The Antarctic Islands are those islands lying south of the 60th parallel, close to the continent of Antarctica. They have a marine polar climate: very cold, but not as extremely cold as the mainland, so the sea only freezes over in the very depths of winter. That makes them more approachable by ship, and they're often the first or last points of call of cruises into Antarctica. They all are governed by the Antarctic Treaty, which (as on the mainland) seeks to protect the fragile environment, forbids military use, and sets aside national claims. Thus, various nations own and operate bases here and have hypothetical claims to territory which they waive. References to nations on this page should be understood accordingly. The Treaty restricts commercial activity but doesn't affect fishing on the open ocean.
This page doesn't cover islands which lie closer to the mainland (often welded to it by thick ice) and are described on those relevant pages. Along the Antarctic Peninsula these include Anvers and Wiencke islands, with Port Lockroy; on the other side of the continent is Ross Island, with McMurdo base and Scott base.
Nor does this page cover the South Sandwich Islands - they're marked on the map but lie north of the 60th parallel, and so are not governed by the Treaty. They're administered by Britain as part of the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands.
- 1 Ballenny Islands are part of the Ross Dependency of New Zealand. The three main islands (all about 25 km long by 3 km wide, and ice-clad) are Young, Buckle and Sturge. There's no base here and since their discovery in 1839, humans have only set foot on them on four occasions.
- 2 Scott Island, discovered in 1902, is also part of the NZ Ross Dependency. It's only 565 m long by at most 340 m wide and has no base. In 2009 a couple were married here by their ship's captain, so Barbados is facing more competition.
- 3 Peter I Island in the Bellingshausen Sea is a dependency of Norway. It was first sighted in 1821 but is usually hemmed in by pack ice, so the first landing was only in 1929. It's 11 km long by 19 km broad, about the size of Staten Island. It's mostly covered by glacier, with a 1640 m mountain, and has no base.
- 4 South Shetland Islands, discovered in 1819, are claimed by several nations and have the most bases, with sixteen active in 2020. The archipelago lies 120 km north of the Peninsula. The largest is King George Island with the settlement of Villa Las Estrellas. Others include Livingston Island, and Deception where the flooded caldera of a still-active volcano provides a spectacular natural harbour.
- 5 South Orkney Islands largest member is Coronation Island, discovered in 1821 and named for newly-crowned King George IV of Britain. It's 46 km long and about 10 km wide, with Mount Nivea its highest peak at 1266 m. It's almost entirely ice-clad, with a few ice-free patches along the coast, and is a breeding ground for chinstrap penguins, Cape petrels and snow petrels. Signy Island to the south has a British research station, staffed in summer. Laurie Island to the east has the Argentine station Orcadas, staffed year-round. Powell and Fredriksen are the other two significant islands, lying between Coronation and Laurie islands.
- 6 South Sandwich Islands are just north of 60oS and are not part of the Treaty area. They're administered by Britain as part of the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and are not described further here.
Antarctica has no immigration or border controls, but visitors to any land or sea south of 60°S need permission from an Antarctic Treaty member country. Your tour / cruise organiser will take care of this but those travelling independently should apply six months in advance. Individual, non-governmental visitors can contact the Antarctic Policy Unit, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Private Bag 18901, Wellington NZ. Phone: +64 4 439 8000 Fax: +64 4 439 8103
By plane: Villa las Estrellas (TNM IATA) on King George Island, 150 km north of the Antarctic Peninsula, has a gravel, all-seasons runway suitable for large, wheeled aircraft. Flights from Punta Arenas take about 4 hours. There are no commercial scheduled flights, but there are air tours, and transfers of visitors joining small-ship cruises.
By boat is the only way to reach the islands beyond King George. Cruises to the Peninsula and nearby islands usually start from Ushuaia, take a couple of weeks and cost over US$5000 per person.
Antarctic Islands are small compared to the great continent near them but that doesn't mean that they are all small by any means. While some of the islands won't take too long to cross, some of the islands are surprisingly large and will take a couple days to hike across if you hike all day.
You'll need a boat to get from one island to another.
See and Do
- See Antarctica#See_and_Do: the most important thing for you to do is to come home safe.
- Striking scenery is found in the South Shetland Islands, such as Half Moon Island and volcanic Deception. The islands are mostly ice-clad, but there are some large ice-free areas, such as on King George, Livingston and Deception islands. That makes them popular with penguins, visitors and research bases. Some parts are off-limits to visitors as they support a fragile tundra habitat that is common in the Arctic but rare in the Antarctic.
- Huge penguin colonies are found on many of the islands, and some species have their principal habitat here rather than on the mainland.
- A total solar eclipse crosses this region on Sat 4 Dec 2021. The path of totality passes over the South Orkney Islands and Weddell Sea to reach the continental coast around 07:30 UT. Several cruise ships aim to view it - everything depends on the weather, and viewing prospects are poor. But the path means cruisers are likely to sail by several islands that are otherwise seldom included on cruise itineraries.
This is not the place for wild camping. You (or your trip organiser) must negotiate access to a base, or bring a heavy-duty self-sufficient expedition. Air tours to King George have their own campsite.
See the general advice for Antarctica on staying safe and healthy.
Surprise surprise, there's no mobile / Wifi signal in these remote waters. Ships use satellite phones and charge for brief access.
There's a Post Office at Villa Las Estrellas on King George Island.