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South Shetland Islands - Antarctica
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South Shetland Islands - A string of Islands not administered by any one nation but currently covered by the Antarctic Treaty where all territorial claims are suspended.

Location - 960 km (600miles) south of Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America, about 160 km (100miles) north of the Antarctic Peninsula, separated from the latter by the Bransfield Strait.

"Capital" - Unofficial "Capital of Antarctica" on King George Island with bases of 12 different nations.

Population - 8 permanently manned bases and 4 summer only only bases. All run by the national Antarctic programs of various countries.

Highest Point - Livingstone Island 2400m (7800ft)

The South Shetland Islands are a string of islands running parallel to the north west coast of the Antarctic peninsula. The South Shetlands are almost completely ice covered. About 2-3 percent is ice free, usually along the coast, where all life is found whether penguins, seals, or the human inhabitants of the various bases.

The South Shetlands are usually visited as a part of a trip to the Antarctic Peninsula as they are directly on the sailing path from South America.

The islands are frequently visited by tourist cruise ships and each has a different character. From north to south, the main islands are:

Elephant Island

A very familiar name to anyone even vaguely versed in Antarctic history as it is where 22 members of Shackleton's Trans-Antarctic "Endurance" expedition were stranded in 1915 after their ship was crushed in Weddell Sea pack ice. They spent 135 days on the island while Shackleton and a small party set off on another journey to South Georgia to fetch help in the James Caird one of the lifeboats from the by then sunken Endurance. This is widely regarded as one of, if not the most incredible small boat journey ever.

Elephant Island is 60km long and 40km wide, with penguin rookeries (chinstraps) and some very old moss banks (over 2000 years old). On the south western side of the island at Stinker Point, is a place called Wreck Bay, where there is some wreckage from a ship. In 1998 these remains were recognized as being probable flotsam from Shackleton's Endurance. Landings on Elephant island are not common as it is often difficult to approach due to sea and weather conditions.

The James Caird setting out from Elelphant Island, from the original photograph

 

King George Island

The largest of the South Shetland Islands and the least isolated and least typical place in Antarctica. Why? because twelve different countries have a base here.

The island is about 1295 sq km, more than 90% of it being glaciated, so the bases are squeezed into quite a small area. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, Poland, Russia, South Korea, and Uruguay have year round bases, while Ecuador, Germany, Peru and the US have summer only bases.

The island is quite low and flat and the coast line is broken into many bays and fjords. There is a variety of wildlife found on the island including Antarctic terns, chinstrap and  Adélie penguins, blue-eyed shags and southern giant petrels.

 

Penguin Island

One of many Penguin Islands in various places around Antarctica. This one was named by the explorer Bransfield in 1820. A small volcanic island that allows the visitor a (relatively) easy walk up to the highest point Deacon Peak, 170m (544ft) for some excellent views of the surrounding seas. A regularly visited site with chinstrap and Adelie penguins, southern giant petrels, Antarctic terns, skuas, kelp gulls and fur seals.

Volcanic in origin with probable fumarolic activity reported in 1820 though erroneously attributed to nearby Bridgeman Island. The last eruption thought to have been around 1905.

Bridgeman Island

A rarely visited steep sided, nearly circular island volcanic in origin that rises to 240m. The visible peak is the remnant of a much larger volcano cone that lies under the sea

Aitcho Islands

Picture courtesy Gilad Rom.
Creative commons attribution 2.0 generic license.
Pronounced as the letters "HO", they were named after the British Admiralty's Hydrographic Office. Gentoo and Chinstrap penguin colonies, extensive moss and lichen beds.

First chartered by the Discovery Expeditions in 1935.
Greenwich Island

As early as 1820, Yankee Harbour on the southwest side of Greenwich Island was a valuable anchorage for sealers (who knew it as Hospital Cove). Today it remains a common anchorage point because of its protected position.

