The beautiful, snow-white traveler that has visited the South Pole
Information about Snow Petrel
Our Expert Says… "When you travel through areas with lots of sea ice you will often see these lovely birds flying around your ship and your Zodiacs. Your guides will usually give a call on the public address system onboard so that everyone has the opportunity to come out on deck and appreciate the amazing site of Snow Petrels in large numbers."
The iconic Snow Petrel was first described by a naturalist sailing with Captain Cook’s expedition of 1777. It’s very distinctive because it is, indeed, snow-white over its entire body except for its black eyes and bill, and pale blue feet.
The snow petrel holds the distinction of being one of only three birds observed flying over the geographic South Pole - the other two species are the Antarctic petrel and the polar skua.
Snow petrels have a wingspan of only 75cm (30”) or so, and their flight involves more fluttering than their larger cousins as they are unable to generate as much lift for gliding. They tend to flock together, and it’s not usual to see groups of snow petrels perched on icebergs!
They have established breeding colonies on the Antarctic Peninsula and on several of the Antarctic islands. Despite the large overall population (thought to be some 4 million strong), snow petrels don’t congregate in huge breeding colonies like some other seabirds. They make nests in rocky crevices or other sheltered spots, and lay their eggs in December.
Like other petrels and fulmars, snow petrels make a waxy stomach oil that they use to feed the chicks, and also to sustain themselves on long overwater flights. They can also projectile vomit this strong-smelling liquid at predators as a defense mechanism! Their main diet consists of small fish, krill, and other crustaceans, as well as carrion if the opportunity presents itself.
There are few predators that adult snow petrels need to be concerned about, but like many other seabirds, their chicks are vulnerable to being killed and eaten by aggressive scavengers like brown skuas.
Pictures of Snow Petrel
Highlights where the Snow Petrel can be seen
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.
Brown Bluff is a great example of a “tuya” - a volcano that has been flattened by erupting through a glacier! These are the rarest of all volcano types and only found in areas that have seen large-scale glaciation in the past.
Brown Bluff with its distinctive “tabletop” look, lies on the Tabarin Peninsula, in the northernmost part of the Antarctic Peninsula, and on landings when there is little snow, with the rock formations it is easy to think you are in Colorado rather than Antarctica!
The landing beach here is made of pebbles and volcanic ash, rising quickly towards steep reddish-brown cliffs. The cliffs are embedded with “volcanic bombs” - large pieces of lava that were thrown out during an eruption, cooling in the air to land as solid spherical or oval shapes.
As well as the fascinating geology, the other star of the show is the birdlife. Brown Bluff is home to over 20,000 breeding pairs of Adelie penguins, as well as a small colony of gentoo penguins. And long lines of penguins walk along the beach to the preferred location to get into the water - away from areas where Leopard Seals may be hiding in hidden gullies offshore. Other breeding residents for what is landing on the main peninsula, include storm petrels, Cape petrels, Snow Petrels and Kelp gulls.
Weddell seals often haul out on the beach here, and it’s also common to see Leopard seals hunting in the waters close to the shore.
Cape Royds is a rocky strip of land that marks the westernmost point of Ross Island in McMurdo Sound. It was discovered, mapped, and named by the British expedition of 1901. Charles Royds was the expedition’s meteorologist.
Cape Royds has two claims to fame that draw Antarctic explorers. The first is that it is home to the world’s most southerly breeding colony of Adelie penguins. The unique conditions in McMurdo sound mean that there is always some open water among the ice that allows them easy access to fish, hence their presence so far south.
The other aspect that draws people here is a human one - Shackleton’s hut. Shackleton entered McMurdo Sound in 1908 and sought somewhere to take refuge for the winter where his team might have a chance of surviving. Cape Royds is where they overwintered.
When spring arrived, and the expedition was ready to go further afield, the hut was stocked with sufficient provisions and equipment to enable 15 men to survive for a whole year if needed. A note was left explaining where everything was located and then the hut was left.
Today, the inside of the hut is like a time capsule from the early 20th century. It’s quite eerie to realize that you will enter a space that would still be instantly recognizable to the men who lived here over 110 years ago. The hut at Cape Royds still held some secrets, though - in 2006 a whole case of whisky was found buried under the hut! It’s now in a museum being preserved.
