South Orkney Islands | Polartours
South Orkney Islands

South Orkney Islands

A remote Antarctic archipelago

Information about South Orkney Islands

The South Orkney islands are located in the Scotia Sea at the North-Eastern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. They consist of 4 main islands that are mountainous and sometimes have a rich green color. However, the South Orkney Islands are rarely visited on Antarctic cruises because of their remote location.

Pictures of South Orkney Islands

South Orkney Islands
South Orkney Islands

Highlights in South Orkney Islands

Paulet Island

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.

Elephant Island

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.

Saunders Island

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.

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Carcass Island

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.

Stanley

Stanley (sometimes called Stanley) is the capital of the Falkland Islands and is quintessentially British - albeit reminiscent of a Britain from yesteryear.

But there’s something remarkable about seeing the red “telephone boxes” and signs for “fish n chips” sitting in a landscape that’s more like Patagonia than the pastoral English countryside.

Stanley is home to 70% of the Falklands’ population, about 2,500 people. There’s a gentle pace to life here, but if there’s a cruise ship or two in the harbor then it can feel quite lively! As well as pubs and “chippies” there are some definite signs that you’re not in Europe. Visit Christ Church Cathedral, opened in 1892, and you’ll enter through an arch built from the jaws of two huge blue whales.

A stroll to Victory Green in central Stanley will bring you face to face with a mizzen mast from the original SS Great Britain. Brunel built the world’s first propeller-driven iron ship in 1843, and it was badly damaged by gales when rounding Cape Horn in 1886, limping back to the Falkland Islands where it lay abandoned for almost a century.

Walk down Pioneer Row and you’ll see the original settlers’ cottages, not only still standing but in perfect condition. Originally shipped the 8,000 miles from the UK as kits, they were erected quickly by the first settlers to provide warmth and shelter from the sometimes forbidding weather.

But no matter what other unique and unusual sites you see in this southern hemisphere town, the Union Jack flags flying and the garden gnomes in gardens won’t let you forget that this is a piece of Britain at the edge of the Antarctic.

You can also see a lot of wildlife in and around Stanley. Also consider going to Gypsy Cove and walking all the way back to Stanley following the shoreline, a 'tour' option many ships will offer.

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Prion 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.

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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.

Arrival at Ushuaia

Welcome to Ushuaia. It's official, you have arrived at the world's most southerly city with the evocative motto "End of the World, Beginning of Everything".

Over 50,000 people call Ushuaia home. Its unusual name derives from the language of the Yaghan people, indigenous to the Tierra del Fuego region, and translates as "deep bay".

The city was formally founded in 1884 after a small settlement and a prison had been built there in the years before, but by 1893 the population was still less than 150 thanks to a series of epidemics and the remote location. The prison population began to grow as it was used to house dangerous and repeat offenders. In effect, for the first 50 years of the city's existence, the prisoners became forced colonists, helping to build up the town and to secure the Argentine claims to the Tierra del Fuego region.

Today, Ushuaia is a busy port and a hub for adventure travel to the Antarctic and South Atlantic. Lying below the lovely snow-capped Martial Mountains, the city has grown in a rather jumbled way, expanding from its sole main street and waterfront thanks to an increase in tourism and travel.

If you want to relax before your Antarctic adventure, then a stroll along the waterfront - pausing for a selfie in front of the "end of the world" sign, of course! - is a pleasant way to spend your time. If you're feeling more energetic there are many options for hiking, biking, and boat rides into Beagle Channel. You can even take spectacular helicopter tours!

In town, there are plenty of restaurants, shops, and a recent boom in craft beers means there are several places now vying for the title of the world's most southerly brewery!

Weddell Island

Weddell Island claims to be the largest privately owned island in the world, at over 102 square miles. It’s also the third largest of all the Falkland Islands, and the largest of the outer islands. It was named after British explorer James Weddell, after whom the Weddell Sea in Antarctica was also named.

Weddell Island was historically run as a farm, but farming activity declined in the 20th century. Recent owners have begun to return the island to sustainable farming as well as managing the habitats for wildlife and replanting native tussac grasses where birds in particular love to nest.

As well as a range of birds and marine mammals typical of the Falklands, and, one interesting creature to be seen here is the tiny Patagonian Grey Fox. Distinctly not a native species, these foxes were introduced to the island in the 1930s by an eccentric previous owner who also brought with him skunks, rheas, and parrots! Only the foxes remain, and although they do prey on very young lambs, their future on the island has still not been decided.

Weddell Island is a very important plant habitat for the Falklands. It contains more than 60% of all the native Falkland plant species, including some very rare species. The birdlife here is also prolific and plays host to most of the Falklands species as well as some occasional visitors from South America. Gentoo and Magellanic penguins are resident, and another 54 species have so far been recorded on Weddell.

The whole island is open for exploration, and you are welcome to either stay close to the small settlement to enjoy the views or to hike across the island in the hope of spotting some of its rarer bird species.