Half Moon Island
As its name suggests a crescent shaped island, very small at about 2 km long. The Argentinean naval base Tenientee Camaraais occupied in the summer months only.. A possible landing place with a sizable rookery of chinstrap penguins as well as nesting Antarctic terns and kelp gulls. Whales may be seen off shore against a stunning back drop of surrounding mountains..

Chinstrap Penguins (Pygoscelis Antarcticus) in a summer snow fall.

Livingston Island

The Byers Peninsula on western end of Livingston Island's is protected as a "SSSI" Site of Special Scientific Interest under the Antarctic Treaty because it contains the greatest concentration of 19th-century historical sites in Antarctica.

In the early years of the 19th century Livingston Island was a major sealing centre. Hannah Point, named after the British sealer "Hannah" (from Liverpool), wrecked in the South Shetlands on Christmas Day 1820 is one of the most popular stops in Antarctica. A fantastic place for viewing wildlife at close quarters, there are large chinstrap and gentoo penguin rookeries here (with occasional  macaroni penguins), blue-eyed shags, skuas, Wilson's storm petrels, southern elephant and southern fur seals.

The island has the summer only Spanish station, Juan Carlos Primero, and the Bulgarian base, St Kliment Ohridskiy also summer only. Livingston Island has the highest point of the South Shetlands at 2400m (7800ft).

Deception Island

Deception Island mapAnother famous location in Antarctica is the collapsed (but still active) volcanic cone that is Deception Island.

Protected by high cliffs and a narrow entrance (Neptune's Bellows) this 12km wide amphitheatre is one of the safest natural harbours in the world. It was first used by sealers as a base for operations and then later by whalers.  

By the 1914-1915 season, thirteen whaling factories had been built here and many relics from this time can still be seen abandoned in various places. Deception Island is a very popular place to stop for tourist ships as you can go "swimming" in the waters of Pendulum Cove that are heated by ongoing volcanic activity about a mile below the waters inside the collapsed caldera. "Swimming" is a relative term as the reality consists of sitting in the shallows between the too-hot volcanically heated waters and the too cold icy Antarctic ocean waters. If it starts to get cold, stir up some of the black volcanic sand to release some more heat, if it gets too warm, move towards the cooler open sea.  

In the 1920-1921 season, the water here boiled and stripped the paint from the hulls of the whaling ships, an eruption in 1969 destroyed the British base. Deception Island last erupted as recently as 1991-1992 with more activity reported in 1994.

The landscape is very strange, more of a moonscape consisting of dark volcanic sand and rocks, all the more strange for the penguins that are found here in such large numbers in such an unusual location.

There are two summer only bases here, Spain's Gabriel de Castilla and Argentina's Decepción. Hundreds of thousands of penguins nest on Deception Island.


Old whalers hut, Deception Island - photo Ulf Gustafsson

Old whalers building, Deception Island - photo Ulf Gustafsson

Abandoned Whaling Station, Whaler's Bay, Deception Island Photographic Print


Telefon Bay crater - Deception Island
Why Visit the South Shetland Islands?

New friends in Antarctica

One or more places on the South Shetlands will almost certainly be on the itinerary of every Antarctic Peninsula cruise due to the ease of access and variety of interesting places to visit. That aside, they are a fascinating place to go and give a great feeling of a variety of aspects of Antarctica.

Make sure you take your swimming things if you visit Deception Island, you're bound to regret not having swum in the Antarctic Ocean if you don't. Deception Island is the most comfortable place to swim in Antarctica - far more preferable than jumping into any other bit of the Antarctic Ocean that pretty much hovers around freezing point all year round (been there, done that, didn't enjoy it - something to tell people about though).

Actually "swimming" is stretching it a bit as it's more like paddling in mixed hot and cold water up to about waist depth. You could go deep enough to swim if you wanted but then the water temperature is about freezing point (sea-water freezes at -2C so stays liquid when colder than fresh water). Swimming in such frigid water is possible for a short time, but not anything I'd describe as enjoyable.

Verdict

A Must Visit Place.
The South Shetland Islands are "proper" Antarctica, and have a wide variety of Antarctic sights and experiences in good measure.

 

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