Scuba diving inSouth Georgia and South Sandwich Islands
- Remote and rarely visited archipelagos in the Scotia Sea
- Witness some of the greatest gatherings of wildlife on the planet
- Spot different species of penguins, albatrosses and seals
- Activities including kayaking, snorkelling, diving, hiking, and more
- Walk in the footsteps of renowned explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton
Lying scattered around the edges of the Scotia Sea, far from the nearest landmass, the islands of South Georgia, South Sandwich and South Orkney are among the most isolated and awe-inspiring destinations on the planet. Their austere, uncompromising Antarctic environments are an explorer’s dream-come-true, providing unparalleled opportunities for adventure. Get ready to kayak past glaciers, scuba dive amongst swaying kelp and icebergs, and hike in the footsteps of Sir Ernest Shackleton. But, above all, prepare to be astonished by the breathtaking scenery and staggering density of wildlife in these rugged Antarctic oases.
Exploring South Georgia
Kelp forestsNovember - April
WhalesDecember - April
Seals & sea lionsNovember - April
PenguinsNovember - April
Isolated and austere, the island of South Georgia is actually replete with history, adventure, and wildlife – earning it the nickname the “Galapagos of the South”. In fact, during certain times of year, there is thought to be more wildlife per square metre here than any other place on the planet. And, most of the animals lack any real fear of humans, paving the way for some incredible encounters, with locations such as Gold Harbour being described as a zoo without fences. As you can expect, wildlife watching and photography are two of the biggest draws to this remarkable island, with land hikes and zodiac cruises offering one-of-a-kind sightings.
It is estimated some seven million penguins call South Georgia home, including enormous king penguin colonies – particularly at spots such as St Andrews Bay and Salisbury Plain. Gentoo, chinstrap, and macaroni penguins can also be seen in large numbers, alongside petrels, blue-eyed shags, snowy sheathbills, and thousands of albatrosses. Incredibly, the beaches also play host to around half the world’s entire population of southern elephant seals, as well as fur and elephant seals, while humpbacks, southern fin whales, and orcas roam the waters.
South Georgia is also closely associated with polar exploration and exploitation, having once served as a base for both whaling and sealing operations. The rusting remains of these industries, such as those found at Grytviken and Stromness, provide an unparalleled insight into this blood-stained chapter of Antarctic exploitation. Grytviken is also the resting place of Sir Ernest Shackleton, who became the first to cross the mountainous spine of South Georgia, hiking from King Haakon Bay to Stromness in search of aid for his ill-fated Endurance expedition. A graveside toast to this intrepid explorer is a poignant moment on many itineraries, and – if conditions allow – it is sometimes possible to walk in Shackleton’s footsteps and retrace parts of his extraordinary trek.
Scuba diving in South Georgia
For keen cold-water divers, South Georgia’s kelp forests are a real treat. The mesmerising sway of the fronds mirrors the serene tranquillity of scuba diving in such an isolated destination, while curious seals can provide an unexpected flurry of energy. On the other end of the scale, divers can scour the dive sites for an array of interesting macro, including isopods, starfish, nudibranchs, and more. Popular dive spots around South Georgia include Tern Island, Quarry Wall, and Coopers Bay.
South Sandwich Islands and South Orkney Islands
The small South Sandwich archipelago is so wild and exposed, that itineraries and activities here are entirely at the mercy of the elements. While it is highly unlikely that you’ll step foot on land, it is sometimes possible to explore the dramatic coastline via zodiac, in search of large colonies of chinstrap and Adélie penguins, as well as grey-headed, black-browed, and wandering albatrosses. There is also a high chance of spotting minke whales and humpbacks from the boat.
The South Orkney Islands are another highlight for bird enthusiasts, offering yet more Gentoo, chinstrap, and Adélie penguins, as well as snow petrels, Cape petrels, kelp gulls, sheathbills, Antarctic shags, terns, and skuas. Though still remote, these islands are more accessible than the South Sandwich Archipelago, allowing for shore treks and research station visits.
Advanced, drysuit experience
November to March
5 - 20m
0 - 10m
0 - 4°C
- Photographers should pack a good zoom lens, along with a supply of memory cards and spare batteries since cold temperatures can reduce their lifespan.
