One of the smallest of the whales, you may be lucky to find one bow-riding your Zodiac!
What you need to know about the Minke Whale
Our Expert Says… "When I'm guiding I let people know about the Minke whale's habit of surfacing two or three times before diving deep to feed. If you see one come to the surface, keep looking - you'll likely get another one or two opportunities for a good sighting and a photo. They are untroubled by the Zodiacs and you can often find yourself among them as they take a break before the next feeding dive."
Minke whales are divided into two species - the common minke whale (also known as the northern minke whale) and the Antarctic minke whale (sometimes called the southern minke whale). The name is of Norwegian origin and possibly relates to a whaler called Meincke, although this isn’t certain.
Minke whales are one of the smallest of the whales, with adults averaging around 7.6m (25ft) in length and weighing about 5 tons. They are dark grey to black in color on top, with the underside being white. The common minkes of the north have a band of white across each pectoral fin. They are baleen whales, which means they use special plates in their mouth to filter their prey out of seawater before swallowing it.
Minkes are migratory, and each population will make its way towards the poles in the spring to feed before returning to more tropical waters in the winter to mate and calve. It’s thought that the differences in seasons between the northern and southern hemispheres are what has kept the two species distinct.
Minke whales are a favorite prey of orcas, and as they have no form of defense their only option is to flee. More often than not the minke will not escape.
The minke population is, overall, stable and common minkes are listed as being of “least concern”. However, the Antarctic minke is currently listed as “near threatened”, although a 2004 survey estimated the southern population to be over 500,000 individuals.
On Antarctic expeditions, minke whales are often spotted by groups from Zodiacs as you make your way from your expedition vessel to landing sites.
Minke Whale: Interesting facts
It was only recently that the Antarctic Minke Whale was recognised as a separate species, based on morphological differences.
Minke Whales are still hunted for the meat in certain parts of the World, and where there has bene the opposition of groups like Greenpeace. In regard to so called scientific whaling, we know a lot about the morphology of dead minkes, but surprisingly little about the life history in the wild.
Minke Whale: Pictures from our travelers
Spots where the Minke 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.
This 150-mile long channel between Chile and Argentina leads from Ushuaia towards the open Southern Ocean.
It's only 3 miles wide at its narrowest point, giving you some spectacular scenery as your ship navigates its way to or from the ocean. You can spot rare local dolphins here, as well as a huge variety of sea and shorebirds.
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.
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.
Kongsvegen and Kongsbreen
The inner part of Kongsfjorden is popular for ship cruising and especially Zodiac cruising with the mountain scenery, some impressive glacier fronts, and the chance to explore the ice floes looking for wildlife, and the chance of a bear.
Also keep a look out for Long tailed Jaegers, one of the few places they breed in Svlbard is on the island of Ny London in the middle of Kongsford. A number of lakes and pools in the region can attract a range of waterbirds.
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.
The largest glacier on Spitsbergen that flows into the NW sector of Storfjorden with the longest front to any glacier in Svalbard where it reaches the sea.
With numerous carvings it is almost impossible for a ship to get close for a ship to get close, apart from the northern end, but it makes for a stunning Zodiac cruise with the ice cliffs, the icebergs, and the brash ice. As well as looking out for wildlife the area is known for its stunningly beautiful blue icebergs.
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.
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.
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!
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.
This large fjord, and the associated Bockfjorden and Liefdefjorden in northern Spitsbergen, becomes accessible as the pack retreats. It is great for ship cruising, enjoying the scenery, and to look out for bears along the extensive coastline.
Flexibility is key with the chance of bears and changing weather conditions, but with plenty of choices in this large fjord complex. Zodiac cruises are popular, including Monacobreen glacier at the end of Liefdelfjorden, and the islands of Andøyane, a great area for a range of birds, including King Eider. There are also options for landings. The large and impressive wooden hut at Mushamna on the NE side of Woodfjorden. The small hunter’s cabin known as the Texas Bar in Liefdefjorden. The ‘thermal spring’ at Jotunkjeldane in Bockfjorden.