Most Breathtaking Islands Near Antarctica

July 14, 2021

Exploring remote Antarctic Islands

The list of remote islands near Antarctica is lengthy—much longer than travelers sometimes imagine. Quite often, polar enthusiasts immediately think of the Antarctic Peninsula when considering a polar destination. Preliminary research, however, soon unearths an abundance of opportunities in remote, hard-to-reach Antarctic islands. 

So many Antarctic islands waiting to be explored Antarctic islands are those islands south of the 60th parallel, close to Antarctica, the southernmost continent in the world. Some are more reachable than others. And, then of course, there are islands near Antarctica which are officially sub-Antarctic islands, but which are usually only visited on polar voyages to the Antarctic.  That’s why one will see the sub-Antarctic islands of the Falkland Islands and South Georgia featured on polar voyages to the Antarctica. Likewise, it’s typically only on Antarctic voyages that visitors get the opportunity to visit Cape Horn and Diego Ramirez Islands in Chilean Patagonia

Some Antarctic Islands are large while others are surprisingly small, and, consequently not as well known and almost never visited. Burnett Island, for instance, is a rocky 1.9-kilometre-long island north of Honkala Island. On the other end of the spectrum there’s Alexander Island, which lies in the Bellinghausen Sea west of Palmer Land, and is the largest island of Antarctica. Alexander Island is approximately 390 kilometres (240 miles) long in a north–south direction, 80 kilometres (50 miles) wide in the north, and 240 kilometres (150 miles) wide in the south. This Antarctic Island is the second largest uninhabited island in the world. The fact that it’s uninhabited perhaps accounts for its lower popularity compared to some of the more popular islands like the Falklands or Snow Hill Island.

Remote islands near Antarctica

We’ve chosen a number of Antarctic Islands to highlight, but this list of islands near Antarctica is by no means exhaustive. The good news: many of these remote, hard-to-reach islands near Antarctica are accessible to travelers on voyages to the Antarctic with Quark Expeditions.

The sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia

South Georgia is a sub-Antarctic island in the southern Atlantic Ocean that is part of the British Overseas Territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. South Georgia is approximately 165 kilometres long with its width varying between 1.4 to 37 kilometres wide. South Georgia is 1,362 square miles (3,528 square km). Its nearest neighbour is the Falkland Islands. Because of the rugged, almost inhospitable terrain, there is no runway or airstrip on South Georgia. Visitors must come to what is one of the most wildlife-rich islands near Antarctica by polar vessel.

The staggering  number of wildlife species in South Georgia

The staggering  number of wildlife species in South Georgia have earned the remote polar destination the monikers of
of The Galapagos of the South Seas or the Serengeti of the South Ocean. Photo: Nicky Souness

South Georgia is often called The Galapagos of the South Seas or the Serengeti of the South Ocean because of its incredibly rich biodiversity. For instance, South Georgia is known for its massive king penguin colony at Salisbury Plain, and other wildlife, including the thousands of fur and elephant seals.  South Georgia is of particular interest to Polar history buffs. British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton first crossed South Georgia island in 1916 in search of aid for his ill-fated trans-Antarctic expedition who were left behind on Elephant Island. Upon Shackleton’s death, his widow insisted the late great explorer be buried at the former whaling station at Grytviken on South Georgia. Guests on polar expeditions to South Georgia often visit the small graveyard to honor the late great polar explorer.

The sub-Antarctic Falkland Islands

In contrast to South Georgia which has no permanent population, there are approximately 2,900 permanent citizens living in the sub-Antarctic archipelago of the Falkland Islands, or Islas Malvinas as it’s known to the Argentinians. The Falkland Islands (300 miles northeast of the southern tip of South America in the South Atlantic Ocean)is known for its wildlife—penguins and bird species are plentiful—as well as its dramatic history which has been well-documented. Both the United Kingdom and Argentina have claims on the sub-Antarctic island which led to the 1982 Falklands War. There’s everything from Magellanic penguins to military history to pique the interest of visitors. Port Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, has been called the epitome of the English country village, with its pubs, churches, museums and colorful homes. 

As expedition guide and photographer Acacia Johnson points out in her blog, Why I Love Traveling to the Falkland Islands as a Landscape and Wildlife Photographer, “the islands’ sprawling landscapes are home to blooming flora, sandy beaches, and a dose of British culture that will appeal to landscape, wildlife and portrait photographers alike.”

Visitors to the Falkland Islands are often surprised to discover so many sandy beaches on this remote sub-Antarctic island

Visitors to the Falkland Islands are often surprised to discover so many sandy beaches on this remote
sub-Antarctic island. Photo: Sam Edmonds

History and wildlife are the drawing cards of the Falkland Islands.

History and wildlife are the drawing cards of the Falkland Islands. Photo: Nicky Souness

Visitors to this fascinating island near Antarctica will encounter a number of surprises when visiting the Falkland Islands. Ornithologists report that approximately 70 percent of the world’s population of black-browed albatross are found at Steeple Jason Island, which lies northwest of West Falkland, making it the largest colony of this species on the planet. And there are beaches!  You can walk along the white sandy shorelines on Carcass Island (off the northwest corner of the archipelago) or visit Volunteer Beach, a two-mile (3.3-kilometre) stretch of sandy beach that’s home to a very large colony of King penguins.

