Antarctica's only native "land" bird makes a living stealing from penguins
What you need to know about the Snowy Sheathbill
Our Expert Says… "Although often seen as a land bird, that's just an honorary title! It's very much ancestrally a seabird in the same way that gulls are. These are very curious and very forward birds, even landing on the side of Zodiacs and kayaks - or indeed on people's heads! Unfortunately, they produce copious quantities of guano and seem to like 'emptying the tanks' very frequently, so you might want to discourage any from perching too close!"
The snowy sheathbill is the only native Antarctic land bird and can be found in Antarctica, South Georgia, and the South Orkney Islands.
Unlike almost every other bird you will see on your Antarctic adventure, the snowy sheathbill doesn’t have webbed feet. It makes good use of the dexterity that toes give it as it’s a resourceful scavenger, known for its eclectic diet - snowy sheathbills really will eat almost anything!
They are most commonly found in among penguins at their nesting sites (also known as rookeries) where they make the most of the opportunity to steal the regurgitated fish meant for feeding the chicks. If given a chance, they will also eat penguin eggs and even chicks if they are unattended.
As consummate survivors, snowy sheathbills have also been witnessed eating carrion, animal droppings of all kinds, and human waste if they can access it.
Also known as the pale-faced sheathbill, these 38cm (15”) long birds are pure white, apart from their pale-pink face and darker beak. They also have irregular, warty growths between their eyes and beak.
Snowy Sheathbill: Pictures from our travelers
Spots where the Snowy Sheathbill 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.
Baily Head on Deception Island
Deception Island one of the South Shetland Islands off the Antarctic Peninsula. The island is actually the top of the cone (the caldera) of an active shield volcano that last erupted in 1969.
This flooded caldera makes a remarkable natural harbor, although Baily Head itself is on the eastern outer flank of the cone. The geography here makes a natural bowl in the landscape, with the long rocky beach leading up to a curving ridge above. To the north is an impressive glacier.
As you approach the beach at Baily Head you will begin to hear the amazing noise that a colony of over 200,000 chinstrap penguins can make! During the summer, the glacial melt stream allows them to create a penguin “highway” that the birds follow to and from the sea, hundreds moving back and forth at any time.
Your expert Antarctic guides will take you to the edge of the breeding groups, allow you to experience this remarkable sight without disturbing the birds.
Other regular visitors to the Head include Antarctic Fur Seals who regularly haul up on to the beach, with crabeater, elephant, Weddell, and leopard seals also sometimes being seen in the surrounding waters.
Overhead you will find skuas, petrels, and sheathbills, all of whom also like to nest in the sheltered rocks of Baily Head.
Barrientos Island is one of the Aitcho group of islands, a sub-set of the South Shetlands chain. It’s an ice-free island that was used as far back as the early 19th century by sealers and whalers, despite only a mile long, and less than a third of a mile wide. It was given its name in 1949 by a Chilean Antarctic expedition.
The northern coast of Barrientos is formed by steep cliffs about 230ft above the sea level. The east and west coasts are made up of black sand and pebble beaches. To the west, you can see impressive columns of basalt rock left over from the tectonic forces involved in the island’s formation.
Barrientos is very popular with penguins - and because it is so small sometimes it can feel pretty crowded! Gentoo and chinstrap penguins breed here, and in peak season one colony can end up right next door to the other, making for a seamless vista of penguin nests!
Other species that are commonly seen include fur seals (later in the year), as well as nesting colonies of southern giant petrels. Your expert Antarctic guides will ensure you get close enough for some amazing photos while staying far enough away that you don’t disturb the breeding creatures.
Bleaker Island (known as Isla Maria in Spanish) has had at least 3 changes of the name since the Falkland Islands were first discovered and colonized.
It was first named Long Island - a rather unimaginative title because that’s what it is, long and thin. Its name was changed to Breaker Island and it appeared like this on maps and charts until 1859, when a new chart was published with the name changed to Bleaker. What was probably a printing error has stuck ever since!
There was evidence that sealers had been using Bleaker Island as a base, but there was no permanent settlement attempted until 1880 when a house was built and a sheep farm set up. The island has been used for rearing ship ever since, and now has some cattle as well. It’s run as an organic farm and tourist destination, with stewardship of the land to allow both commercial farming and wildlife preservation at its heart.
