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Antarctica & sub-Antarctic Expeditions

Offering educationally-oriented, comprehensive trips to the Galápagos Islands will always be our focus at GALAPAGOS TRAVEL. At the same time, some of our Galápagos passengers have put mild pressure on us to take them somewhere else - basically, on another great adventure.

Antarctica is a vast desert. 5.4 million square miles, or roughly 10% of the earth's land surface, and virtually all covered by a permanent ice sheet (at times over 2 miles thick). During the long Austral winters the sea ice more than doubles teh size of teh continent. It is at this time that Antarctica is at its most formidable - dominating nd unpredictable - greater than most life, and seeming devoid of life.

During the Austral summer however Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands will be teeming with life. When the sun finally emerges from the long winter night, the sea ice melts, and life returns - to breed! With a background of glittering white mountains and blue-green icebergs, come face to face with incredibly large colonies of penguins. Approach colonies of albatrosses, petrels, and shage (cormorants). Walk and cruise among many species of pinnipeds, including large colonies of massive Southern elephant seals and roaring Antarctic fur seals. At sea be rewarded with great views of pelagic sea birds gliding nearby as well as several species of whales.

The Southern Ocean ecosystem is the world's largest, and most fertile. It spans from Antarctica north to the Antarctic Convergence; the boundary where northward-moving cold Antarctic waters meet the warmer Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. Here the Antarctic circumpolar current carries more water than any other system in teh world - the richness of this system, and the wildlife supported, is beyond belief.

The history of Antarctic exploration is legendary - names such as Cook, Scott, Amundson, and Shackleton. Each had incredible, heroic adventures. Go where they have gone and learn what they accomplished, and endured. Even in the relatively mild austral summer, we will occasionally feel the force of Antarctica, just as they did. Particularly around te Ross Sea it is possible to still visit several of their historic huts/camps. On Elephant Island one might see where Shackleton's men camped, and on South Georgia you can often walk the last section of his epic hike across the island. Today's expeditions might put you in touch with modern-day explorers as well as members of the global community of scientists working at polar research stations.

If you have already experienced the Galápagos Islands you will be surprised at both the similarities, and differences. The wildlife is generally as approachable as you experienced in the Galápagos, although with colonies typically far larger. Another difference is teh relative freedom afforded in Antarctica; rather than staying with your guide you are more likely to be able to explore an area more at your own pace, within sight of the expedition team, linger where you wish. The photographic oppourtunites are unmatched.

Galápagos Travel first started traveling south in 1998, and we've been back every year or two since! On the continent we've traveled to, and shared, the Antarctic Peninsula, Weddell Sea, and Ross Sea. In the sub-Antarctic we've been to the Falklands Islands, South Georgia Island, South Shetland Islands, (including Elephant Island), South Orkney Islands, as well as the sub-Antarctic islands of New Zealand; Snares, Campbell and Auckland Islands. Each region or island is wonderfully unique, and all worth a serious visit!

Expeditions to Antarctica primarily depart from either the southern tip of South America (Argentina & Chile), or New Zealand. The two experiences are quite different from each other. With the relative ease of travel between South America and Antarctica we'll focus more on travel from that side.

Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetland Islands...
Without a doubt the easiest part of Antarctica to reach is the Peninusla. From the southern reaches of South America the Peninsula is just 600 miles, or 2 days by ship (or a few hours by plane). While most of Antarctica is frozen throughout the year, an exception is the long panhandle of the Antarctic Peninsula, and surrounding South Shetland Islands, which stretches far enought north to be largely ice-free in the summer.

As wonderful as the Antarctica Peninsula and South Shetlands are, and they are truly wonderful, the best part of a voyage to this region is the Falklands Islands archipelago and South Georgia Island.

The Falkland Islands archipelago is home to amazingly varied populations of sea birds, including the world’s largest colony of the magnificent Black-browed Albatross. These wild islands are also home to four species of penguins, petrels, shags and more. Myriad land birds also thrive on these remote islands, including caracara, geese, ducks, finches, pipits…

If the Antarctic Peninsula (and adjacent islands) is the heart of a voyage south, South Georgia is certainly the soul. Not included on most Antarctica itineraries, South Georgia is always the highlight for anyone taking the time to visit. Here you will find one of the world’s highest concentrations of sea birds, with colonies in the hundreds of thousands. King, Macaroni, Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins all nest on South Georgia. There are also 4 species of albatross here, including the Wandering Albatross, with its 13 foot wingspan!