Cooper Bay is a small inlet containing Cooper Island at the very southeast end of South Georgia island. It was first mapped and named by Captain Cook’s 1775 expedition. From this small bay, you will get a commanding view of Cooper Island itself whose 1,300ft summit is always above the snowline, giving some stunning polar vistas even in the height of Antarctic summer.
Cooper Island is heavily protected for wildlife and it is a haven for bird species that love to nest in the tussac grass that covers the island, from the South Georgia Pintail and Pipit, to the Light-mantled Sooty Albatross and the South Georgia Shag. It is also home to four species of penguin, attracting Leopard Seals, and Cooper Island has the largest Chinstrap colony on South Georgia and is one of the more accessible places to see the Macaroni Penguin.
Fur seals and elephant seals also breed and also watch out for black-browed albatross, as well as Antarctic prions and snow petrels hunting for food offshore.
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.
Mawson’s Huts and Cape Denison
Cape Denison is at the eastern edge of the Australian Antarctic Territory at the head of Commonwealth Bay. The peninsula is mostly free of ice and made up of a series of rocky valleys and ridges.
The importance of the Cape to Antarctic human history lies in the collection of buildings known as Mawson’s Huts. These were built and lived-in during an Australian Antarctic Expedition that ran from 1911 to 1914, led by the explorer and geologist Sir Douglas Mawson.
The huts that now bear his name are very rare, being only one of six sites that still remain from the so-called “heroic era” of Antarctic exploration. There are several buildings that were constructed to house scientific instruments, including taking magnetic readings and astronomical observations. There was also a radio hut - the first time radio transmission was used in the Antarctic.
The main hut at Cape Denison has undergone some preservation work but snowfall can still often get inside. Because of the delicate nature of the hut, only 4 people at any time are allowed inside. There you can find an amazing time capsule from the early 20th century, including the cast-iron stove, bottles, jars, cans, and other everyday items. Some of the storage shelves have the names of the men who placed their belongings there written on them with the date - still legible after 120 years.
Apart from Mawson’s Huts, Cape Denison is a popular spot for breeding wildlife. Weddell seals can often be seen with pups during the breeding season, and there are also bird colonies including skuas, petrels, and penguins.
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.
Paulet Island is a striking sight. This circular rock is only 1 mile in diameter, yet it has a volcanic cone that rises to over 1100 feet at its center. It’s found about 3 miles from Dundee Island at the northern end of the Antarctic Peninsula.
First mapped in 1839, Paulet Island is home to a huge penguin colony. Some 100,000 breeding pairs of Adelie penguins live here, a truly remarkable sight and sound! You will also see other sea birds on your visit, including shags, snow petrels, and kelp gulls.
Another fascinating aspect of Paulet Island is the historic shelter that dates back to 1903. The expedition ship on the Nordenskjöld expedition - the Antarctica (after which the Antarctic Sound is named) - was crushed by the ice pack, and survivors of the wreck reached Paulet built a stone hut to shelter them from the harsh winter conditions. There is also a cairn built on the highest point of the island that they used to attract attention for any rescue. There is also a grave marker for one expedition member who sadly did not survive.
Because Paulet Island is so densely packed with wildlife, visitors will be escorted in small groups by experienced Antarctic guides. This ensures that the breeding birds are disturbed as little as possible and that the shelter site is protected.
Fur seals are often also seen on the shores here. In the peak breeding season, you may find that some of the walking trails around the island are closed due to the sheer numbers of wonderful creatures that choose to raise their young here.
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.
Seabee Hook, Cape Hallett
Seabee Hook is a large, unusually flat spit of land made of volcanic ash and rock. It pushes out about half a mile from Cape Hallet, off the coast of Victoria Land.
Its unusual name is derived from the initials CB (pronounced “Seabee”) which stands for Construction Battalion - referring to naval engineers who surveyed the site for a possible base in the 1950s. It’s called a Hook because it’s shape is very much like that of a billhook.
It has been used now and again since the first survey as a base for exploration or scientific discovery, but this caused the resident Adelie penguin colony to suffer.
In what has become an Antarctic “good news” story, since the base was dismantled and the Hook turned into a protected area, the Adelies are bouncing back, and scientists regularly monitor them to try and ensure the recovery continues.
Because of the fragility of the colony, there are strict rules in place to make sure no contaminants are brought onto the Hook by visitors, so be prepared to have your boots carefully cleaned before coming ashore here!
As well as the Adelies, watch out for south polar skua nests - another species that takes advantage of this curiously-shaped spit.
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!
Our trips to spot the Snow Petrel