A formally-designated Important Bird Area (or IBA), Bleaker Island is home to a large breeding colony of Imperial Cormorants more than 16,000 strong. Other species to be found here include Gentoo penguins who nest on the appropriately-named Penguin Hill above Sandy Bay. There are also Southern Rockhopper penguins to be found near Long Gulch and Magellanic penguin burrows are widespread.
There are also many smaller bird species here, including Falklands grass wrens and pipits, black-chinned siskins, and dark-faced ground-tyrants. There are also some birds of prey including southern caracaras.
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.
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.
Devil Island, Vega Island
Devil Island is well-named! This narrow, rocky island has a low valley in the middle, with two peaks at either end. This gives it an uncanny “devil’s horns” look! It’s found in the James Ross Island group of the Antarctic Peninsula. Its location in a small cove makes it popular with Antarctic wildlife.
Devil Island gives an opportunity for you to photograph some breathtaking views. From the landing site, you are greeted by some spectacular volcanic formations. From here, you can hike to the top of one of the peaks, which overlooks an Adelie penguin colony nestling below in a natural bowl formation.
But the star of the show here is the remarkable 360-degree viewpoint you get from the top. From the high vantage point, you might spot fur seals, crabeater seals, and a variety of seabirds. It really makes the short, but steep climb worth it. Your expert Antarctic guides will show you the way and point out any wildlife you may have missed.
Devil Island offers some stunning antarctic vistas that you don’t want to miss, so ensure your camera batteries are charged and spare memory cards are ready!
D’Hainaut & Trinity Island
D’Hainaut Island is a tiny rock island in Mikkelsen Harbour. It’s less than half a square mile in size, and it’s approached through a small bay that’s lined with dramatic cliffs of ice. It was first mapped by a French expedition in 1910.
The island often remains snow-covered until very late in the season, and the captain of your Antarctic cruise vessel will expertly navigate through the shallow reefs that are in the bay.
This island was used extensively for whaling, and there are artifacts and bones dotted around the island. D’Hainaut is one of the few Antarctic visitor sites where you can roam freely around the whole island, taking care not to disturb any of the artifacts and watching your step on the rocks, of course.
There is a small historic refuge here that was built originally by the Argentine Navy in the 1950s, then again in the 1970s, and most recently in 2017. However, the refuge can’t be entered except in emergencies.
There is also plenty of evidence of the whaling industry on the island. You can find the wrecks of several boats as well as many whale bones. There is a lively Gentoo penguin colony here, and you can often find Fur Seals basking in the sun.
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.
Elsehul Bay at the northwest extremity of South Georgia Island is known for two things - its remarkable numbers of seals, and its remarkable number of names!
At various times, and on various maps, it has been known as Elsehul, Else Cove, Elsie Bay, Elsa Bay, Else’s Hole, and (somewhat bucking the trend) Paddock’s Cove! It’s a small bay on the northern coast of South Georgia and is only half a mile wide.
Despite its small size, it is home to an abundance of wildlife including a large colony of Antarctic fur seals. As you arrive in the bay your ears will be ringing with the barks and cries of huge numbers of juvenile and adult seals.
Adding to the barrage are the cries from the seabirds that call Elsehul home, especially the King Penguins. Others that breed include Gentoo Penguins and Macaroni Penguins, Black-browed albatross, grey-headed and sooty albatrosses, and quite a few other seabirds, such as the South Georgia Shag and White-chinned Petrel. And since they eradicated the rat on South Georgia, it is a good spot for South Georgia Pintail and South Georgia Pipit.
The shore here is a patchwork of tussac grass and mud - so many seals moving around makes for some tricky conditions! Depending on the time of year you visit, the aggressive males may still be in the bay, or, if the mating season is ended, they may have left, leaving the pups and females in peace.
Georges Point, Rongé Island
Rongé Island is high and rocky. Some 5 miles long, it’s the largest of the islands that form the west side of the Errera Channel, off Graham Land.
Georges Point was first mapped in 1897 by the Belgian Antarctic Expedition and named after one of its members.
