The Islands of Antarctica

Antarctica may be the goal of your trip, but rushing straight there will mean you bypass many of the Southern Ocean islands that lie between South America, New Zealand and Antarctica. It’s hard to tell exactly how many islands are in Antarctica, as they’re often revealed (or not) by the ice conditions of any given year. But many cruise itineraries include detours to these remote scraps of land that shelter penguins in their hundreds of thousands, seals, research stations and the graves of fallen explorers.

Read on to discover which islands in Antarctica we recommend visiting.

The Falkland Islands

At 480km east of Argentina, the Falkland Islands are the first stop on many Antarctic itineraries – and a tantalising introduction to the wealth of wildlife that can be found in the Southern Ocean. This craggy archipelago is a surreal juxtaposition of red telephone boxes and hundreds of thousands of penguins.

In October and November, bull elephant seals boisterously battle for mates and tiny new pups can be seen on the beaches. In December and January, you’ll find fluffy penguin chicks, while February and March are the peak whale watching months.

The hardy Falkland Islanders are year-round inhabitants, of course, and walking round the compact capital of Stanley, meeting those who live on this particularly isolated archipelago and learning about their history at the Historic Dockyard Museum adds an unusual – and very human – dimension to your Antarctic expedition.

Read more in our Falklands travel guide.
“Desolate” is a term often used when describing the island of South Georgia, the final resting place of famed Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.

South Georgia

Islands don’t come much more remote and inhospitable than South Georgia, and yet for decades this British Overseas Territory was home to whalers who hunted whales to near extinction for their valuable oil. South Georgia no longer has permanent inhabitants, but for today’s visitors the island is just as treasured – its huge king penguin and elephant seal colonies make it a rewarding stop on the long journey to Antarctica, plus there’s the opportunity to pay your respects at Shackleton’s grave.

Read more in our South Georgia travel guide.

South Sandwich Islands

The South Sandwich Islands are a chain of active volcanic isles about 750km south-east of South Georgia. Challenging weather conditions mean that the South Sandwich Islands only occasionally pop up on Antarctic cruise itineraries. You might be lucky, though – and if the winds and ice are in your favour, it’s rare but possible to sail past Zavodovski island, the star of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II, which is covered in chinstrap penguins from top to toe.
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When you reach the South Shetland Islands, you know you’ve finally made it to Antarctica.

South Shetland Islands

The wave-bashed specks of land of the South Shetland Islands aren’t administered by any nation. The most-visited island is King George – home to several international research stations, an airstrip and the continent’s only church. This is where you’ll land if you fly to Antarctica.

If you’re lucky, you may be able to reach Deception Island, a collapsed volcanic cone. The water in its natural harbour is heated by submarine volcanic activity – take a dip if you’re feeling brave! Unfortunately, landings on Deception Island can never be guaranteed due to the treacherous waters and unpredictable conditions.

Elephant Island is even harder to reach, which makes it all the more impressive that for four-and-a-half bitter months this was the home of Ernest Shackleton’s stranded crew.
Don’t be fooled by the fact that the Danger Islands are just over the horizon from the South Shetland Islands – this east side of the Antarctic Peninsula is practically impenetrable.

Danger Islands

The clue’s in the name for the Danger Islands – they’re some of the most inaccessible islands on the Antarctic Peninsula. Even in summer, they can be completely clogged with sea ice shuffling north as it breaks away from the main continent. Thanks to their inaccessibility, the Danger Islands still hold surprises – such as a 1.5 million-strong Adelie penguin colony that scientists discovered in 2018. It’s very unlikely that you’ll get near the Danger Islands on an Antarctic cruise, but you’ll certainly hear tales about them from the on-board marine biologists and lecturers.

Australia & New Zealand subantarctic islands

The Australian and New Zealand subantarctic Islands are a kind of bizarre Galapagos of the south – half a dozen tiny archipelagos each as distant from each other as they are from New Zealand. This isolation and extreme environment has led to a flourishing of endemic flora dominated by bright green megaherbs that sprout up in cartoonish, oversized clusters.

The fauna here is more easily recognisable: penguins, petrels, albatrosses, sea lions and elephant seals. But even several of these are found nowhere else in the world – endangered erect-crested penguins are only on the Bounty Islands and Antipodes Islands, while royal penguins are only on Macquarie Island… all three million of them. New Zealand (Hooker’s) sea lions breed mostly in the subantarctic islands and are the world’s rarest sea lion species.

The Antipodean subantarctic islands can be visited on Antarctic expedition cruises departing from New Zealand and heading into the little-visited reaches of East Antarctica and the Ross Sea. On these long voyages lasting around four weeks, you’ll spot whales and pelagic birds that spend most of their lives on open ocean and enjoy on-board lectures which reveal the fascinating biology and history of these virtually unknown archipelagos.

Read more in New Zealand Subantarctic Islands travel guide.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Paul Carroll] [The Falkland Islands: Paul Carroll] [South Georgia: Paul Carroll] [South Shetland Islands: Andrew Shiva] [Australia & NZ Subantarctic Islands: M. Murphy]