Southern Elephant Seal
Nothing can prepare you for the astonishing size of these amazing creatures!
What you need to know about the Southern Elephant Seal
Our Expert Says… "Rather than collecting harems as some people think, male Elephant seals are fighting over who controls the best bit of the beach as far as the females are concerned! This is because the females come into season a short time after their pups are weaned and those that are in "his patch" will be ready to accept his advances."
Southern Elephant Seals are a remarkable sight! The adult males can grow up to 5.7m (19ft) in length and weigh in at over 3,600kg (8,000lb)! The females, while still enormous by most standards, are dwarfed by these huge bulls, even though they themselves can be over 2.7m (9ft) long and weigh up to 860kg (1,900lb).
In fact, the Southern Elephant seal is the world’s largest non-cetacean marine mammal, and there are thought to be about 750,000 of them. They range throughout most of the southern oceans, feeding close to the Antarctic continent, but they travel to the subantarctic islands to breed.
One of the most important breeding areas is South Georgia Island, where over 110,000 breeding females have been counted. There is also a significant presence of Southern Elephant Seals in the Falkland Islands.
Their breeding season runs from August to November and starts with the huge bulls gathering on the breeding beaches to fight for control of areas which will become their harem when the females arrive. The males will be at their biggest, having put on huge reserves of blubber as an energy store as they will stay on the beach guarding their territory for the whole season. Males fight by squaring up to each other and using their massive weight to push and their sharp canine teeth to gouge each other. Despite sometimes deep and dramatic wounds, these fights are rarely fatal, the losing bull usually fleeing before it’s too late.
Adding yet another record to its haul, the Southern Elephant Seal is the deepest and longest diving of all non-cetacean marine mammals. SCientists using tracking devices have measured adult seals diving for over 20 minutes and reaching depths of over 7,000ft!
Despite their huge size, Southern Elephant Seals are not immune to predators. Even adults are hunted by orcas, and pups can be taken by leopard seals.
The population of Elephant seals is currently thought to be declining, despite their breeding areas being protected. It’s thought that climate change may be impacting the availability of their food supply and its ability to support a growing population.
Southern Elephant Seal: Pictures & Videos
Spots where the Southern Elephant Seal can be observed
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.
Bull Point is the most southerly point of either of the two main Falkland Islands. Sitting in the far south of East Falkland island, the point forms part of the western shore of the Bay of Harbours.
Most of Bull Point is used by North Ant Farm and actively grazed but its important flora and fauna led to it being declared an Important Bird Area (IBA). The tip of the point has been fenced off completely to allow a natural habitat to recover.
Surveys have revealed over 100 different plant species at the Point, more than half of which are considered to be rare. A particularly important species is Dusen’s Moonwort - only known to occur in two other places in the Falklands apart from Bull Point and nowhere else.
The rocky shore here protects kelp beds, and the sandy beaches are often visited by southern elephant seals and southern sea lions. There are also nesting sites for Gentoo and Magellanic penguins, as well as breeding colonies of ruddy-headed geese and Falkland steamer ducks.
Despite the name, Carcass Island off West Falkland is not a burial site, nor a place where whales were hauled ashore for processing. It is, in fact, a beautiful and unspoiled island some 6 miles long that was named after the ship that first mapped it, HMS Carcass in 1766.
Carcass Island lies in the northwest of the Falklands and has been a sheep farm for more than a century. Despite this commercialization, Carcass Island has been carefully and sympathetically managed for wildlife. Coupled with the fact that no rats or cats have ever been introduced here, it makes Carcass a haven for birdlife, including a number of species elusive on the larger islands, such as Cobb's Wren and the Blackish Cincloides or Tussacbird, and it is an important area for conservation and protection of species.
For a small island, it boasts several habitat types. From cliffs and rocky slopes in its northeast to sheltered sandy bays in the northwest, from 700ft uplands to tussac-rich coastal paddocks. Carcass Island is also home to one of the few areas of mature trees in the whole islands, winter storms tending to make large-scale tree growth difficult. These hardy plants aren’t native species, however, with some interesting varieties from places as far-flung as New Zealand and California.
The birdlife is the star of the show on Carcass. With no land predators, several freshwater ponds, and excellent habitat management, this designated Important Bird Area (IBA) is home to many species significant to conservation. These include black-crowned night herons, Falkland steamer ducks, ruddy-headed geese, black-browed albatrosses, and striated caracaras.