You land on a rocky beach that looks across to Cuverville Island. There is a penguin colony at one end that your expert Antarctic guides will guide you around, with lots of Gentoo Penguins and Chinstrap Penguins higher up. They will also take you on a carefully marked trail up to the higher ground behind the beach giving you a great view down over the concentrations of penguins along the shore, and the view over the bay towards Cuverville Island and the peninsula.
Later in the season there are also often Antarctic Fur Seals to be found at Georges Point on Rongé Island as well as plenty of sea birds. The rocky cliffs and height of the island make for some magnificent backdrops and great opportunities to capture the essence of the Antarctic in your photographs.
Goudier Island is a small, low-lying island of bare, polished rock just 100 yards from Jougla Point in Port Lockroy Harbour. It’s part of the larger Wiencke Island. Often surrounded by sea ice, any snow cover on the island usually melts away by the end of the summer.
Goudier is home to “Base A” - established by the British in wartime in 1944 - which was used as a scientific research station until the early 1960s.
After falling into disrepair, the station was restored in the 1990s and is now looked after by a Heritage Trust. The base is permanently occupied, and its inhabitants still conduct important survey work on the penguin colony for the British Antarctic Survey.
You will usually be briefed by the Base Leader before you land ashore, and only 35 visitors are allowed inside the Base at any time. This is to ensure the artifacts and the fabric of the base are preserved.
This “time capsule” gives a fascinating insight into the work and lives of early Antarctic research pioneers and how they lived on Goudier Island. Access to the rest of the island is usually restricted to marked paths, both to protect wildlife and because the surface is uneven and slippery. However, you will be able to observe the resident penguin colony, and can also spot other birds and seals on the shores and in the sea.
Half Moon Island
Half Moon Island is rugged and rocky and lies just off the Bergas Peninsula in the South Shetland Islands and it is a very popular spot as the either the first or last landing on an Antarctic Peninsula cruise. One side of Half Moon Island has steep, scree-covered slopes and cliffs down to the water, an ideal home to many Antarctic sea birds. The other parts of the island are characterized by pebble and boulder beaches leading to shallower slopes.
Visitor numbers are strictly controlled to ensure that the resident terns, gulls, and penguins aren’t disturbed, especially during their breeding seasons.
Your landing site is a cobbled beach where the remains of a whaling dory (a type of shallow, planked boat) can be seen.
As well as penguin colonies close to the shore, your Antarctic exploration guides will show you the Half Moon Island chinstrap penguin nesting sites near a navigation tower at the top of the hill, as well as the amazing Wilson’s Storm Petrel burrows that have been dug into the scree slopes here. Half Moon has also had a lone Macaroni penguin for a number of years, and others occasionally turn up here.
Your guides will also show you the areas where you can roam freely, always keeping an eye out for Fur Seals whose colors camouflage themselves against the rocks.
Half Moon Island is also home to the Argentinian Summer Antarctic Research Station. You may well spot scientists undertaking important surveys and research work during your visit.
The is also the stunning backdrop of the snow covered and rugged Livingstone Island with the tumbling glaciers.
Hannah Point is a dramatic peninsula on the south coast of Livingston Island in the South Shetlands. Its ridge forms the sides of two bays - Walker Bay and South Bay. The rocks climb steadily upwards to sheer cliffs and knife-edged ridges more than 160ft above the sea level. There are frequent rock falls, and your guides will point out the vein of jasper - a red mineral - that cuts through the cliffs here.
The area was used for hunting by 19th-century sealers, and the British Antarctic Survey has a base camp here known as Station P for the winter of 1957.
The Hannah Point area is rich with antarctic wildlife. Elephant seals haul out and travel to a clifftop wallow pool where they can oversee their domain. Antarctic fur seals are also frequent visitors. Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins breed here (and a few Macaroni Penguins) and Kelp gulls are almost always wheeling overhead.
Other bird species you will encounter are snowy sheathbills, blue-eyed shags, giant petrels, and skuas. There is sometimes such an abundance of wildlife here that you may have to wait for a suitable gap to open on the beach before you can land!
There s also an elephant seal haul out close to one of the paths and it is important to listen to the guides about the approach and not to disturb the resting seals.
