A small ship cruise to the southernmost realm of the known map—Antarctica, South Georgia, and The Falkland Islands—is, truly, the adventure experience of a lifetime. Exploring by Zodiac inflatable boat, on foot and by kayak, gain access to unparalleled opportunities for close-up encounters with a wildlife extravaganza. And, be among the very few who step ashore into one of the planet’s last pristine wonderlands.
Shaped by the elements of wind and ocean, these remote landforms are home to hundreds of species of birds, marine life, and mammals whose staggering numbers reach into the hundreds of thousands. All thanks to evolution, which lent them adaptability and an unparalleled survival instinct, and to their geographical isolation, which gave them the chance to thrive.
The extraordinary wildlife includes seven species of penguins: Magellanic, Adelie, rockhopper, gentoo, chinstrap, macaroni and king. Watch the waves for orca, humpback and fin whales or elephant, leopard, fur and Weddell seals. In the skies albatross, petrels and hundreds of other seabird species present an almost sensory overload of life-affirming activity.
Only in the Falklands can you boast a morning hike to penguin colonies buzzing with activity, an afternoon Zodiac ride out to a pebbly beach where fearless fur seal pups might come close for a cuddle, and an evening pint in a local pub with a few of the 3,100 hospitable humans who share the same backyard.
Magnificent South Georgia claims the world’s largest concentration of wildlife—hundreds of millions of nesting, breeding, child-rearing, feeding and thriving animals who play out their daily lives against a dramatic backdrop of soaring, snow-capped mountains and sweeping bays dotted with icebergs. Hike to the top of Salisbury Plain for an eye- and earful of hundreds of thousands of majestic king penguins and their chicks in every stage of development. Walk right up to the gargantuan elephant seals for that prize-winning portrait, or sit quietly in the tussock grasses, awed as a wandering albatross spreads its 11-foot wings. On a wild Grytviken hillside, pay homage to Ernest Shackleton—whose bravery and exploration remains unmatched.
The Antarctic Peninsula itself is a glittering land of glaciers and element-sculpted icebergs, breathtaking 360-degree vistas and phenomenal wildlife. Here, your Zodiac navigates a narrow waterway and soaring seabirds peer down at whales while scenes of Adelie and chinstrap penguins, and of crabeater and Weddell seals come ready-framed for that perfect photo. Enter a state-of-the-art scientific research station and ponder the legacy of early 20th century explorers. As you stand on deck and the late light turns the bottom of the world lavender, you can pride yourself at becoming one of the lucky few to join them in your own voyage of discovery.
Every cruise through the Southern Ocean follows in the wake of seafaring explorers, mapmakers, flag-planters, and unexpected heroes whose selfless bravery earned them a special bookmark in the pages of history.
While a mere 620 miles of Southern Ocean lies between South America’s Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula, early explorers seldom saw land unless they were blown off course. By the early 1700s, when word spread of the existence of this southernmost continent, intrepid sailors began the search in earnest. Even Captain James Cook tried but to no avail. In 1821, a seal hunter from America, John Davis, managed to land and stake the claim of “discovery.” Since that time, sealers, whalers and more than 300 expeditions made their way onto the Antarctic Peninsula and deep into the continent—including the remarkable race to the South Pole in 1911 between Captains James Scott and Roald Amundsen (Amundsen won, on December 14).
In contrast to those less-than-luxurious quarters, today’s purpose-built Antarctic cruise ships offer a high level of comfort and state-of-the art stability for navigating the Southern Ocean. But what those early explorers first beheld of the Antarctic Peninsula remains much the same today—a glittering world of icebergs, glaciers and nutrient-rich waters teeming with marine life, mammals and 350 million birds—175 million of which are penguins.
Stunning vistas in Hope Bay, nicknamed “Iceberg Alley,” reveal extraordinary confections of blue ice. In the narrow Lemaire Channel, cameras click away (documentation those first sailors never had, alas) to immortalize the grandeur of the sheer cliffs that drop into the sea.
South Georgia, 600 miles to the east of the Falklands, was first documented by London merchant Antoine de la Roche in 1675. One hundred years later, Captain James Cook was the first to actually step ashore. He named it the Isle of George, after his king. But it wasn’t until 1914 and the astounding tale of Ernest Shackleton’s epic rescue of the Endurance crew that South Georgia had any significant recognition. Today, a moment at Shackleton’s gravesite above the former whaling station at Grytviken is both somber and thrilling.
Though small in area—about 100 miles long and two to 30 miles wide—the number of wildlife species on South Georgia is mind-boggling. The island is home to nearly 95 percent of the world’s fur seal population, half its population of elephant seals, and millions of leopard seals that arrive each summer to breed. Competing for prime nesting space are 30 million birds, including 250,000 albatrosses. The penguin contingent includes four million macaroni penguins, one million king penguins (the largest king colony in the world), 200,000 gentoos, about 12,000 chinstraps and smaller populations of Adelie penguins.
The Falkland Islands, the only human-inhabited isles on your grand Antarctic cruise tour, sit about 300 miles off the shores of Argentina. They were first sighted in 1592, but the first recorded landing actually took place in 1692 by British navigator John Strong. Across the centuries, through skirmishes, battles and the calamitous Falkland Islands War in 1982, the British managed to keep their flag firmly planted. Tourism has increased over the past 30 years, and the islands’ 3,100 inhabitants—many can trace their roots back six generations—have gained a reputation for their warm hospitability. The up-close and personal encounters with the wildlife that shares the shores also draw adventurers from around the globe.
Two main islands—East and West—and nearly 700 tiny rocky islets make up the Falkland Island archipelago. With habitats ranging from rocky coves to tussock hills and white-sand beaches, wildlife species include 227 avian species and five species of breeding penguins that total about one million in number. East Falkland is home to the largest king penguin colony outside of South Georgia, and tiny Sea Lion Island can claim all five penguin species found in the Falklands—Magellanic, gentoo, rockhopper, macaroni and king. Offshore, dolphins and pods of orca keep alert for their next meal, while vast numbers of sea lions and elephant seals haul out on the beaches.
Antarctic cruise travel that includes the Falklands and South Georgia is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a chance to relive the thrill of those early days of exciting explorations.