- Trips to these remote islands require extended open-ocean crossings, visitors should consider taking sea-sickness medication to avoid the onset of symptoms.
- South Georgia and the surrounding islands are perfect for bird-watching, wildlife photography, sea kayaking, snorkelling, trekkings, and braving a polar plunge.
About South Georgia
South Georgia is a remote and rugged destination in the South Atlantic Ocean, well over a thousand kilometres from the nearest notable landmass. The crescent-shaped island rises steeply from its frayed shoreline to 11 snow-covered peaks which rise over 2,000-metres above sea level and conceal an estimated 160 glaciers. And, while these austere elevations are all but inhospitable, the coastal areas are home to a plentiful diversity of Antarctic fauna, including some of the densest wildlife concentrations on earth.
First explored by Captain Cook in 1775, history buffs will also appreciate the significance of this isolated island and its role in one of the most famous survival stories in history – that of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition. After surviving a horrific open ocean journey then crossing the island in 1916, Shackleton returned to South Georgia in 1922 where he passed away. His grave at Grytviken has become a popular pilgrimage amongst visitors hoping to connect with this inspiring chapter of history, and pay homage to such a pioneering explorer.
With 11 main islands and several smaller islets, the South Sandwich Islands are also part of the South Georgia British Overseas Territory, despite lying around over 700-kilometres southeast. Volcanic in origin, this island chain is incredibly inhospitable and consists of numerous perilous peaks, some of which remain active while others are snow-capped and heavily glaciated.
Lying over 800-kilometres southwest of South Georgia, the South Orkney Islands were discovered in 1821 by British and American sealers. The archipelago is made up of four main islands – Coronation Island, Laurie Island, Powell Island, and Signy Island – as well as a selection of smaller islets. Over 80% of the islands are covered in glaciers and the only inhabitants here are scientific researchers.
There are no airports in South Georgia or the surrounding island groups of South Sandwich and South Orkney. As a result, these destinations are only accessible from the sea. Due to the isolation of these islands, itineraries require significant open-ocean crossings of up to 1,500-kilometres.
Where to stay
Accessible only from the sea, and with no real infrastructure on the islands, a polar expedition cruise is essential for anybody wishing to visit these remote destinations. Equipped with convenient zodiacs and able to relocate overnight, these strengthened polar vessels allow visitors to traverse the islands of South Georgia, South Sandwich and South Orkney with relative ease, exploring the extensive coastlines and stopping at landing sites where possible.
Located on the edge of the Scotia Sea, at the border between the South Atlantic and the Southern Ocean, the climate of these island destinations is harsh, varied, and unpredictable.
On South Georgia, the west coast experiences the worst of the weather, with the island’s mountainous terrain sheltering the east from much of the wind. Precipitation is possible year round, predominantly falling as sleet or snow.
January is the height of summer in South Georgia, when temperatures can peak at around 8°C, while the winter month of August sees lows of -5°C, sometimes dropping as low as -10°C. Due to their proximity to the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, the seas surrounding South Georgia are cold throughout the year, with lows of 0°C in August and highs of around 4°C around April. And, while icebergs are common, the water typically remains free from pack ice.
Located further south, the South Sandwich Islands are colder, and are surrounded by sea ice during the winter months of May through November. The same can be said for the South Orkney Islands, where the average summer temperatures are around 3°C, with lows of -12°C in winter. These islands are surrounded by sea ice between the months of May and November, making them all but inaccessible to touring vessels.
The preferred time for expedition cruises to visit these destinations is between November and March – when days are at their longest, the weather is at its most benign, and the lack of sea ice allows ships to navigate freely. Seasonal highlights include the last of the battling bull elephant seals in November, along with the return of nesting seabirds. December sees an unbelievable density of fur seals lining the beaches, while gentoo, chinstrap and macaroni penguin chicks begin hatching in January and Prion Island becomes accessible to see the wandering albatrosses. During February and March, you’ll spot fur seal pups, plump king penguin chicks, and plentiful humpbacks and fin whales off the coast.