Highlights and Main Attractions of the south Orkney Islands

This small compact group of islands named after the Orkney Islands in Scotland extend over about 80 miles, approximately 300 miles south west of South Georgia and 750 miles from Cape Horn. Consisting of four main islands as well as lots of rocky inlets and smaller inaccessible islands, 85% of this barren landscape of ice and rock is glaciated, with very little vegetation – in fact the two principle islands, Laurie & Coronation, are enveloped in permanent ice!

Discovered in December 1821 by seal hunters based on the South Shetland Islands, the South Orkney Islands are, to this day, completely uninhabited by humans. 

Where is South Orkney?

Wildlife and Variety

Coronation Island is the largest island at a length of about forty miles, and is named after its discovery in the year of the coronation of King George IV. On the smaller, low-lying island of Signy, the British Antarctic Survey established a base to study the penguin, seabird and seal biology in the area. The Argentinean research station is on Laurie Island, renamed Orcada in 1951, this is the oldest human establishment in the Antarctic. Powell Island is the last of the main four, but there are lots of other inaccessible islands and rocky inlets that complete the set.

In the winter, the islands are, in essence, linked by continuous pack ice that extends from the Weddell Sea. Birds flock to this stark land, with plentiful skues, gulls, terns, cormorants and sheathbills. In the crags and rocky cliffs, Pintado petrels and snow petrels breed, and some of the rocky shores and beaches play home to fur seals. Three species of penguin also call the area home: chinstrap, Adelie and Gentoo. However the fairytale-like landscape, where big icebergs from the Weddell Sea often run aground, is a huge attraction in itself. It was here that James Weddell spotted the seal species that now bears his name, and you can still see them here, as well as elephant and leopard seals. Sadly the fur seal was hunted almost to extinction in the 1800s, but its population is slowly increasing over time.

The South Orkney Islands are often visited on our Antarctic safaris, usually alongside the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula on one of our ice strengthened expedition ships.

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