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South Orkney and South Shetland Islands: Vibrant Scenery, Stunning Wildlife

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They may be remote, but there’s plenty to see on the Antarctic archipelagos of South Orkney and South Shetland Islands.

Chinstrap penguins at Half Moon Island

These island groups are named for the Scottish archipelagos of the same names in the North Sea – coincidentally, both archipelagos are located about the same distances from their respective poles, although the southern islands are much colder.

Like the Northern Isles for which they are named, the South Orkneys and South Shetlands are considered to be part of the United Kingdom, but this territorial claim is not universally recognized.

The South Orkneys are about 600 kilometers northeast of the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The South Shetlands are much closer to the mainland, between 100 and 240 km north and northeast of the peninsula.

South Shetland Islands

Photography buffs will love the South Shetlands, usually the first stop on the way to the Antarctic Peninsula. Many species of Antarctic wildlife are found here, like seals, whales and birds, as well as stunning landscapes which include a few active volcanoes.

King George Island

There are more than 20 islands in this archipelago, with perhaps 11 being considered major islands.

King George is the largest and is primarily occupied by scientists working at a number of different research stations, many of which are permanent. Other bases are staffed only in the summer months.

King George Island is home to elephant seals, chinstrap penguins, gentoo penguins, southern giant petrels, Antarctic fur seals, Adélie penguins, and more.

Elephant Island, just south of the Falkland Islands, was the famous landing site of Sir Ernest Shackleton on his ill-fated Endurance expedition. The explorer found refuge on Elephant Island before continuing on to a whaling station in South Georgia.

Deception Island

Strong west winds keep weather conditions on the South Shetland Islands very consistent throughout the year, although volcanic activity in Pendulum Cove on Deception Island keeps some of the waters warm enough to actually allow for a (chilly!) swim. Bet you didn’t think that was possible in the Antarctic Ocean!

Livingston Island lies north of Deception Island, and is made up of irregular coastline, with ice cliffs and rocky beaches.

The South Orkneys

There are four main islands in the South Orkneys, where no human lives due to the harsh climate and conditions – it’s estimated that snow falls about 280 days a year. The temperature averages 2 Celsius in what passes for summer, with 12 Celsius considered an extreme high.

Snow Petrel

But there is some vegetation on the islands, which are populated by different types of seabirds, including penguins.

Coronation Island, the largest of the South Orkneys, is an important breeding ground for the pure white snow petrel, a beautiful bird which is somewhat elusive. As with the South Shetlands, there are many opportunities to take amazing landscape pictures.

Antarctic Adventures in the South Orkney & South Shetland Islands

A Quark Expedition will give you opportunities to get right down to sea level in a Zodiac, and take you places you would otherwise not be able to reach. Don’t miss the opportunity to see the Orkney Islands and the Antarctic as its explorers have seen it, but it in style, comfort and safety. One option to visit the South Shetlands is the Crossing the Circle: Southern Expedition itinerary.

South Orkneys

The Antarctic truly is our planet’s final frontier. If you’re interested in visiting, there’s no better time to book than right now!

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