
You can also see the evidence of the whaling activity that went on here in the early 1900s, including discarded whale bones and the remains of the equipment used to hall them ashore for processing. If you are lucky, you might see Humpback Whales and Antarctic Minke Whales offshore.
This small island is carefully protected - only one ship at a time may land passengers here and there are other restrictions to ensure the wildlife is not unnecessarily disturbed. Some areas of the island are closed to visitors, but the rest allows you to roam freely, and your expert guides will show you the resident flora and fauna, as well as explaining the island’s whaling history.
Danco Island, Errera Channel
Danco is a small island in the middle of the Errera Channel, a body of water that runs between Rongé Island and the coast of Graham Land.
Only 1 mile long, Danco’s wide, flat beach rises to a permanently ice-covered hill which gives stunning views over the channel. Visitors often report being able to see Humpback and Minke whales from here as they travel between the islands The view from the top with icebergs in the channel and crevassed glaciers in the surrounding mountains is stunning.
The island hosts around 1500 breeding pairs of gentoo penguins. They like to nest away from the beach up the slopes, and so you can always see them making their journeys to and from the sea, and Danco Island can have some of the best penguin highways in the snow where the Gentoo Penguins climb up and down to the colonies on the higher part of the island.
Seals are also frequent visitors to the island, as are a variety of Antarctic bird species including skuas, terns, and kelp gulls.
Danco was also the site of Base “O”, built by the British Antarctic Survey in 1954 as a base for geological research and exploration. The base was abandoned in 1959 when the expedition ended, and the huts were removed in 2004. On the beach, you can find a plaque with an inscription giving the story of the base.
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.
Ilulissat & Disko Bay
One of the key highlights in Greenland with the chance to witness Ilulissat Kangerlua, one of the most active glaciers in the World. Either overlooking the iceberg choked fjord from a viewpoint on a short walk from town, or Zodiac cruising the outer fjord past a ‘wall’ of huge icebergs jumbled together. The walks across the tundra to the viewpoint can be a chance to see various Arctic birds whilst there is the chance to experience of life in town and the busy fishing port. There is also the chance of whale watching in Disko Bay.
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.
Karrat Fjord and Upernavik
Karrat Fjord, towards the north end of the Uummannaq Bay system, is a great fjord to explore with icebergs, rugged mountains, blue fjords, with the chance to walk on the tundra and look for wildlife. Various species can be seen but others can be elusive due to the proximity of Upernavik.
Upernavik, on the island of the same name, is a very pretty town on the slopes of the island, surrounded by magnificent scenery, at the entrance to the local fjord systems. As well as the colourful houses there is the most northerly 'open air' museum in the World. It also boasts to have the World's largest bird cliffs nearby.
There are a a few settlements further north before the ice sheet comes right down to the coast in Melville Bay between western Greenland and the very NW tip and Thule.
Narsarmijit & Tasermiut Fjord
Pretty Greenland village at the southern tip of Greenland that was the easternmost of the Norse settlements during their colonization of Greenland, with remains in the area (most settlements were on the south-west coast).
The fjords are great to explore including Tasermiut Fjord with the largest hanging glacier in southern Greenland, with World challenging big walls for climbing such as Ulamertorsuaq and Nalumasortoq.
Neko Harbour is an inlet deep in Andvord Bay off the coast of Graham Land in the Antarctic Peninsula. It was discovered by a Belgian expedition in the early 1900s. This sheltered inlet was named after The Neko, a Scottish whaling vessel that worked these waters between 1910 and 1925.
Neko Harbor has a beach and a rocky outcrop that is surrounded by glaciers and towering cliffs. This is a popular site with spectacular views as the glaciers that surround this bay regularly carve during the season, leading to some stunning photo and video opportunities if you are lucky!
There used to be a refuge hut here that was built by Argentina in 1949, and was in irregular use all the way until 2009 when it was destroyed in a severe storm. It has since been cleared from the site, with just a few remains now to be seen.
The gentoo penguins that live here and used to surround the refuge hut don’t seem to mind that it has gone! Their noisy cries will greet you as you land on the beach. You can often also see Weddell seals here in the sea or hauled out on the beach at Neko Harbour. There are also skuas and kelp gulls seen regularly here.
Orne Harbour is a mile-wide cove on the west coast of Graham Land, just southwest of Cape Anna. It was first discovered by a Belgian Antarctic survey of the Danco coast in 1898 and was then in regular use by whaling vessels in the early 1900s.
