The Antarctic Peninsula is an 800-mile (1,300 km) stretch of land and ice extending northward from the Antarctic continent towards South America. First-time visitors, especially, are humbled by the staggering beauty of the Antarctic: icebergs, glaciers, snow-covered mountain tops and incredible wildlife. People who dream of visiting the 7th Continent typically start here on the peninsula, which is ice-covered and mountainous. The Bransfield Strait separates the peninsula from the South Shetland Islands to the north. Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of South America, lies about 1,000 km (620 miles) away on the other side of the Drake Passage.
To experience the Antarctic Peninsula is to witness minke and humpback whales at close range, and to gaze upon icebergs of every conceivable shape and size in the bays, fjords and inlets. The peninsula is blessed with a diversity of wilderness vistas. Visitors can observe penguin colonies on Danco Island, or stand in awe at the sight (and sounds) of mammoth glaciers calving in Neko Harbour.
Passengers en route to Antarctica from Ushuaia, at the southern tip of South America, must cross the Antarctic Convergence, the invisible line typically at 55 degrees latitude south where cold Antarctic waters mix with the warmer waters of the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Not only does this collusion of warm and cold water create the notoriously rough waters of the Drake Passage, but it also produces an abundance of krill (small crustaceans) and marine which whales and seals feed on.
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 huge swells that frequently arise in the Drake Passage are the result of cold seawater from the south colliding with the warm seawater from the north, which results in powerful eddies. Crossing the Drake can take up to 48 hours in favourable conditions. Temperatures range from 5°C (41°F) in the north to -3°C (26°F) in the south. 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.
Neko Harbour, which got its name from the Neko whaling ship and floating factory that operated here from 1911 to 1924, is bordered on one side by giant glaciers. Gentoo penguins breed on the cobblestone beach, which is a popular haulout location for Weddell seals and fur seals. Glacier-calving (also known as iceberg calving), when large chunks of ice crash into the harbour, creating a thunderous splash, is a popular occurence in Neko Harbour. Birders are drawn to the area because of the concentration of Skua birds that dominate the rocky outcroppings above the landing beach.
Marguerite Bay, a major bay on the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, is known for its iced-covered mountains, historic research stations, and an Emperor penguin colony at the Dion Islands on the northern end of the bay. The nearby research stations were built between 1951 and 1975: San Martin, an Argentinian base at the small Barry Island; as well as Rothera and Fossil Bluff, two British bases at the large islands of Adelaide and Alexandra.
Danco Island was named in honour of Lieutenant Émile Danco, the Belgian geologist who died of a heart attack aboard the Belgica while it was trapped in the ice of the Bellingshausen Sea in 1898. The island sits in the middle of the Errara Channel, and despite its relatively small size–it’s only 1.6 kilometers long and 180 meters high–Danco Island is home to more than 2,000 pairs of breeding Gentoo penguins, which occupy the slopes on the northern coast of the island. Weddell seals congregate on the offshore rocks and beaches. Wildlife enthusiasts can expect to see Humpback and Minke whales as they pass through the Errera Channel at the end of summer.
Top Things to See
Wildlife of the Antarctic Peninsula
The Antarctic Peninsula is the most northerly part of Antarctica, stretching north of the Antarctic Circle. Consequently, the peninsula has the mildest climates on the continent and experiences a summer melting season, which creates breeding grounds for marine mammals and birds. Common species observed in the Antarctic Peninsula include penguins, whales, seals, albatrosses and other seabirds. Another species that may not appear in your photographs but is responsible for much of the wildlife guests do see is the krill, a small crustacean that’s a major food source for whales (blue, bowhead, right, humpback, minke and grey whale), seals, penguins, squid, and fish.
South Shetland Islands
The South Shetland Islands are approximately120 km north of the Antarctic Peninsula and are often a first stop for those travellers en route to the Peninsula. The South Shetland Islands are known for the abundant wildlife: various species of penguins (Gentoo, Adélie and Chinstrap), seals, sea birds and orcas. King George Island, the largest of the South Shetland Islands, has developed a reputation for being multicultural. Eight countries operate permanent research bases on King George Island. The bases are connected by a maze of roads and tracks. As one scientist exclaimed: “There’s nowhere else on earth where you can literally walk between Russia and Chile…with a side trip to China and Uruguay along the way.”
Points of Interest
Crossing the Antarctic Circle
Crossing the Antarctic Circle is a milestone few ever achieve. An expedition cruise to the Antarctic Circle will take travelers south of the Equator to 66°33 approximately (the circle is perpetually changing). The Antarctic Circle is the northernmost latitude in the southern hemisphere at which the centre of the sun can remain continuously above the horizon for 24 hours.
Many polar visitors insist that camping out overnight has been one of their most memorable experiences in the Antarctic Peninsula. Hunkering down in a protected sleeping bag under the midsummer night skies, listening to the rumblings of glaciers and the calls of the penguins, connects travelers with the early polar explorers who dared to brave the challenging conditions of the 7th Continent.
When to Go
November to December
Antarctica awakens after the harsh winter. Pack ice begins to melt, icebergs are at their greatest mass, and natural light due to longer days illuminates everything from snow-covered landscapes to wildlife. Penguins and other seabirds court and lay eggs during this period.
December to February
Retreating snow exposes rocky headlands, penguin chicks are hatching, and the increase sunlight (days stretch up to 20 hours daily) begin to melt and erode icebergs. There’s increasing glacier calving as temperatures rise. Whale-watching is prime during this period, especially in places like Wilhelmina Bay
February to March
Receding pack ice allows ships to explore further south in Antarctica. Days begin to shorten, making for incredible sunsets. Sightings of humpback, minke and killer whales are more plentiful.
Special Insights from Our Guests
Every aspect of this journey has been outstanding. I feel privileged to have been able to experience Antarctica alone, but in the company of such passionate, energetic, capable, and talented staff I am honored and feel immensely grateful.