Long considered one of the most awe-inspiring additions to classic Antarctica cruises, South Georgia has swiftly become a coveted travel destination in its own right.
The penguin, seal and sea bird headquarters of the far south is an island that figuratively bursts at the seams with Antarctic wildlife and that’s what makes it, primarily, such a sought-after destination.
Over three-quarters of the fur seals living in Antarctica are found right here, as well as thousands upon thousands of King Penguins, the second-largest species in the world. Yet this remote and spellbinding gem entices not just with its incredible animal offerings but also with its extreme isolation.
Where is South Georgia, you ask?
Right in the middle of the southern Atlantic Ocean, more than 1500km from the nearest mainland (on Antarctica) and over 2000km from South America.
South Georgia and the wonderfully-named South Sandwich Islands are the southernmost British Overseas Territories on earth, if you don’t include the country’s claims on regions of Antarctica proper which are not internationally recognised. The one aspect that is never in question, however, is that South Georgia is one of our planet’s most inhospitable places.
For humans, that is.
What makes South Georgia so special?
If you were to ignore the highlights listed below (which you certainly shouldn’t), you’d still find the elusiveness of South Georgia to be immensely appealing. You can only visit aboard an Antarctica cruise ship and, even then, will only have a few chances every year during the southern summer. Expeditions to the White Continent that include a stop-over in South Georgia also pop by the Falklands, making these among the longest and most expensive options available.
The expense and extra time required to add South Georgia on your Antarctic itinerary, however, are what keep visitors’ numbers to a moderate level and this is something which greatly adds to the island’s appeal. Less than one-quarter of all the cruise ship guests heading south ever make it all the way to South Georgia, instantly making this an exclusive and much-coveted destination.
South Georgia also boasts a very fascinating history and, although it still has no permanent population (only a few semi-permanent inhabitants that run a small scientific centre and two museums) it has seen its fair share of historical events.
The most revered explorer the continent has arguably ever seen, Sir Ernest Shackleton, died right here in 1922 and his humble grave is one of the island’s most visited sites. History-lovers keen to follow in Shackleton’s steps are undoubtedly the second-biggest group of dedicated visitors South Georgia receives.
Penguin-obsessed adventurers, the first.
Yes, you’ll see penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands but not in these insane numbers. When it comes to wildlife and jaw-dropping landscapes, South Georgia is basically Antarctica on steroids. No wonder then, that all visitors to this most magnificent place rate South Georgia as the #1 highlight of their Antarctic expedition.
This wild, untameable and unforgettable place is ideal for adventure seekers who feel as wild at heart as the destinations they seek.
South Georgia Highlights
Home to several of the world’s largest rookeries of King penguins, South Georgia is the southern wildlife crèche everyone needs to experience at least once in their life. At the height of the summer breeding season, the island’s bays are simply overrun with the magnificent birds, an utterly mind-boggling vision. Salisbury Plain and St Andrew’s Bay are the two most popular landing sites for King penguin spotting whilst over on the other side of the island, you can see, smell and hear huge numbers of chinstrap, gentoos and glorious macaroni penguins too.
Fur, Elephant and Other Seals
A stunning creature that never makes it to the Antarctic Peninsula, the fur seal, is one of South Georgia’s biggest draws, coupled with a multitude of southern elephant seals. The latter is often spotted among the penguins at St Andrews and the two make for the most awe-inspiring vision.
The waters lapping South Georgia are immensely nutrient-rich which not only allows the resident semi-aquatic animals to thrive but also attracts hungry whales in impressive numbers. Minke, humpback, and occasionally even blue whales can be seen on South Georgia Antarctica cruises, your chances of spotting them made even greater with the addition of extra cruising days.
The Weddell Sea is one of the most marine-enriched on earth and South Georgia sits right on the whale migration route to/from Antarctica, making those long sailing days all the more worthwhile. If whale spotting is high on your agenda, you should consider taking the first or last cruises of the season, to increase your chances of seeing the largest numbers of the big beasts on their migratory voyages.
A magical and isolated island attracting thousands of migratory birds every year, the aptly-named Bird Island is in a league all its own. Primarily known for hosting the stunning South Georgia wandering albatross – among three other albatross species (light-mantled, grey-headed and black-browed) – Bird Island is also home to more than 500 pairs of Southern Giant Petrels.
But wait, there’s more. Thousands more. Over 90% of the breeding animals on South Georgia are found on Bird island, including thousands of fur seals, macaroni and gentoo penguins.
Although South Georgia is indeed an inhospitable place for most of the year, it is decidedly cuddlier than the Antarctic Peninsula at the height of the summer, where daytime temps can even reach 10C. This eclectic mix of both climate and landscapes means the scenery, and visual feasting is unparalleled. South Georgia sure feels like Antarctica but it certainly doesn’t look like it 100%. The landscapes here are amazingly varied.
The eastern side of the island, in particular, experiences extensive snow-melt in summer which means that aside from jaw-dropping glaciers and sensational fjords, you’ll also get the chance to explore seemingly verdant valleys and photograph exposed rugged peaks that scratch the skies at over 2000m.
Coupled with an abundance of wildlife, the unique landscapes of South Georgia make the island a most rewarding destination for photographers.
South Georgia’s largest settlement is a former whaling station and the ghosts of years past – in the form of abandoned buildings and whale bones – makes for a fascinating history-enriched visit. The small but phenomenal museum is absolutely unmissable and do pop into the post office to have a chat with the staff there: they’re always so happy when an expedition ship comes to shore!
