Best Time to Visit South Georgia Island

South Georgia Island. Simply mentioning the name of this remote pocket of wilderness in the South Atlantic Ocean typically conjures up two things: wildlife and polar history. Not just any wildlife—and not just any polar history. South Georgia Island is known as the Galapagos of the South Seas. It’s rich in wildlife. (You can read about the island’s wilderness sightings in Acacia Johnson’s South Georgia: The Galapagos of the Southern Ocean.  And in terms of polar history, South Georgia is synonymous with polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who is buried in the cemetery at Grytviken, the former whaling station on South Georgia Island. Polar enthusiasts frequently honor the legendary Shackleton at his gravesite on shore landings during their Antarctic voyage. The best time to visit South Georgia is when you can capitalize on both of these elements.

Cooper Bay, on the rugged shores of remote, hard-to-reach South Georgia, is now a Special Protected Area for seabirds.

Cooper Bay, on the rugged shores of remote, hard-to-reach South Georgia, is now a Special Protected
Area for seabirds. Photo: Acacia Johnson

Where is South Georgia Island?

When answering the oft-asked question “Where is South Georgia Island?” you typically have to explain that no, you’re not talking about the state in the southern United States. Nor are you referring to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. (So be careful when you Google!) While not technically in Antarctica, South Georgia is typically thought of in terms of Antarctic travel because that’s one of the only ways to reach the remote island: by boat, expedition vessel to be specific.

South Georgia is part of the British overseas territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. If you’re trying to determine where South Georgia Island is in regards to the Falkland Islands, it’s 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) southeast of the Falklands (also known as Islas Malvinas).

How to go to South Georgia Island

For first-time Antarctic travelers, it’s helpful to understand that there are no airports on South Georgia Island. For starters, no one really lives there. But the main reason: the rough terrain is unforgiving, and constructing a runway is out of the question. South Georgia is accessible by water only. 

Because of its rugged terrain, climate, location, and seasonal weather patterns, a polar ship is how to go to South Georgia Island. Only certain kinds of vessels can make the journey. All of the polar-strengthened vessels in Quark Expeditions’ fleet are capable of traveling in the Polar Regions. For example, the company’s newest ship, Ultramarine (featured in this short video), was built specifically for polar exploration. In addition to the ship, you should travel with an experienced crew—with staff and guides who have made multiple polar journeys to the Antarctic – and hopefully to South Georgia Island itself. Choosing knowledgeable polar experts as your guides is how to go to South Georgia Island and truly have the best experience.
 
Quark Expeditions offers multiple trips to South Georgia. All of them include the Antarctic Peninsula and some also visit the historic Falkland Islands. A specially-curated trip that celebrates the adventures of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his expedition to South Georgia a century ago is the Celebrating Shackleton: Journey from Antarctica to South Georgia.

Three king penguins on the shores of St. Andrew's Bay, South Georgia

Three king penguins on the shores of St. Andrew's Bay, South Georgia Photo: Acacia Johnson

History of South Georgia Island

“Where is South Georgia Island?” was quite possibly on the minds of the first European explorers who came upon South Georgia in 1675. As far as historians can ascertain, no one actually set foot in the remote island until January 1775 when Captain James Cook, on HMS Resolution, made the first landing, whereupon he claimed it for Great Britain, naming it the Isle of Georgia after King George III. South Georgia thereafter served as a seal-hunting base and whaling station, the most important  of which was Grytviken. 
 
Commercial sealing was the primary activity, along with whaling, for more than a century. In 1982, at the time of the well-documented Falklands War between Argentina and Britain, the Argentine flag was hoisted on South Georgia Island, as well, but British forces overtook the island within a matter of weeks.
 
The main settlement—the capital if you will—is King Edward Point near Grytviken, which is home to a permanent research station, as well as the burial place of Sir Ernest Shackleton. South Georgia figured prominently in Shackleton’s legendary Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914 to 1917), the one in which his ship Endurance was crushed by sea ice. As mentioned, that near perilous journey will be celebrated in an upcoming voyage that retraces part of the historic voyage in December 2021 with the itinerary Celebrating Shackleton: Journey from Antarctica to South Georgia.

Polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton (second from left) and three members of his brave crew from   legendary Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917.

Polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton (second from left) and three members of his brave crew from  
legendary Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917.

Best time to visit South Georgia Island

The “best time to go to South Georgia” question is asked as of as “Where is South Georgia Island?”  Just as the location determines the island’s accessibility, so too does the weather. The preferred time to visit South Georgia is between November and March when the sea ice allows ships to navigate through the surrounding ocean waters. But other considerations can determine the best time to go to South Georgia, specifically, what will you see and when?

Many wildlife experts will recommend November, December, and January if you want to capture (by camera, that is) king penguin rookeries at their peak. November is also a time you can see seal pups because of the timing of the breeding season. It’s also possible that you’ll witness huge male elephant seals battle it out on the beach. Some penguins, such as macaroni, will have returned to the island at this time after their extended stay at sea. Lots of mating takes place during December among the king penguins. Chances are you could also see wandering albatrosses if you arrive at this time.

With the warming of temperatures in January, guests frequently report seeing orcas, humpbacks, penguin chicks, and seal pups, among other wildlife, in the first month of the year. Others say they’ve had their best whale experiences in February and March—but it’s possible to see whales at any time, though the number of sightings can vary. It’s always best to ask a Polar Travel Advisor the best time to go to South Georgia.  And don’t be shy! If you want to simply ask, “Where is South Georgia Island?” —they’ll be happy to oblige.

You can learn more about the best time to visit South Georgia in our How to Visit South Georgia Island Guide.

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