Westpoint Island

Well-named West Point Island is one of the furthest points in the northwest of the Falklands archipelago. Known originally as Albatross Island (and Isla Remolinos in Spanish), this 5.5 square miles of grassy rock has some of the most stunning scenery to be found in the islands.

West Point is a working sheep farm and is owned by the Napier family, who will warmly welcome you to their home, and it is a very popular site to visit. As its original name implies, you can walk ross the island to be be welcomed by the calls and shrieks from the huge colony of black-browed albatross that live here. In fact, more than two-thirds of the world’s entire albatross population breed here in the Falklands!

You are able to follow a path through the tussock grass right next to the colony that is actually a mixture of Black-browed Albatross and Southern Rockhopper Penguins, the penguins nesting between the raised nests of the albatross colony. It is a superb location to observe these two iconic Falklands species up close.

Magellanic Penguin also breed nearby and other notable bird species include Striated Caracaras, Cobb's Wrens, Blackish Cinclodes, and White-bridled finches. In fact, there are so many important species here that West Point Island has been formally listed as an Important Bird Area (IBA).

The other thing you’ll get on West Point is fantastic Napier hospitality! Your group will be welcomed with traditional tea, cake, and biscuits as well as an invitation to walk around the island gardens.

Bleaker Island

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.

Whalers Bay

A very popular destination, Whalers Bay is a small natural harbor on Deception Island, one of the South Shetland Islands. An active volcano, the crater forms a natural sheltered inlet that was historically used by sealers and then whalers from the 1820s. The geography makes it a perfect place for ships to shelter in rough weather, and Whaler’s Bay contains some of the most significant whaling artifacts and remains to be found in the whole of Antarctica.

As your ship sails through the narrow “break” in the volcanic caldera known as Neptune's Bellows, the wide, circular beach of Whaler’s Bay is found to the right. The beach runs uninterrupted for one and a quarter miles and was used as a runway in the 1950s and 1960s when the site was the main hub of British Antarctic air movements. The hangar that was built in 1960 can be visited at the northern end of the beach where you can also see a roller that was used to maintain the runway.

At the southern end of the beach are large, rusted oil tanks, and behind them are buildings from the period 1906 to 1931. There was a significant whaling industry here, with the sheltered and shallow beach making it an ideal place to land whale carcasses and process them.

While you explore all this remarkable human history, please remember that you are standing on an active volcano! The instruments you may see around the beach in the Whalers Bay area are seismic monitors, and the island is monitored for activity 24 hours a day. The last eruption was in 1969, and this was responsible for some of the mudflows and damage to the buildings and metal tanks that you see here. It creates a very eerie derelict industrial landscape, in Antarctica, even bleaker with the black volcanic cinder.

No penguins breed, but small numbers of Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins turn up on the beach and they can be surprisingly inquisitive. Later in the season you might encounter fur seals who have hauled out to rest and watch the humans. Other birds to look out for include Cape Petrels, giant petrels, skuas, Antarctic terns, and Kelp Gulls, that take the chance to feed on the krill and other prey stunned in the hot waters.

Guests often take the polar plunge here with the warmer layer of water with the heat from the steaming volcanic sands. There is also the walk up to the viewpoint at Neptune's window.

Pendulum Cove

Pendulum Cove is a small bay on the northern side of the natural harbor formed by the flooded cone of the live volcano that is Deception Island. One of the South Shetland Islands, Deception offers several visitor points, of which Pendulum Cove is definitely worth a visit.

The cove came by its unusual name as it was named by the British expedition of Henry Foster in 1829. The site here was used by the explorers to take magnetic measurements as well as studying the movement of pendulums this close to the south pole. It was one of these experiments that gave the cove its name.

If setting foot on the other sites on Deception Island doesn’t feel like you are standing on an active volcano, Pendulum Cove will remind you! In places here, water heated by geothermal activity can reach 160F. Your expert Antarctic guide will show you safe areas where hot water mixes with the cold Antarctic seawater to provide a most unusual polar “spa” experience. It’s warm while you are in the water, but you might regret it when it’s time to get out and get dry!

There are Gentoo and chinstrap penguins on the beach, and they don’t seem to mind sharing their warm water with human visitors - just remember that in Antarctica, wildlife has the right of way!

This part of the volcanic crater was hit hardest by the last eruption in 1969. There is a historic site here, the remains of Chilean research station Base Aguirre Cerda that was overwhelmed. The twisted, rusting fragments of the remains can be viewed from a safe distance. A somber reminder of the forces still at work under your feet.

You may well see scientists at work and come across instruments. These are part of the real-time monitoring of seismic activity on Deception Island and Pendulum Cove in particular.

Animals in South Orkney Islands

Our trips to South Orkney Islands

Price
Minimum Price

USD 3800

Maximum Price

USD 26000

Duration (days)
Minimum Days

5

Maximum Days

26