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Kapitan Khlebnikov heading to Snow Hill Island

Snow Hill Island Cruises & Expeditions

Population
0
Size
7.5 miles (12 km) wide and 21 miles (33 km) long
Highest Elevation
Peaks reach 984 feet (300 meters) high
Terrain
Ice
Snow Hill Island

Overview

You’ve got one main reason – or perhaps 10,000 – to visit remote Snow Hill Island off the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Snow Hill Island is home to a rarely-visited colony of 4,000 pairs of breeding Emperor penguins and their offspring. That’s about 10,000 penguins in one relatively small space. The survival and breeding habits of this particular type of penguins have long fascinated nature-lovers. Not only do they thrive in bitterly cold temperatures – as low as -60°C (-76°F)–but they’re the only species of penguin to breed – and incubate their eggs – on ice rather than on shore.

Reaching Snow Hill Island is a challenge only a handful of travelers have achieved. In addition to crossing the notoriously rough Drake Passage, determined travelers must navigate the icy Weddell Sea by polar ship, and then take a helicopter flight before completing the trek on foot to the emperor penguin rookery.

Snow Hill Island

Destination Highlights

Emperor Penguins

Emperor penguins are a fascinating breed. The largest of the 17 penguin species, Emperors (1.15 m or 45 inches tall) can dive deeper than any other bird, often reaching depths of 565 m (1,850 ft.), to hunt for fish, krill and squid. They can stay underwater for up to 22 minutes. Emperors are built to survive in -60°C (-76°F) temperatures and withstand blizzards of 200 km/hour (124 mph). Their four layers of scale-like feathers provide waterproofing and protection from harsh winds.

Unlike other penguins, Emperors breed on sea ice, not on shore. The female, after laying her egg, leaves the colony to hunt for food – but only after giving the egg to her male partner who carefully puts it on his feet and covers it with a layer of feathery skin called his brood pouch. The male will typically huddle with other adult males to protect their precious eggs from the frigid Antarctic conditions.

Crossing the Drake Passage

The infamous Drake Passage extends about 1,000 km (600 miles) between Cape Horn, on the tip of South America, and the South Shetland Islands. Crossing the Drake is a rite of passage for polar travelers. The channel, especially when the waves are high, is called the “Drake Shake.” (Conversely, when it’s calm, it earns the nickname “Drake Lake.”) The cold seawater from the south collies with the warm seawater from the north, creating huge swells. Crossing the Drake can take up to 48 hours. A good pair of eyes – or a strong set of binoculars – is handy to spot whales (humpback, orca, minke and fin) and seabirds (albatrosses, petrels, shags, skuas, and gulls) during the crossing.

Kapitan Khlebnikov

The legendary icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov is a key part of the journey to Snow Hill. It’s unlikely any traveler would reach this remote ice-covered island without the strength of this particular vessel. Kapitan Khlebnikov was purpose-built to navigate the Antarctic pack ice. In fact, Kapitan Khlebnikov has circumnavigated both the Antarctic and the Arctic. The vessel is equipped with two helicopters for ice reconnaissance and passenger excursions.

Top Things to Do

Passengers walking on Arctic Landscape

Snow Hill Island by Foot

After an adventurous journey aboard the iconic icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov and an exclusive helicopter ride, enthusiastic visitors make a final mile-and-a-half trek on foot to the famous penguin rookery on Snow Hill Island. There’s something magical about setting foot on an Antarctic island so few will ever reach in their lifetime. On the ground, guests see the wind-swept snowy terrain up close—but most importantly, they have excellent views (at a respectful distance, of course)of the Emperor penguins themselves.

Helicopter Flightseeing

Snow Hill Island by Air

Ship-to-shore helicopter transfers from the deck of Kapitan Khlebnikov to within walking distance of the Emperor penguin colony yield spectacular views of island wildlife—penguins by the thousands, plus leopard seals, albatross, Cape petrels, Antarctic petrels. Minke and humpback whales are often spotted during aerial excursions. The helicopters on Kapitan Khlebnikov take passengers on aerial sightseeing adventures to bays that aren’t suitable for shore landings.

Points of Interest

Flightseeing over a tabular iceberg
Tabular Icebergs

There are just as many types of icebergs in the Antarctic as there are penguins, especially in the Weddell Sea: Dome-shaped, wedge-shaped, tilted and blocky. Tabular icebergs are a particularly eye-catching iceberg. They’re created when icebergs break away from the ice shelf and are floating in the open water, easily recognizable by their plateau-like flat top and steep sides.

Flightseeing over a tabular iceberg
Kapitan Khlebnikov in Iceberg Alley
Iceberg Alley, Weddell Sea

One visitor described Iceberg Alley in the Weddell Sea as “…colossal tabular icebergs bigger than downtown buildings…luminescent in their blueness.” Iceberg Alley is the name given to a large concentration of icebergs in the western Weddell Sea. Imagine hundreds of icebergs of various sizes, as well as growlers (which are small icebergs) and bergy bits (chunks of glacier ice).

Kapitan Khlebnikov in Iceberg Alley

When to Go

Preferred Season

The preferred time to visit is November when it’s still possible to observe the newly-hatched baby penguins before they disperse. Ice conditions are more ideal at this time.

Special Insights from Our Guests

I feel very privileged to have been able to visit Emperor Penguin colonies on Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. This was of course made possible by Quark whose staff, as always, did an outstanding job of efficiency, flexibility and organization.

— Guest