At 540km-long, this large chain of islands is located off the northern end of the Antarctic Peninsula. Small groups of scientists and researchers, as well as a variety of penguins, seabirds, and seals populate its coasts. After emerging from the Drake Passage, the South Shetlands are a frequent stop for those traveling to the peninsula. Popular destinations include Elephant, King George, Livingston, and Deception Island. Each offers a variety of activities that cater to all levels of interest, and have a significant place in Antarctica's past.
Just over 12 by 20 kilometers, this northern island is probably best known for its association with explorer Ernest Shackleton's Endurance expedition in the early 1900s. After their ship was slowly crushed by ice packs in the Weddell Sea, Shackleton and his crew salvaged what supplies they could and made their way to the island. The men would endure sub-zero temperatures and starvation for 135 days on Elephant Island. Incredibly, not a single man was lost. Shackleton's journey of survival would become one of the most noted in Antarctica's history. Today, possible wreckage from the Endurance can be seen on the south western side of the island. Along with the ship wreckage, seals, chinstrap penguins and 2000-year-old moss colonies also inhabit the island. Unfortunately, due to difficult sea and weather conditions, landings on Elephant Island are not very common.
King George Island is the largest of the South Shetland Islands and is one of the most populated locations in Antarctica. Because it is so accessible to South America, over eight different countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Russia and South Korea have permanent year-round bases on the island. Other countries, including Peru, Germany and the US have seasonal summer stations. The bases are crowded into 1295sq km and are connected by 20km of roads and paths. The remainder of the island is covered in glacial ice.
A popular landing site on the island is located on the southern coast at Turret Point. Easily accessible, the point is a favorite place to view Antarctic wildlife. Terns, Weddell and elephant seals, Adelie and chinstrap penguins, and giant petrels are just some of the wildlife that crowd along the coasts of King George Island.
One of the major sealing centers of the 19th century was located on Livingston Island. Decaying shelters and other artifacts from that time can be found along the island's coast making it an important historic site in Antarctica. Because of its historical importance, the island's western end is now protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) under the Antarctic Treaty.
Hannah point is a regularly visited site on Livingston Island. Here chinstrap and gentoo penguins, and an occasional macaroni penguin, are found nesting in the rocky shoreline. Elephant and fur seals can also be found basking on the beaches near the point.
An alternative to Hannah Point is Walker Bay. Scientists and researchers, frequent to the area, have set up a casual outdoor museum of fossils, penguin skulls, seal jaws, and regional minerals. The artifacts are displayed on Mother Nature's rocky tables to be enjoyed by all who visit. Walker Bay is also home to some of Antarctica's lone flowering plants: Deschampsia antarctica and Colobanthus quitensis whose tiny flowers can only be seen by the close observer.
Shaped like a horseshoe, protected by high cliffs and a narrow entrance, Deception Island is one of the world's safest natural harbors. Sealers were the first to take advantage of the island, but by 1915 whalers had taken the area over, establishing thirteen whaling stations within the harbor. Ghostly remains of the whaling stations - huge oil tanks, crude wooden huts, water barges - can be found throughout the island. During its working years, forty-five men died and were buried in a whalers' cemetery on the island. Today, it is covered by a mudslide that occurred during a volcanic eruption in the late 1960s.
A favorite destination on the island is Pendulum Cove. Its warm waters are heated by the island's volcanic activity, and allow visitors the rare opportunity to take a dip in the Antarctic Ocean. Trying to find a comfortable medium can be tricky in the cove waters; a couple inches to the left might be boiling hot, while a couple to the right may be frigid cold. The volcano on the island is currently dormant. The last eruption was recorded in 1992.