An Adelie penguin colony tells a sobering tale about climate change
Information about Torgersen Island
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.
Interesting facts about Torgersen Island
Many guests would like to visit Palmer Station, particularly Americans, but only a handful of visit are allowed each season.
The location is just to the south of the Lemaire Channel at the 'start' of the SW section of the peninsula. It has always been a good area for visiting Adelie Penguin colonies, but they have almost disappeared at several sites in this area, including other locations like Petermann Island.
With climate change and sea ice disappearing earlier in the season, it would appear that Gentoo Penguins are expanding further south and slowly expanding, whilst Adelie Penguins are retreating. Luckily, not that far to the south, close to the Ukrainian Vernadsky base, they still breed in good numbers in the Yalour Islands.
Pictures of Torgersen Island
Highlights Close to Torgersen Island
Detaille Island is a small island in the Lallemand Fjord, part of the Arrowsmith Peninsula in Graham Land. It’s not much more than a rocky outcrop with gravel beaches, but it contains one of the best-preserved historic monuments in the Antarctic.
Detaille was home to “Base W” of the British Antarctic Survey. It was constructed in 1956 and was in use until 1959 when it was closed. Due to bad weather, the supply ship that was sent to take the men and equipment off the island couldn’t get any closer than 30 miles away. This meant that the men had to leave very quickly and with only the personal belongings that they could carry so the ship could depart as quickly as possible.
Because of these circumstances, Base W is almost completely intact. As you look around the hut you will be greeted with the eerie sight of tables still set out with condiments, shelves stacked with tin and jars, and everyday equipment like washing machines, tools, and even and bottles of gin and whisky (empty!). Longjohns and coats are half discarded, with magazines open on the tables, as they were left when the base was abandoned!
Preserved by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust, this is a remarkable insight into the early post-war scientific explorations of this amazing continent, and it makes Detaille Island and Base W a “must-visit” on any Antarctic itinerary.
It is also a good location for a Zodiac place with the 'deep south' scenery (it is just south of the Antarctic Circle), the ice, and to look out for seals and Adelie Penguins.
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.
Horseshoe Island is well named. The 3000ft high peaks here are arranged in a crescent shape and were first mapped by air by intrepid British explorers in the 1930s. The island sits in Square Bay, off the coast of Graham Land in Marguerite Bay, well to the south of the Antarctic Circle.
The landing tends to be the northwestern tip of Horshoe Island in Sally Cove. From here, it’s a short walk north to the amazingly preserved hut known as “Base Y” or Horseshoe Station.
This was established in 1955 as a scientific base and was closed permanently in 1960 when personnel were transferred to Stonington Island's Station E nearby. Although unused for over 60 years, Base Y is in a remarkable state of preservation and represents a model example of a fully-equipped exploration and scientific base of the time.
Inside the hut, you will be able to carefully explore by torchlight as you see artifacts from a bygone age. These include the original base generator, tools, light fixtures, tins and packets of original rations, and more items from the daily lives of the scientists who made Horseshoe Island their temporary homes.
Although this time-capsule building is the star of the show, it’s not unusual to encounter seals and skuas on or near to the landing site here.
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.
South of the Polar Circle
The Polar Circles are two imaginary lines in the northern and southern hemispheres that denote where the Arctic and Antarctic begin.
For us, everything south of our polar circle is Antarctica. There are actually very few bases or scientific stations inside the southern polar circle as the ice conditions make getting personnel and equipment in and out difficult by ship and treacherous or impossible by air.
However, Argentina and the UK do manage to maintain permanent stations in Marguerite Bay, and Chile has a summer station at the bay entrance. This bay is below the polar circle, and your ship will do its best to cross the “line” here by sailing beyond the Biscoe Islands towards the bay if sea and ice conditions permit.
It’s a moment to celebrate, and perhaps to reflect on the lives lost in the human endeavor to explore every part of our world and to understand it for the benefit of future generations.
For such a tiny, rock island (it’s less than half a mile by a quarter of a mile), Stonington holds a lot of the human history of Antarctica. It’s found in Marguerite Bay off the west of Graham Land, and it is one of the most southerly historic sites on the peninsula.
It was home to not one, but two winter expeditions. In 1939, the US Antarctic Service chose it as the location to build what became known as East Base. The buildings and artifacts here are now protected as a monument. Visitors can enter the main hut to experience something of what it would have been like to spend the dark and frozen winters on Stonington.
Later in the 1940s, the British chose the same small island for the location of their “Base E”. Again, visitors can enter the main hut and also the generator shed. Like the American base, there are other ancillary buildings that can’t be entered due to their status as protected monuments. There are permanent shutters on the windows of Base E, so your guide should provide you with torches if you venture inside.
In a solemn reminder of the harshness of the continent, there is also a gravesite where two expedition members are buried in coffins covered by simple stone cairns.
Stonington Island supports a colony of over 130 pairs of Antarctic Shags, as well as nesting sites for skuas and terns. As well as the landing there is a good Zodiac cruise around the island with the head of the nearby glaciers coming down from the polar plateau and to look out for seals and Adelie Penguins on the ice floes.
Later in the season fur seals and Humpback Whales can turn up at this southerly destination.
Wordie House, Winter Island
Nestled onto the only flat part of Winter Island, Wordie House is a hut built in 1947. It was named by a British Antarctic expedition of the time after James Wordie, who was the chief scientist on Shackleton’s famous 1914 Antarctic exploration. Winter Island is less than 1,000 yards long and is one of the Argentine Islands off the coast of Graham Land.
Before it closed in 1954, the hut was used to take meteorological readings using instruments stored inside special screens, one of which still stands today. These readings were among the most important and longest set of weather data ever recorded about the Antarctic and helped scientists gain a greater understanding of the meteorology of the continent.
Wordie House was made a “Historic Site and Monument” in 1995 and has been looked after by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust since 2009. There are almost 500 original artifacts still on the site, including original cans of coffee, records, pots and pans, plates, and many more £everyday” items. This makes Wordie House a true time capsule from the golden age of Antarctic exploration and scientific research. The hut is now fully weathertight, and work continues on preserving this unique station.
Close to Wordie House there used to be the British Faraday base, the place where researcher's discovered the expanding Ozone hole. When the base was going to close, rather than dismantling this important and historic base (and one of the best bars in Antarctica!), it was given to the Ukraine for one pound!
Visits to Winter Island and Wordie House are managed by the nearby Ukrainian station Vernadsky, and you may well be briefed by the Base Commander or other official before you board your boats for the landing. The visit to Wordie House is often in conjunction with a visit to the base, and the chance to have a vodka and the impressive wooden bar.
The short Zodiac cruise between the two locations passes through some interesting gullies and the chance to check out seals and penguins on small ice floes.
Uniquely for such a historic site, visitors are allowed to roam freely under the supervision of their expert Antarctic guides. They will answer all your questions about the history of the hut, as well as the artifacts that you can find here.
Visitors to Winter Island can also expect to see seabirds such as skuas and kelp gulls, as well as seals and penguins. Humpback Whales are often seen in the more open waters close to the anchorage.
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.