There is a healthy penguin population on Carcass, including gentoos, Magellanics, and southern rockhoppers. Seals are also a common sight in the waters around the island and hauled up on the sandy beaches, including fur and elephant seals. Dolphins and sea lions are also spotted here.
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.
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.
On the southeastern coastline of South Georgia Island, Gold Harbour is a small bay that leads up to the Bertrab Glacier, with a spectacular backdrop. Known as Puerto de Oro in Spanish, the Harbour was never named officially until the 20th century, but the name seems to have been in use by whalers and sealers and has become formally adopted.
The main theory behind the name Gold Harbour is that the cliffs around the bay shine yellow in the hour after sunrise and again before sunset. There’s no “gold in them thar hills”, but an alternative theory is that that whalers and sealers did financially very well out of the early years of exploitation.
Nevertheless, Gold Harbour is arguable one of the most beautiful places in the whole of South Georgia. As well as its stunning geology and spectacular illumination at sunrise and sunset, it’s also home to a huge amount of wildlife.
The beach here rings with the cries of king penguins, gentoo penguins, and elephant seals, all of whom like to breed in the sheltered bay. They aren’t the only ones, though. Wheeling across the skies in front of the hanging ice cliffs of the Bertrab Glacier are hundreds of pairs of sooty albatross, who come here every year to mate and raise their chicks.
Grytviken, Fortuna Bay
Grytviken only exists because of the whaling industry. It was opened as a whaling station in 1904 because Fortuna Bay was considered to be the best natural harbor in South Georgia. The site operated for almost 60 years and over 53,000 whale carcasses were landed and processed here.
Although founded by a Norwegian, the name “Grytviken” is actually Swedish! It means “Pot Bay” and was named by the Swedish survey expedition of 1902 because they found several old British try pots here - large vessels used to render down seal blubber.
The whaling station was abandoned in 1966 as uneconomical after stocks of whales in the region had dropped to critical levels due to over-hunting, and there are no permanent residents. However, a few officials do live here during the tourist season to manage the South Georgia Museum and the post office which is located here, that is fascinating place to visit, and even purchase some souvenirs
There is more famous Antarctic human history to discover at Grytviken. Just outside the settlement lies the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton, the famous Antarctic explorer, who died here from a sudden heart attack in 1922. There is also a marker next to his grave marking the spot where the ashes of his key crew member and fellow explorer Frank Wild were interred.
As well as the museum, Grytviken also has a church - remarkably still used for occasional services.
While most people come here for human history, the area is also great for wildlife and natural history doesn’t disappoint. Fortuna Bay is known for its large king penguin colonies and is a popular haul out for many elephant seals, as well as innumerable seabirds. Just watch out for the fur seals that may be resting amongst the whaling era debris.
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.
New Island - also known as Isla de Goicoechea in Spanish - is one of the Falkland Islands. A long, thin island with both steep cliffs and sandy bays, it’s 150 west of the Falkland’s capital, Stanley.
Despite its position on the westerly edge of the islands, New Island was one of the first to be visited and colonized. There is some evidence that whalers from America may have landed here as early as 1770. In 1813 a ship from Nantucket was wrecked here and the crew survived for two years before being rescued. They built a simple stone shelter which now forms part of the oldest building in the Falklands.
With stints as a base for guano miners and whaling companies, New Island proved to be uneconomical to exploit in these ways and was left for the wildlife to thrive. Now a wildlife reserve and registered Important Bird Area (IBA), New Island is a beautiful sanctuary for many Falklands and Antarctic species to breed and live.
Penguins, in particular, take advantage of the shallow beaches and rolling shores on the eastern coast. Five species can be seen here, including large breeding colonies of gentoo and southern rockhopper penguins. King penguins are also found here, as well as petrels, shags, dolphin gulls, Falklands skuas, and many more, with around 41 species breeding.
Sea lions and elephant seals can also be found hauled up on the beaches or swimming idly in the sheltered bays.
Northeast beach Ardley Island
Ardley Island is a small, rocky island about a mile long. It’s in Maxwell Bay, just off the coast of King George Island. It was first charted in 1935 by a British expedition but was mistaken for a headland. It was not until aerial surveys many years later that it was reclassified as an island.
Ardley Island is an active summer research station, and you will often see scientists and researchers at work here. The huts that you can see from the beach are part of the research station and not able to be visited.
The landing on the beach is just below the lighthouse, a distinctive feature that you will have spotted from out to sea. This gently sloping cobble beach is the only place that visitors can arrive on Ardley.
