The warm glow of sunrise reveals our position in the South Shetland Islands; we will include early and late landings and Zodiac cruises to take full advantage of the best light.
THE SOUTH SHETLAND ISLANDS
The South Shetlands are a string of volcanic islands, some still active, that run parallel to the Antarctic Peninsula across the Bransfield Strait. Fondly known as the “Banana Belt of Antarctica,” these islands boast the richest concentrations of terrestrial wildlife in the Antarctic due to their proximity to the rich upwelling waters from the great Circumpolar Current. Even with our luxuriously in-depth itinerary, we will have to choose between many very compelling sites. Deception Island is a favorite and one of the most exciting islands on our voyage. This horseshoe-shaped, volcanic island is still active, as its hot thermal pools demonstrate. We hope to land on both the outside wall and inside the caldera that opens to the ocean via a narrow gap called Neptune’s Bellows. The landing at Bailey Head is home to about 100,000 Chinstrap Penguins, but the sea can make landings tricky with steep swells crashing on an exposed beach. Inside Deception’s huge caldera, we hope to make a fascinating landing that may include a short hike up the mountainside among the lichen-draped cliffs to the scenic overlook. On the beach at Whaler’s Bay, we may find Weddell Seals basking and we’ll go ashore if conditions are favorable. Deception Island also offers one the most unique experiences of the voyage – soaking along side the beach in the thermal pools surrounded by clouds of steam. The water temperature can be fairly comfortable, although it can get so hot that it’s necessary to mix in colder water!
On a clear day, the Chinstrap Penguins of Half Moon Island make a delightful foreground to the breathtaking eastern coastline of nearby Livingston Island. At this end of the Earth, the vast scale of nature will open our senses. Great respect must be given to the fragile vegetation and the wildlife colonies. We will review proper landing procedures throughout the voyage, allowing you as much freedom as possible to enjoy the magnificent wildlife and landscapes within the bounds of safety and minimal impact.
Both Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins breed on Aitcho Island, an island covered in mossy green carpets making a surprisingly bright contrast to Antarctica’s intensely achromatic landscapes. Conditions permitting, we’ll take a walk across the island past the Southern Elephant Seal wallows. This landing site and other similar sites with Southern Elephant Seals offer a terrific chance to see (and smell!) the world’s largest species of seal, also perhaps joined by hauled out Weddell Seals and Southern Fur Seals.
From the South Shetlands, we sail southwest across the Bransfield Strait into the fabled Gerlache Strait. Here we can expect whale sightings to ring out from the bridge as the Antarctic Peninsula landscape rises up around us into a glacier-draped view of mountainous proportion. The waters around Anvers Island, Dallmann Bay to the north and the Gerlache to the east are a likely starting destination. We can expect our whales among sculpted icebergs in the foreground and staggering mountain walls in the background, making for some of the world’s best Zodiac cruising. We will hope for magnificent sunsets, sculpted blue icebergs, and close penguin and whale encounters, each with the potential for an experience that we will never forget. We will visit sites where the penguins and seals that once sustained early Antarctic explorers have taken over, leaving only faint clues of the age of exploration and exploitation.
Over the last few decades, the Southern Ocean has experienced a significant warming trend, showing clear evidence of global warming. The Antarctic Peninsula has been feeling climate change the most, with a massive 9°F (5°C) warming in average winter temperatures over the last 50 years. This has dramatically changed and reduced ice distributions, but we will still be among a world of spectacular icebergs! In late summer, the coldest temperatures we normally experience during landings on the Peninsula are in the high 20s and low 30s F (-5 to 5°C). It is a bit like winter temperatures at ski resorts – usually very pleasant wearing good layered clothing and a jacket and certainly nothing like wintertime temperatures in Antarctica.
