The Magical South Shetland Islands

About 75 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula are the South Shetland Islands. Their convenient location (on the sea route to Antarctica from South America) makes them a common stop for most cruise ships.

With a population of only 600 in summer and 190 in winter, the islands are almost completely covered in ice, apart from a small coastal area.  Here are seven essential facts about the South Shetland Islands.

  1. The South Shetlands Islands’ sovereignty is a subject of dispute.
    The islands were claimed by the United Kingdom in 1908 and have been part of the British Antarctic Territory since 1962. However, they were claimed by Chile in 1940 and Argentina in 1943. Interestingly, their sovereignty is neither disputed nor recognized in the Antarctic Treaty of 1959.

  2. There are research stations on several of the islands.
    There are sixteen scientific research stations on the islands, most of which are on King George Island, benefiting from the airfield at Chile’s Eduardo Frei Air Force Base. The other countries with stations are Argentina, Bulgaria, Brazil, the United States, China, Ecuador, Spain, South Korea, Peru, Poland, Russia, and Uruguay.

  3. William Smith discovered the islands (or did he?).
    British explorer William Smith discovered Livingston Island on February 19, 1819. However, some historians believe that Dutch navigator Dirck Gerritsz spotted the South Shetland Islands earlier in 1599, or that Spanish admiral Gabriel de Castilla discovered them in 1603. But neither of these claims can be substantiated.
  4. Livingston Island is a site of special scientific interest.
    Livingston Island holds the most impressive concentration of nineteenth-century historical sites in Antarctica and was a major seal-hunting center in the nineteenth century. Hannah Point, located on Livingston Island, is home to chinstrap and gentoo penguins, and elephant and fur seals. To provide information about these lovable animals and more, researchers have set up an outdoor museum in Walker Bay that displays fossils, seal jaws, penguin skulls, and dazzling minerals.

  5. Pendulum Cove makes Deception Island a must-see.
    Deception Island is a collapsed volcanic cone surrounded by cliffs. Pendulum Cove is a great place to sit in the shallow water, gently heated by volcanic activity a mile below surface. When it gets too cold, stir up the black volcanic sand to release more heat.

  6. The climate is cloudy, cold, and humid.
    Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands have a cloudy and humid climate, and strong winds all year round. They’re particularly chilly in late winter and spring, although this is also the time with the most sunshine. Average summer temperatures are around 35°F, and about 23°F in winter.

  7. Penguin Island is as fun as it sounds.
    Irish explorer Edward Bransfield named Penguin Island in 1820. When visiting the small volcanic island (last eruption in 1905), be sure to take a quick hike up to Deacon Peak for some amazing views. In addition to chinstrap and Adélie penguins, there are southern giant petrels, Antarctic terns, skuas, kelp gulls, and fur seals to spot.

There’s something for everyone.

Whether you’re watching penguins, looking out for seals, or just taking in the scenery, you won’t regret adding the compelling South Shetland Islands to your Antarctica itinerary.

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