Grytviken is also the last resting place of Sir Ernest Shackleton, arguably the greatest polar explorer of all time. Visiting his grave is an absolute bucket-list dream for so many visitors. If you have never heard of Shackleton’s legendary Endurance voyage, you should absolutely catch up on that crazy story before visiting South Georgia – you’ll 100% kick yourself afterwards if you don’t! Better still, lose yourself in the pages of Alfred’s Landing Endurance, one of our most recommended Antarctica pre-voyage reads.
From Grytviken town, so to speak, you can also take a glorious hike to Brown Mountain for exceptional and all-encompassing views, weather permitting.
Head to South Georgia during the warmest months, in December and January, and the weather will permit quite a few extra-curricular excursions. Learn more about the best landing sites on South Georgia to get a taste of what you can expect.
Best way to visit South Georgia
A select number of Antarctica expedition ships make the long trek to South Georgia at the height of the cruising season (usually from mid-November to February), with the majority departing Ushuaia and a few allowing you to jump aboard on the Falklands, which host the nearest airport to South Georgia, still almost 1,000km away.
Given the considerable sailing distance, Antarctic cruises which include South Georgia and the Falklands last around 20 days, almost twice as long as those which only head to the Antarctic Peninsula. You can shave off a few days by choosing an Antarctica & South Georgia Air/Cruise (16 days) which includes a flight from Punta Arenas (southern Chile) and King George Island, just north of the Antarctic Peninsula. These fly cruise options are fabulous not only for shaving a few days off an expedition but also for skipping at least one crossing of the Drake Passage.
Next up is out chartered Ocean Endeavour cruise that offers the Highlights of South Georgia and the Peninsula (18 days).
The remainder of our Antarctica & South Georgia Expeditions all last around 20 days and you’ll notice that if you can spare a few more days, you will have many more departure dates from which to choose.
South Georgia Antarctica cruises are considered the best expeditions for true wildlife lovers and journeys that truly stand on a whole other level, given that the two archipelagos, combined, offer the greatest concentration of Antarctic wildlife.
Why not discover which Antarctica cruise is right for you?
Best Time to Visit South Georgia
There’s no denying that South Georgia is an exceptional destination at ANY time you can reach it, however, the first two months of the cruising season (October & November) are considered absolutely ideal, for several reasons.
Visiting South Georgia in October & November
Head to South Georgia at the first chance and not only will you have higher chances of seeing whales en route but you’ll also get to freely visit landing sites replete with male fur seals before their consorts arrive. Female fur seals won’t be turning up to mate until December and, when they do, a surge of testosterone will make those huge males a little too aggressive. Cruises which run later in the season may need to skip a few on-shore landings if bays host large numbers of fur seals, to keep you safe and avoid disturbing their romantic and rather aggressive liaisons. Just a little side-note to keep in mind.
Elephants seals will also begin to establish their huge harems and their incredible displays of dominance are both chilling and unmissable.
Bird-watchers will want to schedule their visit to South Georgia either at the beginning or the end of cruising season, as prominent Waved Albatross and Giant Petrel breeding sites, like Bird and Prion Islands, are off-bounds to cruise ship visitors between 20th Nov and 7th January every year, so as not to disturb the amorous encounters.
Early season cruises get to soak up the splendour of South Georgia as it wakes from its winter slumber and, in a place that’s often described as the greatest wildlife spectacle on earth, that is no small scoop.
Visiting South Georgia in December and January
Less snow, more daylight hours and much better weather are the major bonuses of visiting the island right at the heart of summer. That’s no small scoop either. The wildlife is in abundance now and you’ll see plenty of penguin chicks and seal pups waddling about the place – the main King Penguin colonies will reach their peak numbers during these months and, in all honesty, this is reason enough to visit now. This is a startling show you can’t see anywhere else.
The only major downside of visiting during peak time is that you’ll be sharing your spoils with other expedition cruises, even if there really aren’t that many to begin with. Yet landing sites on South Georgia restrict visitor numbers so your Captain will have to juggle timelines. A small price to pay to have South Georgia at its best but something to keep in mind nonetheless.
Visiting South Georgia in February & March
The last feast before the big swim north attracts an unprecedented number of whales to the waters around South Georgia, much as it does near the Antarctica Peninsula. Snow-melt will also be at its peak, allowing for more extensive hikes and longer on-land explorations.
The weather in South Georgia will start to make a turn towards winter during this period, which also means you’ll get amazing sunsets. Unlike the Antarctica Peninsula, which only sees visiting wildlife on land, South Georgia hosts them all year long, so there’s no issue in regards to any early animal departures. There will still be a multitude of penguins to visit and this, coupled with a marked decrease in visitors, makes late-season cruising absolutely idyllic.
At Chimu Adventures, we understand that the higher cost involved in choosing an Antarctica & South Georgia expedition is a concern for many prospective visitors. However, there are several ways you can mitigate costs with early-bird and special deals playing perhaps the most important role. Head on over to our Antarctica Special Deals page and you’ll discover impressive discounts on early-bird deals, like a 15% saving on our 2021 Falklands & South Georgia Antarctica Expedition.
Learn all there is to know about this incredible place from our comprehensive Antarctica Travel Guide and when you’re ready to take the next step, contact us for more personalised advice.