WESTERN ANTARCTIC PENINSULA ~ The Danco Coast, Neumeyer Channel, and Lemaire Channel
Whether we travel south down the west coast or sail east through the Antarctic Sound into the Weddell Sea will be determined by weather, ice distributions and reports of marine mammal sightings; happily, we have ample time for a thorough exploration of the Antarctic Peninsula. When heading south, we will travel down along the picturesque Danco Coast on the west coast of Graham Land. This area has awe-inspiring scenery with coastlines deeply indented with bays and scattered with islands. Impressive mountains rise sharply from the coast to the central Graham Land Plateau and glaciers descend to narrow piedmont ice shelves. Extensive Zodiac cruising and opportunistic landings during the best light will allow us to soak in the serenity of this majestic place.
We’ll make our way down the coast into Wilhemina Bay, Neko Harbour and Paradise Bay, among the most beautiful areas in Antarctica. These waters rank high on our long list of favorite places for Zodiac cruising. Enjoy views of sculpted icebergs and surfacing whales as we cruise the inner bays near spectacular glaciers and ethereal mountains. We can expect wonderful whale behavior in these plentiful summer feeding grounds. The krill swarms are enormous, sometimes even visible on the ship’s depth sounder. We will find colonies of Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins, sometimes in mixed colonies, along with their attendant scavengers: Snowy Sheathbills, Brown Skuas, South Polar Skuas, and Kelp Gulls. We’ll aim for a landing in Neko Harbour on the Antarctic continent proper, hopefully with an opportunity for a walk and an incredible view.
Enjoy the view from the ship as the Ioffe navigates through stunning Neumeyer and Lemaire channels or around the south end of Anvers Island into Biscoe Bay where we will be completely surrounded by ice-draped peaks soaring dramatically out of the water. Crabeater, Weddell, and Leopard seals are often hauled out on the ice floes and whales may even surface between the floes, so keep your cameras ready! Tall, hanging ice cliffs, the fronts of highly fractured tidewater glaciers, decorate most of the shoreline for unforgettable scenery. At the southern part of the Lemaire Channel we’ll come to Petermann Island. Located at 65° S, Petermann is outstanding for seeing Gentoo and Adelie penguins on their nesting grounds and making feeding trips in large groups along a “Penguin highway” in the snow. The clear water is beautiful for observing and photographing penguins returning to land. Petermann has seen a reversal in abundance between the two species, with half the numbers of Adelie Penguins we found here twenty years ago, but twice the numbers of Gentoos. Photogenic Antarctic Shags are also found on the edges of the colonies.
We will hope for good conditions to travel further south along the western side of the Peninsula, possibly down to Crystal Sound, the Antarctic Circle, Fish Islands and beyond into Margarite Bay to explore the southern reaches of summer navigable waters. Look for Snow Petrel, Antarctic Petrel, ice-loving Antarctic Minke Whales and maybe an extremely rare Ross Seal. When we are out in the golden light of an Antarctic evening, be sure to put your camera down for a moment and simply absorb the beauty and silence.
As we take our time sailing back north, we’ll again be on the lookout for cetaceans, including Orcas and even rare beaked whales, and explore wonderful coves that are breeding areas for Leopard Seals. We will surely find ourselves cruising with Humpbacks as they swim and lunge feed among the icebergs offshore in these waters where whale populations escaped the worst of the whaling age. The region offers excellent opportunities to find Antarctic Minke Whales feeding and Orcas cruising looking for seals and penguins. The photography in these rich krill areas of the Peninsula is truly fantastic. Additional landing sites along the western Peninsula are expected, which ones will depend on conditions (as is the case with any landing). Port Lockroy, located at the end of the very narrow and beautiful Peltier Channel close to Neumeyer Channel, has a British Antarctica Survey maritime museum and a sprawling Gentoo Penguin colony that we hope to visit. We’ll also hope for good conditions to land at tiny Cuverville Island with Gentoo Penguins on the headlands.
As we continue north, we are likely to again pass through the South Shetland Islands, possibly for a landing at Hannah Point on Livingston Island. Look for a possible pair of Macaroni Penguins among the Chinstrap and Gentoo colonies. The usual rookery scavengers (skuas, gulls, giant-petrels, and sheathbills) should also be present. At Hannah Point we will also find excellent examples of Antarctica’s only two flowering plants, a complete flora of the entire continent at one site.