There are many options for visiting the region. Most expeditions will focus on the Peninsula and neighboring islands, spending roughly 10-14 days total on board. Many ships will also offer occasional longer voyages that include the Falkland Islands and South Georgia Island each season. This is our favorite routing and what we strongly recommend! Occasionally there is an in-depth voyage that focuses exclusively on South Georgia. Or an expedition that focuses on the Weddell Sea side of the Peninsula.

The Ross Sea and sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand & Australia…
This is the furthest south that a ship can sail – the ice-choked Bay of Whales and the Ross Sea. This is one of the most remote places on Earth and one of the most fascinating places in Antarctica’s human history, starting with the “Race to the Pole” in 1901. Walk in history’s footsteps and see the same sites, and same wildlife so vividly described more than a century ago. Voyages to the Ross Sea are close to a month in length owning to the distances that must be traveled.

Lying like stepping stones to the Ross Sea and Antarctic continent are the little known cool temperate or Sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand and Australia. Located to the south and east of New Zealand they are comprised of six island groups: the Bounty Islands, the Antipodes, the Snares, the Auckland Islands, Campbell Island and Macquarie Island (the latter being part of Australia). They are tiny havens for some of the most abundant and unique wildlife on the planet. Surprisingly they are also vegetated with incredible floral bounty in the form of giant flowering Megaherbs.

Click on the links below to learn more about the destination highlights, seasonal highlights, tours, vessels, gateway cities, and more…

UNDER CONSTRUCTION: please call or e-mail for information on the 2016/2017 season. We anticipate this page being live agian by September 2016...

Antarctic Peninsula & South Shetland Islands

South Georgia Island

Falkland Islands

South Orkney Islands

Weddell Sea...

Southern Ocean & Drake Passage

New Zealand Sub-Antarctic Islands

Ross Sea

Polar Vessels

Specialty Programs

South American Gateway Cities

New Zealand Gateway Cities

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."

attributed to Mark Twain

December 30 & 31: Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas)
Called the Falkland Islands by England, and Islas Malvinas by Argentina, this temperate archipelago is located just over 300 miles east of South America. The diversity of wildlife makes the Falklands a photographer’s and naturalist’s paradise. The islands are home to several species of penguins, including King, Rockhopper, Gentoo and Magellanic. Endemic birds include the Falkland Steamer Duck and Cobb’s Wren. The seas are also rich in wildlife with dolphins, seals and whales often sighted in the waters surrounding the islands. While the nights might be short watch for glorious sunrises and sunsets, even if it means getting up in the middle of the night!

We plan to make the most of our time here with several anticipated landing locations…

West Point Island • The Napier family has owned the island since the 1860s. Black-browed Albatrosses nest in colonies on cliffs along the water’s edge on the western side of the island. Rockhopper Penguins share the cliffs. Commerson’s Dolphins are often seen in the water surrounding the island, often even accompanying our zodiacs ashore.

Carcass Island • The island is named for a Royal Navy ship, HMS Carcass, which arrived in 1766. This picturesque island has a wonderful diversity of songbirds (due to the lack of a rat problem, which plagued many of the other islands) which nest amongst the luxuriant growth that covers the gently rolling landscape. In addition to Magellanic penguins the island is typically home to oystercatchers, geese and the flightless steamer duck.

Stanley • The deep-water harbor of Stanley was the economic mainstay of the archipelago following the port’s completion in 1845. Sailing ships damaged while rounding Cape Horn called in for expensive repairs as did whalers and other the questionable vessels used to carry fortune seekers to the gold fields of California and Australia. The town is remarkably British in feel, with pubs and fish and chips shops vying for attention with the museum and church.

December 19: At Sea
From the Falklands we will head southeast across the Scotia Sea to South Georgia. In this area we will cross the Antarctic Convergence, and officially enter Antarctic waters. The Expedition Team will again prepare us for the activities ahead, including the remarkable history of the island, and its connection to Sir Ernest Shackleton.