The site is popular for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a beautiful location that provides stunning Antarctic views. The exposed rocky shoreline contrasts with the permanent snow patches dotted on the higher ground above it. To the south, there is deep permanent snow and ice. Glaciers ring the harbor and steep peaks rise above. It’s glorious for a Zodiac cruise!
The other reason to visit Orne Harbour is to see the nesting colony of chinstrap penguins that have made their homes here. There’s a steep but safe hike up from the beach to the colony that sits on higher ground above the beach. As well as the penguins, you will be rewarded with remarkable views of the bay, and the glacier that regularly calves into the waters here.
The Orne Islands are a cluster of small, low-lying rocky islands at the entrance to the Errera Channel and Orne Harbour. They lie just off the northern coast of Ronge Island off Graham Land.
The largest Orne island has moderate slopes leading to a rocky central ridge that has permanent snowbanks. There are also three other small islets that make up the group.
Your landing will be via a low rock platform on the northwest side of the main island. Once ashore, you can roam freely around the island under the supervision of your expert guides. The Orne Islands are home to Skuas, which nest in the rocky outcrops here, as well as other Antarctic seabirds and penguins.
In winter, impressive snow cliffs can form near the landing site. To avoid disturbing the wildlife, the number of visitors on the island is restricted, and during nesting seasons your guides may limit the areas in which you can roam to protect nests.
Petermann Island marks the extremes for two Antarctic species - not bad for a small rock less than a mile long!
This rocky outcrop that rises 500ft above the sea has a permanent covering of ice. The island is just south of Booth Island in the Lemaire Channel. Petermann Island is volcanic in origin, and it has a permanent icecap covering more than half of its surface. It’s home to the northernmost colony of Adelie penguins, but also the southernmost colony of Gentoo penguins. The latter are taking over (and pushing further souht) and soon there may be no breeding Adelie Penguins on Petermann Island.
First mapped by a French expedition in 1909, Petermann Island is also home to breeding colonies of skuas and Wilson’s storm petrels. There’s also a good chance to observe Weddell, crabeater, and fur seals.
Visitors can hike up to the highest point of the island, where a cross and cairn remembers three members of the British Antarctic Survey who died in 1982 attempting to cross the sea ice from Petermann Island to Vernadsky station. There is also a refuge hut built by an Argentinian expedition in 1955 - its red metal walls make a fantastic contrast against the snow and ice.
The area can be superb for Zodiac cruises, especially around the larger icebergs grounded on the far side of the island, and Humpback Whales often appear in the main channel.
Pleneau Island is one of the less-visited Antarctic visitor sites but is well worth it. First mapped in 1903 by the French Charcot expedition, it’s a beautiful location that overlooks what’s known as an “iceberg graveyard”, with a Zodiac cruise often favoured over a landing (see fascinating facts). Whether viewed from the island itself or from a Zodiac, there are always stunning ‘bergs to photograph here.
The island itself is less than a mile long and lies just off Hovgaard Island in the Wilhelm Archipelago. Pleneau is home to terns, and your expert Antarctic guides will make sure that you avoid disturbing them in the breeding season.
The permanent ice cap at the top of the island looks stunning, but it’s riddled with crevasses and not safe to walk on.
The northern end of the island hosts a breeding colony of Antarctic Shags, and you will almost certainly see penguins and seals among the stunning icebergs.
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.
Portal Point is a narrow, rocky point on the northeast of the Reclus Peninsula off Graham Land. It was named by British explorers as it formed part of the “gateway” for the route to the Antarctic Plateau.
In 1956, a refuge hut was established here, known as Cape Reclus Refuge. It was only used for two winters and then abandoned. In 1996, the hut was removed and is now in the Falklands Island Museum.
All that’s left of the refuge on the Point are the remains of its foundations, often not visible under the frequent snow cover. Indeed, this year-round snow is why there are no penguin colonies here.
However, Portal Point is a popular place for Weddell seals to haul out, and while you are landing you will often see them in good numbers. There is also a small Antarctic Shag colony nearby and the bat is great for Zodiac cruises amongst the icebergs, to enjoy the views of the peninsula, glaciers tumbling down to the bay, look up to the polar plateau, Leopard Seals on ice floes, and the chance to see Humpback Whales.
Port Charcot, Booth Island
Port Charcot is a small bay at the north end of Booth Island. Booth Island is a rocky and rugged Y-shaped island off the Kiev Peninsula in Graham Land. It was first mapped in 1904 when the French Antarctic expedition led by Jean-Baptise Charcot over-wintered here.