Cape Horn and Diego Ramirez Islands near Antarctica

Patagonia is the sparsely-populated, wildlife-rich region in the southern part of South America, divided into Argentine Patagonia and Chilean Patagonia by the Andes Mountains. Chilean Patagonia, popular for its glaciers, fjords, mountains, channels, waterfalls, lakes, verdant forests and abundant wildlife, is regularly included in polar voyages to the Antarctic, enabling guests to experience island destinations near Antarctica such as Cape Horn, the steep rocky headland on Hornos Island. The 19,000-square-mile (49,000-square-kilometer) Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve is home to thousands of tiny plants, mosses and lichens that form “the miniature forests of Cape Horn.”

And then there are the Diego Ramirez Islands, about 100 kilometres southwest of Cape Horn in the iconic Drake Passage.  Diego Ramirez Islands are known as the southernmost albatross breeding ground in the entire world. Visitors to these islands can also look forward to sightings of dolphins, South American fur seals, and rockhopper, macaroni and Magellanic penguins. Cape Horn and Diego Ramirez Islands are included in Quark Expeditions Essential Patagonia: Chilean Fjords and Torres del Paine itinerary.

Exploring the South Shetland Islands in the Antarctic

The South Shetland Islands (which cover approximately 3,687 square kilometres) are a cluster of Antarctic islands about 120 km north of the Antarctic Peninsula. They include King George, Nelson Island, Robert, Greenwich, Livingston,Elephant Island,Clarence Island, Snow, Deception Island, Smith and Low Island, among others.

Travelers have the opportunity to visit Elephant Island, which is found 250 kilometers (150 miles) northeast of the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula,on Quark Expeditions’ Celebrating Shackleton: Journey from Antarctica to South Georgia. Elephant Island, on the outer reaches of the South Shetland Islands, is part of the enduring legacy of Shackleton as it’s the remote Antarctic island where Shackleton and his crew (28 courageous sailors in all) took refuge in 1916 following the destruction of their ship Endurance in the ice-covered Weddell Sea.

The Antarctic island of Snow Hill — Emperor Penguins

Also located in the ice-bound Weddell Sea is the legendary Snow Hill Island, famous for its incredibly large Emperor penguin colony of 10,000. That’s a huge number of penguins for a rugged island that’s only 7.5 miles (12 km) wide and 21 miles (33 km) long.

The Emperor penguin species, which is the primary reason for travelers to make the arduous journey to Snow Hill Island, breed on sea ice, not on shore. The female Emperor, after laying her egg, leaves the colony to hunt for food – but only after passing the egg to her male partner who carefully manoeuvres it on his feet and covers it with a layer of feathery skin called his brood pouch. Rare in the animal kingdom, the ‘dad’ shares egg-incubating duties – protecting the egg from the -60°C (-76°F) temperatures and 200 km/hour (124 mph) winds. Check out this video to get an idea of what’s involved in reaching this fascinating Antarctic island. Witnessing all of this is what compels polar adventurers to join a voyage to Snow Hill Island.

Remote, seldom-visited Antarctic Island of Deception Island

Rugged, remote Destination Island is part of the Shetland Island chain known for its volcanic features.

Rugged, remote Destination Island is part of the Shetland Island chain known for its volcanic features.
It was once the site of a large whaling station. Photo:  Quark Expeditions

In this blog written by a former expedition guide, we learn that Deception Island offers a history that’s not entirely about wildlife and polar landscapes. Part of the Shetland Island chain, Deception Island drew the attention of explorers and scientists because of its large and safe natural harbour. Not so appealing, as polar watchers later learned, was the presence on Deception Island of an active volcano, which wrought havoc on the scientific stations in 1967 and 1969. The island cemetery was totally buried in the volcanic eruption of 1969, fostering all manner of unsubstantiated stories and fables of ghosts and the paranormal. The island, which was previously a whaling station, became a tourist site after the volcanic episode.

King George Island near Antarctica

King George Island, the largest of the South Shetland Islands off the coast of Antarctica—95 km (59 miles) long and 25 km (16 miles) wide—is of interest to Quark Expeditions’ guests who opt for the Fly/Cruise option when joining a polar voyage to the Antarctic.   

Guests who are short on time or simply prefer to avoid crossing the iconic Drake Passage by ship can book a Fly/Cruise itinerary such as the Antarctic Express: Fly the Drake.  On such voyages, guests travel by charter flight from Punta Arenas to Antarctica in only a few hours and get to view King George Island on their descent in the South Shetland Islands. After landing at the runway on King George Island, guests enjoy a one-mile (1.6 km) walk to the shore (great for stretching their legs) before being transferred by Zodiac to their polar ship to set sail for the Antarctic Peninsula.

Half Moon Island, Antarctic

Half Moon Island, the crescent-shaped island between Livingston and Greenwich Islands,is a potential stop that’s popular with Quark Expeditions guests who have an interest in fur seals, as evident in this video featuring Quark Expeditions ornithologist Fabrice Genevois. In addition to penguins and seals, an incredibly diverse bird population exists on Half Moon Island, including Antarctic terns, skuas, gulls, petrels and blue-eyed shags.

These are some of the highlights of the abundant islands near Antarctica.

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