Found at the western end of Wiencke Island in Port Lockroy, Jougla Point is a very rocky peninsula with many small coves. It was first mapped in 1903 by a French Antarctic expedition and forms the entrance to Alice Creek.
The approach to the point is nothing short of dramatic! You will have stunning views of glaciers, snow cornices, and steep, crevassed snowfields as you enter the harbor.
Your landing here will be against rocks on the northeastern end of the point. Like many bays and coves in the area, Jougla Point has artifacts and remains from the whaling industry. You will see whale bones at the sites where the carcasses were dragged ashore for processing.
There are also the remains of the anchoring points for the radio mast that was put up the British in WWII, when stationed at Port Lockroy as part of Operation Tabarin.
Your expert Antarctic guides will take you along Jougla Point to observe the Gentoo penguin colony as well as the Antarctic hag nesting areas. Other wildlife you can observe are kelp gulls and skuas, with seals also a frequent sight.
You will be able to roam freely around the beach area to observe and photograph, with your guides on hand to answer any questions you may have and to ensure visitors keep away from any closed breeding areas.
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.
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.
Penguin Island was first recorded in 1820 during a British expedition. It was so-named because of the vast numbers of penguins that could be seen along its shoreline from the ship as it passed by.
Penguin Island lies just off the south coast of the much bigger King George Island. It’s ice-free and is oval-shaped, some 1 mile long. It’s one of the smaller South Shetland Islands and it’s also known as Georges Island, Île Pingouin, Isla Pingüino, and Penguin Isle in various books and charts.
Its standout geological feature is the 560ft tall Deacon Peak - a volcanic cone that is thought to have last been active about 300 years ago.
Penguin Island is an internationally-recognized important area for birds. As well as colonies of Adelie and Chinstrap penguins, the island is also home to large breeding colonies of southern giant petrels, Antarctic terns, and kelp gulls.
You can often see Weddell seals and sometimes southern elephant seals on the beaches here, too.
For those feeling fit, there is a marked path that will take you up to the top of Deacon Peak. This offers unparalleled views over the whole island and beyond across King George Bay. Do note, however, that this part of the Antarctic is known for its quickly changing weather, so if the opportunity to take this walk safely presents itself, take it!
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.
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.
Prion Island, like many places in the Antarctic, was named after what was first seen there. In this case, during an expedition of 1912, the island was named because the naturalist Robert Cushman Murphy noted the large numbers of prions he found here.
The prion is a small petrel also sometimes known as a whalebird, and they get their unusual name because of their saw-tooth bill - the word prion in greek means “saw”.
Prion Island sits in the 9-mile-wide Bay of Isles off the northern coast of South Georgia. It is only 1.5 miles in length but it has been designated a Specially Protected Area in its entirety. Because it has always been rat-free, birds can raise their young here without fear of their nests being raided by non-native scavengers. Because of the need to protect the wildlife, there are strict restrictions on visitor numbers, and only 50 people per day are allowed ashore during the season when Prion Island is open to visitors, so guests are often split between going ashore, doing a really good Zodiac cruise, and sometimes with being onboard ship. You’ll also find that your naturalist guides will ensure that no one is carrying anything on to the island that could harbor an invasive species.
To protect the native flora and to avoid damage to petrel and prion burrows, the South Georgia authorities have built a boardwalk, and you will be required to stay on it at all times during your visit. Don’t worry, though, as the animals seem to have decided that they enjoy using it too and nest and feed right up to its edge, so you’ll have plenty of close encounters!
Another important species that breeds here is the wandering albatross. Indeed, Prion Island is such an important breeding center for them that the whole island is closed to visitors between 20th November and 7th January each year to allow them to pair off without disturbance. This time also coincides with the breeding season for Antarctic fur seals who also benefit from the seclusion.
Other species you can find on Prion Island include South Georgia Pipits and South Georgia Pintails, snowy sheathbills, skuas, Antarctic terns, and gentoo penguins.
Salisbury Plain (known as Llanura de Salisbury in Spanish) is a large coastal flat plain leading to the Bay of Isles, off the northern coast of South Georgia.
