South Orkney Islands
The South Orkney Islands are perhaps one of the globe’s best examples of nature left untouched by humans. The icy landscape of this archipelago hosts a permanent population of zero people, with just temporary researchers and surveyors residing in the two bases during the summer months.
The sovereignty of these islands is in suspended dispute between the two nations represented by these bases: Argentina and Britain. The Argentinian base, the Orcadas, is the oldest staffed research facility in Antarctica, having been built in 1903. Meanwhile, the British Signy Research Station has been there since 1947.
Though the first known discovery of this archipelago was by a pair of sealers, it was a subsequent explorer, James Weddell, who gave the South Orkney Islands their current title based on the Orkney Islands of Scotland. In what may or may not be a coincidence, the Antarctic’s archipelago is almost the same latitude south as Scotland’s Orkney Islands are north.
The South Orkney Islands are situated in the frosty Southern Ocean. They are comprised of four major islands (Coronation Island, Laurie Island, Powell, and Signy) and several smaller ones.
Despite freezing conditions and being mostly covered in ice and glaciers, the islands are home to some vegetation, including algae and mosses. The islands and the waters around them are also feeding grounds for some seals, Adélie penguins, chinstrap penguins, gentoo penguins, and seabirds.
The stunning sights and thrill of adventure are the main reasons explorers get excited about this and other Antarctic destinations. Cruise lines offering voyages this close to the South Pole include Quark Expeditions and Silversea Cruises.
Cruise ships do not dock at the South Orkney Islands due to the lack of facilities and rough conditions. Instead, you may be taken to the islands via Zodiacs (inflatable rubber boats) in summer and if weather permits.
This archipelago is situated just over 600 kilometres from the Antarctic Peninsula’s northeastern tip.
As this location is not populated, facilities are very limited. If your trip ashore includes a visit to the Argentine research base, there will be basic facilities to use. Aside from this, make sure to take advantage of your cruise ship’s amenities before and after your South Orkney Island adventure.
How To Get Around
You will likely be transported mostly by Zodiac (rubber boat) in order to get to the islands and back to the ship.
Travel times will vary depending on how far you explore and the weather conditions on the day.
Currency – There is no currency on the South Orkney Islands as there is nothing to buy here. The cost of items on board your ship will remain the same as throughout the rest of your journey, though all your on-board expenses might be covered by your ticket regardless.
Time Zone – The South Orkney Islands are technically 3 hours behind Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). However, time zones in Antarctica are confusing and can change rapidly as your ship travels. Your cruise will most likely keep things simple by running according to the same time zone throughout the Antarctic stretch of your journey.
Weather – The climate on and around the South Orkney Islands is not tolerable in winter, as is typical of this extreme part of the world. During summer, the archipelago’s average temperature may rise to about 3-4 degrees Celsius, but it will not get much higher. Expect plenty of chilly winds and be prepared for snow; it falls here on more days than it does not.
Zodiac Cruising – Jumping on board an inflatable rubber boat is the best way – and virtually the only way – to get the full South Orkney Islands experience. Float past majestic blue icebergs, witness thousands of cute penguins in their natural habitat, and be blown away by the enormous scope and beauty of this vastly untouched tundra landscape. Make sure to dress very warmly and stay out of the water!
Orcadas Station – The Argentine research base on Laurie Island makes for a fascinating visit. The meteorology-focused station was established by Scotsman W.S. Bruce in 1903 and then sold to Argentina. Meet the friendly people who work here in summer and get a feel for what it might be like to live here – it might be a great experience to visit, but you’ll probably be glad your stay is just for the day! If given permission, you may also get to visit Punta Cormoran, which is home to a colony of Adélie penguins.
Photography – The breathtaking landscapes and fascinating wildlife of this archipelago are the stuff a nature photographer’s dreams are made of! You’ll definitely be capturing some perfect panoramic shots as your cruise ship approaches and sails away too.