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Making Polar History - A Landing at Remote Saunders Island

4 min read

It was an exciting day indeed when 88 Quark Expeditions passengers became part of polar history.

On December 15, 2014, passengers on the Antarctica's Scotia Arc voyage witnessed an Antarctic "first", a challenging and successful landing on Saunders Island, part of South Sandwich Islands.

The island, renowned for centuries to sailors and explorers for its inhospitable landing conditions, has seen only 12 touristic attempts in the last 24 years, with many landings unsuccessful.

The South Sandwich Islands are a group of uninhabited, mostly volcanic islands located south east of South Georgia in the Southern Atlantic Ocean. Opportunities for tourists – or anyone really – to visit this unwelcoming but incredible archipelago are few and far between due to difficult seas and landing conditions. Even on days with ideal weather, the coast is rocky and precarious; the swell heavy and dragging with a strong undertow. In some locations, landing at all is considered “probably impossible except for by helicopter.” Source: The Antarctic Pilot, Fourth edition. Cpn. G.A. French, Royal Navy, 1974.

With landings on the island such a rarity, the Expedition Team aboard the Sea Spirit is thrilled with this achievement, and also with their post-landing circumnavigation of neighboring Candlemas and Vindication Islands!

Saunders Island penguin colony as captured by an Antarctic small ship expedition passenger. Photo: Jim Wilson

Saunders Island Penguin Colony. Photo by Jim Wilson

Here are some words from the expedition team and wildlife experts, describing the moment:

“As a Quark expedition leader with a surname synonymous with the Antarctic, one can only begin to imagine the privilege and pressure of leading a voyage to the South Sandwich Islands, one of the most remote Antarctic regions. Described as rarely visited and poorly known, they consist of 11 small actively volcanic islands spread over 400km.

Not only did our passengers land at Saunders Island, which is home to no less than 150,000 pairs of chinstraps, 1,100 pairs of macaronis and 1,200 pairs of gentoos, and on this day also one visiting king penguin. All of this was under the watchful eye of Mt Michael, a volcanic fumarole.

This has been a ‘once in a lifetime experience' for all on board. No words or images will ever come close to describing the emotions felt due to the landscapes and richness of the wildlife around us in such a pristine wilderness area.” Cheli Larsen, expedition leader

Vindication island

“Having had some good sightings of both humpback and fin whales in the waters around the South Sandwich Islands we were not quite prepared for what we were to encounter on our first day at sea enroute to the Antarctic Peninsula. Having sighted many blows on the horizon we slowed the ship and drifted in the calm seas and we were surrounded by more humpback and fin whales than could be counted. There were whales in all directions and many of them came towards the ship with purpose and circled the vessel for almost an hour. They were rolling over and looking back at us as we delighted in the spectacle. This was the largest collection of fin whales I have ever encountered and we simply could not have had better views, looking down the blow holes as they swarmed around the stationary ship. What an incredible few days in one of the most remote regions on the planet.” Colin Baird, expedition team

“Our bird experience on the South Sandwich Island will rank as one of the best to be found anywhere in Antarctic waters. Saunders and Candlemas Islands did not disappoint. The vast colonies of chinstrap, Adélie and macaroni penguins set against dark volcanic ash and rock and the cacophony of sound they made filled the senses and had us watching in almost disbelief of what we were experiencing. Never had we seen so many penguins in the waters around our Zodiacs as we cruised around the islands. We did not know where to turn or point our cameras as everywhere we looked rafts of them were coming to check us out. Then, as if one penguin signaled time they would porpoise back and forth before going ashore by catching the next big wave and scrambling up the rocks. On the second day we Zodiac cruised Vindication Island. The sight of hundreds, if not thousands of snow and cape petrels soaring along the towering multi-colored cliffs in the afternoon sun will remain long in the memory and mark the perfect end to an amazing visit.” Jim Wilson, ornithologist

Massive penguin colony at Saunders Island - Photo credit: Jim Wilson

Massive Saunders Island Penguin Colony. Photo by Jim Wilson

“The deep gullies leading up from the beach at Saunders Island have been cut into the landscape in such a way that they reveal a great deal about the history and origins of the island. In the sides of the gullies, erosion has exposed layer upon layer of volcanic activity throughout the centuries in the form of stratification. Layers of dense ash sit between layers of much more coarse tephra - hardened pieces of lava - denoting different periods of volcanic activity.

I was lucky to be present as Gemma Clucas, one of the two penguin specialists on board, was looking for something specific amongst these layers. Protruding from the ancient ash are penguin bones. Having successfully collected a number these bones, Gemma will be able to use them to obtain genetic material which can shed light on the changes in penguin populations over time. Information like this allows us to understand how different factors can impact penguins, and helps us to protect them today and in the future.” Peter Wilson, Archaeologist

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