After building a few rudimentary shelters and the cairn that can still be seen at the top of the hill, the expedition used Port Charcot as its base for exploring the area, that is close to the Lemaire Channel and the division between the NW and the SW peninsula . There is the remains of a stone hut used for astronomical observations and a wooden pillar with a plaque here where you can still make out the names of the first expedition members who wrote them almost 120 years ago.
In the bay where the Français was anchored (but difficult to reach with the ice) the letter 'F' was carved onto the rocks and can still be seen.
The walk to the cairn is delightful, although you’ll be carefully led by guides as wandering off the path can be treacherous, with loose rocks and crevasses. Visitors can also walk to the east where there is a noisy Gentoo penguin colony. Chinstraps and Adelies can also be seen on the beaches here. If you are lucky, you might get all three together!
From the top the views are stunning, especially the view to the SW, towards Pléneau Island Island, overlooking 'the iceberg graveyard'. This iceberg graveyard can be explored on a spectacular Zodiac cruise, either from ships anchored off Port Charcot to the 'NW' of the Lemaire Channel, or from ships anchored off Pléneau Island and Booth Island that had sailed through through the Lemaire Channel. For full details of this Zodiac cruise refer to the details under Pléneau Island.
Puerto Madryn, in the northern part of Patagonia, is a whale-watching hotspot. This city of 100,000 people is protected from the pounding South Atlantic by the Golfo Nuevo. It grew from a tiny settlement built by Welsh immigrants in 1865, who gave it its Welsh name of Porth Madryn.
This is a cheerful, bustling city with plenty of modern facilities for shopping, dining, and pleasure-seeking. But the true star of the show is the Golfo Nuevo and the creatures that make its waters and shores their home. This makes Puerto Madryn the perfect place to explore the area.
The whole Valdes Peninsula supports an abundance of wildlife. From elephant seals, sea lions, and penguins, to whales and dolphins, and innumerable seabirds, the region teems with wonders.
After a day of wildlife watching, what better way to recharge than with a superb local steak or some delicious seafood in one of Puerto Madryn’s many great restaurants?
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!
Ship and Zodiac cruising
With the myriad of islands and channels, and the ice, there needs to be a lot of flexibility of where to explore within the Franz Joseph archipelago. But there is the chance to see a range of Arctic wildlife, such as the Polar Bear and Walrus, plus species like Bowhead Whale and Narhwal that are scarcer in Svalbard waters.
Many of the ships that head up to the north pole pass through the islands.
Large Island, mid-way along the south-east coast, in an area with numerous fjords coming down from the icecap, and some of the best landscapes in SE Greenland.
Uninhabited today, it was used by nomadic people for thousands of years with the remains of Inuit dwellings here. A harsh area to survive in, the Vikings never settled this stretch of coast. Tidewater glaciers calve into the fjords for great ship and Zodiac cruising.
This extensive fjord system has impressive scenery and numerous glaciers that is great to explore by ship whilst being on the watch out for bears. It is also an area with lots of history.
Smeerenburg was the base for the Dutch whalers that was known as ‘blubber town’, with the remains of the blubber ovens for those that get ashore. There is also a Walrus haul out that can be observed from the shore, or from a Zodiac if there is a bear nearby (quite often the case here in the NW). Close by is Virgohamna, the site where Andrée set off his ill-fated trip to the North Pole by balloon in 1897, and where Wellman attempted to fly to the pole in the early 1900’s. Today there are the scattered remains of the balloon shed and the aircraft hangar. Special permission is required to land but the remains can be seen from a Zodiac offshore. Smeerenberg was also the location where the Fram appeared after drifting across the Arctic Ocean, stuck in the ice for three years!
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.
For such a tiny, rock island (it’s less than half a mile by a quarter of a mile), Stonington holds a lot of the human history of Antarctica. It’s found in Marguerite Bay off the west of Graham Land, and it is one of the most southerly historic sites on the peninsula.
It was home to not one, but two winter expeditions. In 1939, the US Antarctic Service chose it as the location to build what became known as East Base. The buildings and artifacts here are now protected as a monument. Visitors can enter the main hut to experience something of what it would have been like to spend the dark and frozen winters on Stonington.
Later in the 1940s, the British chose the same small island for the location of their “Base E”. Again, visitors can enter the main hut and also the generator shed. Like the American base, there are other ancillary buildings that can’t be entered due to their status as protected monuments. There are permanent shutters on the windows of Base E, so your guide should provide you with torches if you venture inside.