Although this area of the coast of South Georgia was discovered by Captain James Cook in the 1770s, there were no detailed maps made of the region until a British Admiralty survey of the 1930s. A chart produced in 1931 is the first time this area was named, and it’s likely to be named after the “original” Salisbury Plain, a grassy, chalk plateau in southern England used for military training and home to Stonehenge.
The Salisbury Plain in South Georgia was formed by the glacial runoff from the nearby Grace Glacier. This glacier was named by American ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy for his wife during his expedition of 1912.
Salisbury Plain is world-famous for its remarkable king penguin breeding colony. In 1912, Cushman estimated there were 350 pairs here. Now one of the world’s largest gathering of king penguins, official estimates are as high as 100,000 breeding pairs nesting here in peak season. Seeing the Plain filled with these regal birds is one of the highlights of any trip to South Georgia and to the sub-Antarctic.
Not to be outdone by the king penguins, southern elephant seals and Antarctic fur seals also use Salisbury Plain to raise their young and can also be seen in good numbers.
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.
Turret Point is well-named! As you approach this part of King George Island you will see the unmistakable rock “stacks” which made this the obvious name to be chosen when the point was first mapped in 1937 by a British exploration mission.
King George Island is the largest of the South Shetland Islands, and Turret Point is on its south coast. Its remarkable landscape is formed by the glacier that is the backdrop to the gently sloping landing beach here. Its impressively gnarled and crevassed front makes a stunning backdrop to the wildlife activity here.
The beach is extremely popular with Antarctic bird species. Two species of penguin breed, Chinstrap and Adelie Penguins, and the area is frequented by giant petrels, Antarctic 'blue-eyed' shags, and kelp gulls. Elephant seals can often be seen wallowing in the shallows here, and fur seals are numerous in the latter part of the season.
You will be able to walk up to the face of the glacier, and your expert guides will lead you along the melt stream bed, to avoid trampling the fragile Antarctic flora that grows here at Turret Point.
Penguin Island, another popular landing, is just to the south.
The Yalour Islands (also sometimes called Jalour Islands) are a 1.5-mile long group of small islands and protruding rocks off Cape Tuxen in Graham Land. The islands were discovered and named in 1903 by the French Antarctic expedition led by Charcot.
Most of the Yalour Islands are steep-sided or unsuitable for landing due to sea conditions, but the largest island has some cobbled beaches where you can put ashore.
Visitors come here to make the short climb up from the beach to the Adelie penguin breeding colonies. There are thought to be around 8,000 breeding pairs of Adelies in the Yalour Islands, and they have nested on every bit of rock they can find that’s not snow-covered. It makes for an amazing sight as you come in to land on the beach!
Photographic opportunities here are excellent. The high mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula form a stunning backdrop to shots of the Adelie nest sites. Your expert guides will lead you around, showing you the best sites, and answering all your questions about the penguins and their lives.
As Adelie Penguins have decreased in numbers just to the north at locations like the Petermann Islands, the Yalour Islands have become a popular location to see this species. Even if it is a challenge to get ashore with the swell, or, the snow banks earlier in the season, the colonies are easily observed from a Zodiac. The area can be a good spot for seals, and for Humpback Whales offshore.
This wonderful natural harbor is surrounded by glaciers. It’s an almost perfect safe anchor for ships, which is why it was used by sealers for many years. You enter Yankee Harbour via Shopski Cove, which is between Spit Point and Glacier Bluff on Greenwich Island. You can also look across McFarlane Strait towards Half Moon Island and glaciers and the snow cap across the peaks of Livingstone Island, one the most spectacular islands in the South Shetlands.
Yankee Harbour was used by both American and British sealers from the 1820s onwards. The British called it Hospital Cove. There’s a commemorative plaque here that celebrates Captain Andrew MacFarlane who explored much of the Antarctic Peninsula in 1820.
The other great attraction here is the large Gentoo penguin colony, with over 4,000 breeding pairs making Yankee Harbor their home.
The landing beach here is terraced, and there is a melt-pool from the glacier on the eastern end. Depending on the conditions and breeding status of the penguins, some longer walks in the area are possible along the curved gravel spit.
As well as the penguins, skuas often nest here - their feathers camouflaging them against the rocky ground. Your guides will make sure you don’t step on any accidentally!