Written by Dr. Tom Hart, Penguinologist, Oxford University, UK.
Tom runs the Penguin Lifelines project at Oxford University and the Zoological Society of London, through which he monitors Antarctic wildlife using camera trapping, volunteer photos and population genetics. Tom’s PhD at Imperial College and the British Antarctic Survey investigated penguin foraging behavior around South Georgia. He loves the world’s cold places and is passionate about protecting them. Tom loves all penguins, but particularly macaroni penguins, as they have the most attitude.
The South Sandwich Islands are a string of volcanic islands that form the Eastern edge of the Scotia Arc, a series of islands from the tip of South America through the Falklands, South Georgia, South Sandwich, the South Orkneys and the Antarctic Peninsula. Broadly, these are islands formed around the edge of the Scotia tectonic plate.
They form a nice gradient from the sub-Antarctic Zavodovski, to the more Antarctic South Thule, which is almost poking into the Weddell Sea and are placed in the way of the krill transport chain coming up from the Antarctic Peninsula. With incredibly rich waters around them, the islands teem with life; Zavodovski Island holds around 1.2 million breeding pairs of chinstrap penguins [read 2.4 million penguins!], and all of the islands have large colonies on them.
Picture an island volcano rising from the sea – a lava cone with steep cliffs where the lava has reached the sea. Occasionally, here and there a small beach presents a possible landing. On the slopes, you gradually become aware of the many thousands of penguins, the sound and the smell coming in faint waves.
They lie in the perfect region for high krill productivity, so between South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, large numbers of whales can be seen. This was probably one of the refuges for whales in the whaling era – the South Sandwich Islands were one of the last regions to be reached by the factory ships, and by then whaling was largely uneconomic. The region is now the largest marine-protected area on earth, and we’ll be there at the perfect time of year to see whales and seabirds foraging offshore.
“Today a great number of large whales (chiefly blue whales and only a single knoll whale) were seen. At last it became fine weather and the blasts of large whales were seen everywhere.”
-Carl Anton Larson, 1908
“We always found ice conditions most severe around the vicinity of the South Sandwich Islands. Huge packs of heavy blue ice lay fast between the islands. Soon they would break up after the winter’s freeze, drift away with the prevailing wind and current, and finally erode or melt. We used to try to pass to the Southward of this group and proceed along the ice-edge in a south-westerly direction. Weather and whaling conditions were usually good in this area at this time of year, and whales plentiful – but we never knew how long this would last. They could be in abundance one day and gone the next.”
-McLaughlin, W. R . D. (1962) Call to the South: A Story of British Whaling in Antarctica. George G. Harrap & Co, London. Pp 92-93.
So, the keener people can expect to see lots of wildlife en route to the islands as well as on the islands themselves. All-in-all, the South Sandwich Islands are a wild paradise; the wildest, richest place you can ever visit while remaining on this planet.
Editor’s note: You can visit the South Sandwich Islands on Quark’s 25-day Antarctica’s Scotia Arc: The Ultimate Insider’s Voyage departing December 15, 2014. And until September 15, 2014, save up to 25% off this voyage.