In a solemn reminder of the harshness of the continent, there is also a gravesite where two expedition members are buried in coffins covered by simple stone cairns.
Stonington Island supports a colony of over 130 pairs of Antarctic Shags, as well as nesting sites for skuas and terns. As well as the landing there is a good Zodiac cruise around the island with the head of the nearby glaciers coming down from the polar plateau and to look out for seals and Adelie Penguins on the ice floes.
Later in the season fur seals and Humpback Whales can turn up at this southerly destination.
Tasiilaq & Kulusak
Tasiilaq is the largest town in south-east Greenland, close to the mouth of the rugged and long Sermilik Fjord. With the ice sheet just to the west the Sermilik glacier carves numerous icebergs. Kulusak is nearby and with an airport is popular with the short flight from Iceland.
Area good for the landscape, whale watching, the wildlife, and the flora.
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.
Torgersen Island is a very small, circular island only 450yds across. It’s part of the Palmer Archipelago and is at the entrance to Arthur Harbour on the southwest coast of Anvers Island.
It’s a popular site for breeding seabirds and Adelie penguins, but this small rock has a much larger, and more depressing, importance.
Although the current colony size of 3,000 breeding pairs seems large, since 1974 the Adelie population has reduced by over 60% due to the impact of climate change on the sea ice and snowfall patterns. An Adelie colony that was based on the neighboring Litchfield Island has disappeared completely in this time. Archeological surveys showed that penguins had been nesting there for over 600 years continuously, with up to 15,000 pairs in residence at a time. By 2007 they had all gone.
The island is very close to the American Palmer Station and it is divided into a Visitor Zone and a Restricted Zone. The Visitor Zone is for general access, whilst the Restricted Zone serves as a control site for scientific research related to human impacts. The Restricted Zone should not be entered, except in an emergency to access the emergency cache located on slopes opposite the landing site. Use the cache only in a genuine emergency and notify Palmer Station if anything is used.
Your expert Antarctic guides will show you the walking routes to take that will minimize any impact to the Adelie colony on Torgersen Island, as well as outlining the concerns that Antarctic scientists have about the continuing impact of climate change on the region’s wildlife.
This is a timely reminder of the necessity for change in the way humans live and use fossil fuels if we are to preserve the unique species and landscapes of the Antarctic. At Polartours we are playing our part in this story by carbon offsetting every polar cruise package we sell.
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.
Wordie House, Winter Island
Nestled onto the only flat part of Winter Island, Wordie House is a hut built in 1947. It was named by a British Antarctic expedition of the time after James Wordie, who was the chief scientist on Shackleton’s famous 1914 Antarctic exploration. Winter Island is less than 1,000 yards long and is one of the Argentine Islands off the coast of Graham Land.
Before it closed in 1954, the hut was used to take meteorological readings using instruments stored inside special screens, one of which still stands today. These readings were among the most important and longest set of weather data ever recorded about the Antarctic and helped scientists gain a greater understanding of the meteorology of the continent.
Wordie House was made a “Historic Site and Monument” in 1995 and has been looked after by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust since 2009. There are almost 500 original artifacts still on the site, including original cans of coffee, records, pots and pans, plates, and many more £everyday” items. This makes Wordie House a true time capsule from the golden age of Antarctic exploration and scientific research. The hut is now fully weathertight, and work continues on preserving this unique station.
Close to Wordie House there used to be the British Faraday base, the place where researcher's discovered the expanding Ozone hole. When the base was going to close, rather than dismantling this important and historic base (and one of the best bars in Antarctica!), it was given to the Ukraine for one pound!
Visits to Winter Island and Wordie House are managed by the nearby Ukrainian station Vernadsky, and you may well be briefed by the Base Commander or other official before you board your boats for the landing. The visit to Wordie House is often in conjunction with a visit to the base, and the chance to have a vodka and the impressive wooden bar.
The short Zodiac cruise between the two locations passes through some interesting gullies and the chance to check out seals and penguins on small ice floes.
Uniquely for such a historic site, visitors are allowed to roam freely under the supervision of their expert Antarctic guides. They will answer all your questions about the history of the hut, as well as the artifacts that you can find here.
Visitors to Winter Island can also expect to see seabirds such as skuas and kelp gulls, as well as seals and penguins. Humpback Whales are often seen in the more open waters close to the anchorage.