The richness of these waters is evident in the marine mammal life, especially the fur seals on fishing forays. There is a chance of sighting whales, such as Fins and Minkies as well. Fin Whales are very difficult to approach as they are the fastest of the rorqual whales and can quickly leave us behind. The birds circling our stern will be outstanding, especially the large albatrosses. We have counted in these waters six species of albatross: Grey-headed, Light-mantled Sooty, Wandering, Northern Royal, Southern Royal, and of course, Black-browed; eight species of petrels: Cape, Soft-plumaged, White-headed, Atlantic, Blue, White-chinned, and Southern and Northern Giant Petrels; three species of storm-petrels: Gray-backed, Black-bellied and Wilson's; plus common Diving-petrel, Greater and Sooty Shearwaters, Southern Fulmar and Antarctic Prion by the thousands.

January 3 – 5: South Georgia
Here we will find one of the world's highest concentrations of sea birds, with colonies in the hundreds of thousands. South Georgia will give us amazing looks at 6 or more species of penguins, including huge colonies of King Penguins and the crested Macaroni Penguins (with 5 million breeding pairs). There are also 4 species of albatrosses, including the Wandering Albatross, with its 13 ft wingspan. The magic of South Georgia is due to its location - far enough north to escape the sea ice (providing year-round ocean access to the breeding sea birds and fur seals) and yet south of the Antarctic Convergence. This is where the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans mix with cold waters from the south, merging into the nutrient-rich Southern Ocean, teeming with Antarctic krill - the lifeblood of the immense food chain.

In addition to the seabirds, half of the world's population of Southern Elephant Seals breed on South Georgia. Like the Elephant Seal, the Antarctic Fur Seal is restricted largely to the sub-Antarctic islands. Ninety-five percent of its world population breeds on South Georgia alone.

Our plan is to fully explore the more sheltered northeast cost of the island - our options for landings are amazing, and will likely include several of the following!

Drygalski Fjord • Some of the peaks that rise straight out of the sea were not subjected to glaciation, and therefore are sharply peaked.

Gold Harbour • The backdrop to this harbor is the hanging Bertrab Glacier. King and Gentoo Penguins, Elephant and Fur Seals are common here.

Grytviken • This was the busiest whaling station in the world for much of the first half of the 20th century. Now only a handful of people live, albeit temporarily, here on South Georgia, a United Kingdom overseas territory. There is a very nice small museum on the natural history of the island, plus a small gift shop and post office. The church was built for the whaling community and is the only building in Grytviken that is still used for its original purpose. Drink a toast to Sir Ernest Shackleton at his grave.

Prion Island • Located in the Bay of Islas, Robert Cushman Murphy named the island for the species of petrels that are seen there, Prion. This is the only site where we can see Wandering Albatross nesting. Other nesting birds include the Southern Giant Petrel, Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, South Georgia Pintails, and also the South Georgia Pipit.

Salisbury Plain • One of the largest King Penguin rookeries on the island is located on Salisbury Plain. The Murphy and Lucas Glaciers flank the plain.

St. Andrew’s Bay • This is the largest King Penguin colony on South Georgia, with an estimated half a million individuals, all in impossibly dense colonies. The setting is beautiful with high peaks towering over the bay and a fast-flowing meltwater stream running off the island's glaciers. Reindeer, introduced by Norwegian whalers often feed on the grass in the area. Snowy Sheathbills and Skuas patrol, while Fur Seals keep watch on the beach.

Stromness • This abandoned whaling station was in full operation the day that Ernest Shackleton and his companions staggered in after a 36 hour trek across the island of South Georgia.

January 6-8: At Sea & South Orkneys
As we cross the Scotia Sea, sailing ever closer to Antarctica, we hope to visit the South Orkney Islands. Linked to the Antarctic Peninsula by an enormous sub-marine mountain range these islands, often shrouded in mist, are protected by large grounded icebergs and sea ice. As the temperatures drop the wildlife viewing seems to get better from the enclosed and heated bridge and the view lounge! At this peak of the southern summer the temperatures ashore are likely in the low 30’s. If we are lucky, there will be an excursion to Coronation Island to observe penguins nesting in moss beds alongside graceful snow petrels. We may also stop at the remote island of Laurie and visit the Argentinean meteorological station located there.

