The Falkland Islands are a popular addition to many Antarctic voyages, but they’re well worth seeing on their own for their spectacular penguin, seal and albatross populations. Surrounded by the South Atlantic, the islands lie 490km east of Patagonia. Two main islands, East Falkland and West Falkland, and more than 700 smaller ones cover 12,173 sq km. Alternately settled and claimed by France, Spain, Britain and Argentina, the Falklands (known as the Islas Malvinas in Argentina) have been an overseas territory of the UK since 1833, a status the Argentines have fought and still contest.
About 60% of Falklanders are native born, some tracing their ancestry back six or more generations. Today more than 80% of the 2900 Falklanders (sometimes called ‘Kelpers’) live in Stanley, and about 1200 British military live at Mt Pleasant base. The rest of the islanders live in ‘Camp,’ the name given to all of the Falklands outside Stanley.
The island of South Georgia, one of the first gateways to Antarctica, was the center for the huge Southern Ocean whaling industry from 1904 to 1966. Several important expeditions to Antarctica called at the whaling stations en route to or from the continent, notably those of Ernest Shackleton. Each station has a cemetery or burial site (www.wildisland.gs).
With its sharp, heavily glaciated peaks, crescent-shaped South Georgia (170km long and 40km wide at its broadest) presents a rugged appearance. The Allardyce Range forms the island’s spine. The highest point is Mt Paget (2934m), first ascended in 1964. Glaciers cover 57% of the 3755-sq-km island.
Visiting ships focus on South Georgia’s northeastern coast, with its many fjords and fantastic wildlife-breeding beaches. Thanks to the high mountains, this coast is protected from the prevailing westerlies, which is why all of the whaling stations were built on this side of the island.
A busy port and adventure hub, Ushuaia is a sliver of steep streets and jumbled buildings below the snowcapped Martial Range. Here the Andes meets the famed Beagle Channel in a sharp skid, making way for the city before reaching a sea of lapping currents.
Ushuaia takes full advantage of its end-of-the-world status, and an increasing number of Antarctica-bound vessels call into its port. The town's mercantile hustle knows no irony: there's a souvenir shop named for Jimmy Button (a Fuegian native taken for show in England) and the ski center is named for the destructive invasive castor (beaver). That said, with a pint of the world’s southernmost microbrew in hand, you can happily plot the outdoor options: hiking, sailing, skiing, kayaking and even scuba diving.
Tierra del Fuego’s comparatively high wages draw Argentines from all over, and some locals lament the lack of urban planning and loss of small-town culture.
Located at the South Shetlands’ northeastern end, Elephant Island was originally named ‘Sea Elephant Island’ by the British sealers who first charted it in the early 1820s, because of its abundance of elephant seals. The island itself bears a superficial resemblance to an elephant’s head and trunk.
It was here that 22 members of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, stranded in 1915 after their ship was crushed in the Weddell Sea pack ice, spent 135 days. At Point Wild, on the northern coast 10km west of Cape Valentine (the island’s easternmost point), where the men lived beneath two upturned boats, a monolith with a bust of Piloto Pardo, commander of the Chilean navy cutter Yelcho, commemorates their rescue on August 30, 1916. Landings are difficult; heavy surf often prevents even Zodiac tours, and, if the sea is calm, the beach may be too crowded with fur seals and chinstrap penguins to go ashore.
Easily recognized on any map by its broken-ring shape, Deception Island’s collapsed volcanic cone provides one of the safest natural harbors in the world, despite periodic eruptions.
To reach this secret haven, however, vessels must navigate a tricky 230m-wide break in the volcano’s walls, known since early-19th-century sealing days as Neptunes Bellows for the strong winds that blow through the strait. A British visitor to Deception in the 1920s called the Bellows ‘a veritable death-trap to the uninitiated,’ thanks to hull-piercing Ravn Rock (named by Jean-Baptiste Charcot in 1908 for the whale-catcher Ravn), which lies just 2.5m beneath the surface in the center of the narrow channel. The ‘deceptive’ entrance to the island has been known since the early 19th century, when it was called Hell’s Gates or Dragon’s Mouth.
Thanks to their spectacular scenery, abundant wildlife and proximity to Tierra del Fuego, the South Shetlands are one of Antarctica’s most visited areas. This major group of islands is just half a day’s cruise across the Bransfield Strait from the Antarctic Peninsula, and all cruises stop here.
The South Shetlands stretch 540km from northeast to southwest and include four major groupings as well as 150-odd islets, skerries and rocks. The islands are about 80% glaciated and cover 3688 sq km. The archipelago’s highest point is Smith Island’s Mt Foster (2105m), first climbed in 1996. Most distinctive of the South Shetlands is Deception Island, a beautiful ‘restless’ volcano that was the site of a whaling station and the first Antarctic flight.
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