Visitor numbers are restricted due to the importance of the island as a breeding site for antarctic bird species.
During your excursion on the island, you will see a large gentoo penguin colony, as well as lesser numbers of Adelie and chinstrap penguins. You can also see southern giant petrels, Wilson's petrels, black-bellied storm petrels, Cape petrels, skuas, and Antarctic terns. The northeast beach of Ardley Island is a “must-visit” site for bird watchers!
Ocean Harbour, on South Georgia’s northeast coast, was once known as New Fortune Bay (indeed, its Spanish name is still Puerto Nueva Fortuna). By the 1950s, surveyors reported that it was known locally as Ocean Harbour, probably after the Ocean Whaling Company that once used the inlet as its base of operations on South Georgia. Because of the potential for confusion with nearby Fortuna Bay, its name was changed to the one in local usage.
Ocean Harbor has some notable human history, including a cemetery which contains the oldest grave on the island, that of sealer Frank Cabrial who was buried here in 1820. There are also old try pots still visible, used for the rendering of seal blubber.
More recent relics can be seen that date back to its time as a whaling station, including the remains of a narrow-gauge steam locomotive that was used to haul coal and supplies to and from the ships.
There’s also a wreck in Ocean Harbour - the Bayard. She was a three-masted, iron-hulled ship over 200ft long that broke free from her moorings during a storm in 1911 and wrecked on the other side of the harbor from the coaling station where she was tied up.
Now, in a sign of nature reclaiming the past, South Georgia Shags and Antarctic Terns can be seen nesting on the grass that grows in abundance on the rotting deck of this 1000 ton former coal hauler.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
Saunders Island (known in Spanish as Isla Trinidad) is in the northwest of the Falkland Islands group and is the 4th largest individual island with 50 square miles of land.
Saunders Island is geographically stunning, as well as rich with remarkable wildlife. The island is made up of three peninsulas that are joined by narrow necks of land. The three uplands towner over the necks, with the tallest, Mount Richards, being 1,500ft above the waves below. The views from the headlands are astonishing.
Saunders Island has been designated an Important Bird Area (or IBA) thanks to the large numbers of breeding species that make their homes here. The beaches and cliffs are home to four species of penguin with thousands of Gentoo, Rockhopper, Magellanic, King penguins - you can’t avoid hearing their raucous cries from all over the island! There also tend to be a few Macaroni Penguins and if you are lucky to see then you will have had a five penguin species day!
Other significant species to be found on Saunders include Falkland Steamer Duck, King Shag, Black-browed Albatross, the Striated Caracara (can be very inquisitive), Turkey Vulture, and a range of shorebirds, like the Magellanic Oystercatcher, to terrestrial birds from land birds from Dark-faced Ground Tyrants to the white-bridled finch. There are rats on the island so you do not tend to see the Blackish Cincloides or Tussacbird.
In the waters off the sandy shoreline, you can see the delightful Commerson’s dolphins - their black and white markings making them seem like miniature orcas - and even South American Sea Lions. Visiting Elephant Point will bring you face-to-face with the small colony of elephant seals that live here and gave their name to the beach. At the right time of year, if you are lucky, you might find southern right whales in the sheltered bays here feeding and resting before moving on.
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.
St. Andrew's Bay
Saint Andrews Bay (more usually abbreviated to St Andrews) is a bay on the eastern shore of South Georgia, part of the British Terriroty of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands.
This 2-mile wide bay is overlooked by Mount Skittle, an impressive 1,600ft rocky mountain that forms the northernmost point of the bay itself.
The use of Saint Andrews as the name for the bay can only be traced back to the early 20th century, but it’s highly likely that the first people to sight and map it were the British expedition led by Captain Cook in 1775.
St. Andrews Bay is renowned for its huge breeding colony of king penguins, thought to be over 150,000 strong. The sights and sounds of so many birds together is not to be missed in one of the most spectacular locations in South Georgia with the mountains as backdrop!
There is also a ridge (if you are able to reach it, sometimes there are too many moulting penguins in the way) that looks down over the main colony with breath taking views, and sounds!
Fur seals and southern elephant seals are also frequently seen here, both in the water and hauled up on the shores, and fur seals can make it quite a challenge getting ashore. The rugged, rocky backdrop to the bay makes for some stunning photographs, and really evokes the remoteness of South Georgia.
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.
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.
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!