The South Shetland Islands are a group of islands about 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of the Antarctic Peninsula. They have a marine polar climate: very cold, but not as extremely cold as the mainland. They were discovered in the early 19th century and supported temporary bases for whaling and sealing, and later research and exploration bases; they've never had permanent residents.
- King George Island, discovered in 1819, is the largest at 95 km by 25 km. It's also known as Isla 25 de Mayo by Argentina, Isla Rey Jorge by Chile, and Vaterloo by Russia. Although 90% of it is covered by ice, Fildes Peninsula at its western tip is ice-free, and has several bases and an airport clustered around the tiny settlement of 1 Villa Las Estrellas, linked by dirt tracks. Other bases and a camp further east are reached by boat.
- Ardley Island just off King George has Ripamonti I & II bases (Chile) and Ballvé (Argentina, summer).
- Penguin Island is a volcanic island just off the south coast of King George. It last erupted in 1905 and has no bases.
- Nelson Island, separated from King George by a 400 m channel, is 22 km by 17 km. Eco-Nelson base is here, founded in 1988 by a Czech explorer.
- Islands west of King George are:
- Robert Island is 18 km by 13 km. There's Edwards Point lighthouse and Risopatrón (Chile, summer) base.
- 2 Greenwich Island is 24 km by 5 km. Its bases are Captain Arturo Prat (Chile) and Pedro Vicente Maldonaldo (Ecuador), which is summer-only.
- Aitcho Islands are a scattering of islets and rocks just north of Greenwich, often visited by cruises for their birdlife. The name is a convoluted acronym for the British Admiralty Hydrographic Office which mapped them in 1935.
- Half Moon Island, one km east of Livingston, is an islet often visited by Antarctic cruises. Cámara Base (Argentina) is here.
- Livingston Island is the second largest of the group, 73 km by a maximum 22 km. Its western 3 Byers Peninsula is free of ice, so it's an unusual habitat, given extra protection and requiring a special permit to enter: bases here are Camp Byers (Spain) and Camp Livingston (Argentina). Ice does however cover the north branch Ioannes Paulus II Peninsula, which has Shirreff (US) and Doctor Guillermo Mann (Chile). Hurd peninsula on the main body of the island has Juan Carlos I (Spain), and further east are the Bulgarian bases of Camp Academia and 4 St Kliment Ohridski. These are all outside the specially protected zone and visitors sometimes slog along the snowy trails between them.
- Rugged Island 5 km by 1 km, is just off the western tip of Livingston. No bases.
- Snow Island, 16 km by 8 km, is completely ice-clad and has no bases. It's home to the most northerly breeding colony of Emperor penguins.
- Smith Island, 32 km by 8 km, is mountainous, rising to Mount Foster at 2105 m. No bases.
- Low Island is 14 km by 8 km. No bases.
- 5 Deception Island south of Livingston is an active volcano, with a magnificent natural harbour within its caldera, often visited by cruises. Decepción (Argentina) and Gabriel de Castilla (Spain) are its two summer bases.
- Islands east of King George are:
- Bridgeman Island is an extinct volcano 800 m across, 37 km east of King George. No bases.
- 6 Elephant Island is the main island of a secondary archipelago 200 km east of King George, and is where Ernest Shackleton's crew took refuge after their ship was crushed by ice. Brazil has a summer camp here, Goeldi. Rowett and Sugarloaf are two nearby small isles.
- Gibbs Island, 25 km southwest of Elephant Island, is 13 km by 2 km with no bases. It has large colonies of macaroni penguins, chinstraps, and southern fulmars.
- Seal Islands are a group of islets 7 km north of Elephant. There's a large colony of Antarctic Fur Seals.
- Clarence Island, the easternmost, is 21 km long, mountainous and ice-clad, with Mount Irving (1950 m) at its peak. No bases.
- The next land eastwards, 500 km away, is Coronation Island in the separate South Orkney group.
- Islands south of King George, 120 km away over the horizon, are for much of the year fused to the mainland by ice, and in high summer separated only by narrow channels. They're described as part of the Antarctic Peninsula.
By boat: Cruises to this part of Antarctica usually start from Ushuaia, take one to two weeks and cost at least US$5000 per person.
By plane: See Villa Las Estrellas for details of air tours to King George Island, flying out of Punta Arenas. A day- or overnight trip costs just as much as a cruise.
Some bases use light aircraft or helicopters, but visitors get around the archipelago by boat.
See & Do
- Bellingshausen base next to Villa las Estrellas has a charming wooden Russian Orthodox church.
- Wildlife: common species are elephant, Weddell, and leopard seals, and Adelie, chinstrap and gentoo penguins. Birds such as skuas and southern giant petrel nest in summer.
- Half Moon Island, one km east of Livingston, is often visited by Antarctic cruises. It's effectively two clusters of rocks fused together by a volcanic tombola, and may represent the lip of a former caldera. Boats come into the shelter of Menguante Cove, from where there's a 2 km walking trail to view the chinstrap penguin colony and other bird life, the Cámara Base (Argentina), and up to the top of Xenia Hill (96 m) for views over Greenwich and Livingston Islands. You can see much of it without stirring from your seat as in 2010 this became the first part of Antarctica to be portrayed on Google street view. Initially Google's map pegman was replaced by a penguin icon, but it's now reverted to the usual; it was probably contravening something in the Treaty.
- Deception Island south of Livingston is an active volcano which last erupted in 1970. The deception is that it looks like a normal mountainous island, but its flanks are just the rim of a great flooded caldera, entered via the narrow channel "Neptune's Bellows". This creates a well-sheltered natural harbour, so it's a common calling point for cruise ships. Decepción (Argentina) and Gabriel de Castilla (Spain) are the two bases here. The island's attractions are its great natural amphitheatre, a large colony of chinstrap penguins at Baily Head, geothermal hot springs at Pendulum Cove (so you can actually swim in Antarctica), and the remains of an old whaling station and British bases wrecked by eruptions.
- Elephant Island 200 km east of King George lacks anchorage and is often foggy and windy, so cruise parties seldom land, but it sometimes gets a sail-by for its dramatic history. In 1915 Ernest Shackleton's ship Endurance became trapped by ice for six months, and was eventually crushed. The crew camped with their lifeboats on the ice for two months, hoping that the ice-drift would bring them within range of Paulet Island which had cached supplies. But the ice broke up and they were forced to take to the boats, spending five days at sea before getting ashore at Elephant Island, 557 km from where they'd abandoned ship. The island was far from shipping routes and there was little to hunt for food, so Shackleton left most of the crew camped there while he and five others sailed on in a reinforced boat. In a breathtaking display of seamanship, they sailed 1300 km in 16 days to stagger ashore in South Georgia. Only, they were on the wrong side of it: they still had to clamber over a hitherto unclimbed mountain range to reach Stromness whaling station and raise the alarm. Every single member of the crew was saved.
Eat and Drink