January 9 – 12: South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Mainland
Continuing south we will pass Elephant Island, where Shackleton’s men were stranded in 1916 after their ship, the Endurance, was crushed by ice in the Weddell Sea. Our entourage of following seabirds starts building with Pintado Petrels and Prions joining in large numbers.  Soon after Antarctic Fulmars join the melee of wheeling seabirds.

While most of Antarctica is frozen throughout the year, an exception is the long panhandle of the Antarctic Peninsula which stretches far enough north to be largely ice-free in the summer. To the east, it is exposed to the frozen Weddell Sea, while the western shore is warmed by the Southern Ocean and buffeted by fierce winds.

The Bransfield Strait separates the Shetland Islands from the Antarctic Peninsula, with the islands stretching for 335 miles from northeast to southwest. Whales have made a great comeback in this region. Wonderful Humpback behavior is common in these summer feeding grounds. Other cetaceans commonly include Orcas, or even rare beaked whales. Here in the cleanest of air watch for a possible "green flash" as the sun drops below the sea.

Here again the possible landing/cruising areas are nothing short of awesome!

Brown Bluff • A towering (2,225 feet) ice-capped red bluff dominates the landscape.  Below, a 2-mile north-facing beach is home to Adélie and Gentoo Penguin rookeries. 

Cuverville Island • A rocky beach here extends to a steep cliff that absorbs the summer sun, and is home to the largest Gentoo Penguin rookery  on the Peninsula.  Near the steep cliff face the area is rich in vegetation with lush lichens, moss and grass.  Southern Giant Petrels, Kelp Gulls, Antarctic Terns, Snowy Sheathbills, Antarctica Brown Skuas, and South Polar Skuas all breed here as well.

Danco Island • This small island is home to Gentoo Penguins, Snowy Sheathbills, Kelp Gulls and shags, to name just a few.

Deception Island • This horseshoe shaped volcanic island is still active, and amazing in many ways. Conditions permitting the ship will enter the caldera via a narrow passage called Neptune’s Bellows. Landings inside might be possible at Whaler’s Bay where dilapidated buildings and rusting boilers from the early 20th century whaling operations sit on the beach amid Weddell Seals and raucous Kelp Gulls. Watch for steam that may rise from hot geo-thermally heated water along the shoreline. Bailey Head is a landing on the exterior of the island, and home to a huge Chinstrap colony dominating the natural volcanic amphitheater of the site - probably the most beautiful of all Chinstrap colonies.  The island is the site of Sir Hubert Wilkins’ first Antarctica flight.

Enterprise Island (Gerlache Strait) • Located in Wilhelmina Bay, the island was long used by whalers (a Zodiac cruise around the island passes a still-visible wrecked whaling ship).

Half Moon Island (Livingston Island) • The crescent-shaped island was known to sealers, if no one else, as early as 1821. Sealers were notorious for keeping secret the location of valuable sites. Many Antarctic birds breed on the island – Chinstrap Penguins, shags, Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, Kelp Gulls, Snowy Sheathbills, Antarctic Terns and Skua.

Lemaire Channel • This narrow 7-mile strait runs between Booth Island and the Antarctic Peninsula, and is one of the most scenic locations on the western coast. At just over 100 miles north of the Antarctica Circle the channel often becomes impassable when ice fills the passageway so it is not often on the itinerary until late in the season. 

Neko Harbor • Little evidence remains that this bay was once used by the floating whale factory ship Neko. You might see some whale vertebrae used by the resident Gentoo Penguins as shelter from the wind. There is an unmanned refuge hut erected by Argentina. Climb past the hut and up a steep slope for spectacular views of the glacier rimmed harbor.

Paulet Island • Located in the northwestern Weddell Sea, Paulet is home to 100,000 or more breeding pairs of Adélie Penguins, with peak breeding season from late December through January.  This is also a wonderful area to find penguin-covered icebergs. A Blue-eyed Shag colony is adjacent to the landing beach.  Slightly uphill the remains of a historic stone hut from the Swedish Antarctic Expedition in 1901-04 are still visible.

Petermann Island • The southernmost breeding colony of Gentoo Penguins is situated on this small island located just below the Lemaire Channel. The dome of the island rises 650 feet above the sea. Large colonies of Adélie Penguins, Blue-eyed Shags and South Polar Skuas also nest here. Crabeater, Weddell and Leopard Seals are a common sight on the nearby ice floes. The surrounding mountains are spectacular with hanging ice and wind-sculpted snow.

Port Lockroy • Following a short inland hike you are rewarded with a broad panorama of rugged mountain slopes topped with glaciers.  A sprawling Gentoo colony occupies the higher outcroppings.  This once-secret WWII base is now designated a historic site.

Turret Point (King George Island) • The site is noted by high rock stacks along the eastern edge of King George Bay.  Both Chinstrap and Adélie Penguin rookeries are found on this point, along with nesting Southern Giant Petrels, Kelp Gulls, Blue-eyed Shags and Antarctica Terns. Southern Elephant Seals frequently haul out in large numbers, with Weddell Seals to a lesser degree.

Waterboat Point (Paradise Bay) • At low tide, Waterboat Point is connected to the Antarctic mainland, while zodiacs are used to explore the area when the tide is in. Two scientists studying penguin behavior lived in a waterboat on the Point from 1921-22, thereby giving the area its name. The remains of their camp have been designated an Antarctic historic site.

Yankee Harbor (Greenwich Island) • This natural harbor is entered between Glacier Bluff and Spit Point, with a coarse gravel bar protecting the bay.  Gentoo Penguins have established a large rookery on the shingle terraces above the bay. The setting is spectacular with a large glacier along the east and north sides of the bay framing the view, and a large melt pond in the midst of the colony.

We will be offering optional hotel accommodations, airport transfers, and extension tours in both Buenos Aires and Ushuaia for anyone interested – options and prices should be available early in 2014. The Tierra Del Fuego National Park group tour is included at no charge for any Galapagos Travel expedition participants spending the night of December 27 in Ushuaia with us.

The 96 passenger, 384 ft Akademik Sergey Vavilov is today operated by One Ocean Expeditions. The ship was built in Finland in 1988 for polar and oceanographic research. Recently refurbished, she is ideal for expedition cruising – she is our favorite Polar vessel! Common areas include the bridge, a top-deck view lounge, presentation room with theater seating, dining room, library, mud room, multimedia room, infirmary, sauna, exercise room, and plunge pool. Viewing is excellent from the large, open decks. Superb, varied, and abundant international cuisine is prepared by European chefs; the dining room allows for a single seating at all meals.

The Akademik Sergey Vavilov has an ice-strengthened hull; her smaller size allows us to navigate scenic waterways with ease, venturing into areas closed to larger vessels. Powerful twin engines provide the speed capabilities to maintain our full itinerary. Designed to explore remote corners of the world, she is equipped with sophisticated navigation equipment and stabilizers for smoother cruising. The ship meets all international environmental and safety standards. A western physician trained in emergency medicine is on-board. The atmosphere aboard is relaxed, more akin to a private expedition than a conventional cruise. She has a crew of 35, largely Russian, all highly experienced in polar/ice navigation.


What did we see on the last trip at this time? We did this exact same trip in December 2012 - same ship, operator, and dates. It was simply amazing. The book preview below will give you an idea of what we saw - it is a collection of Mark's favorite images from the voyage. What it will not show you is all of the remarkable 79 species of birds and 21 species of mammals encountered once we boarded the ship (although it will show you the Magellanic Woodpecker our group saw the morning before we boarded). We saw a remarkable seven species of penguins, including upwards of 450,000 King Penguins on Salisbury Plain, South Georgia, alone. We had 28 species of tubenoses throughout our journey, including 7 species of albatross. We saw impressive numbers of Antarctic Fur Seals in South Georgia, plus hundreds of Southern Elephant Seals, and close sightings of Leopard Seals, Weddell Seals, and Crabeaters. We had incredible numbers of whales this year, including up to 80 large whales one day, with spectacular sightings of Humpbacks. Also noteworthy were pods of Orca and the incredibly unusual Strap-toothed Beaked Whales. One day we even had up to 125 Hourglass Dolphins. The kayaking group enjoyed calm waters and close encounters, and the continent-campers savored a night ashore serenaded by humpbacks feeding nearby throughout the night. It was another magical voyage in the Southern Ocean!


Photo credits: Debbie Brown (db), Mike Tossy (mt), and Mark Grantham (mg, plus all uncredited images), Peregrine Adventures (pa).

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