3 Spectacular Antarctic Landing Sites for Travelers: Westpoint, Cierva Cove and Deception Island

May 29, 2017 Special Guest Author

Some twenty years ago, I read with fascination the tale of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s amazing Antarctic journey, and I was hooked. Visiting the 7th continent became a bucket list conquest I finally achieved this past winter.

Like many people who’ve made this epic journey, I did have a friend tell me beforehand that she just couldn’t understand why I’d want to visit Antarctica. There’s nothing there, right? It’s so barren and inhospitable. And yet after reading a few blog stories I’ve shared since my trip, she now can’t wait to visit Antarctica herself.

There is magic at the poles! If you’re on the fence about taking that leap and making your Antarctic expedition dream come true, I hope that my favorite landing sites can inspire you.

King penguins are the tallest penguins in the Falkland Islands. You’ll know them by their orange markings, as pictured here on a recent Antarctic expedition.

King penguins are the tallest penguins in the Falkland Islands. You’ll know them by their orange markings, as pictured here on a recent Antarctic expedition. Photo: Dawn Peterson

There is magic at the poles! If you’re on the fence about taking that leap and making your Antarctic expedition dream come true, I hope that my favorite landing sites can inspire you.

West Point Island and Saunders Island, Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas)

The two days we spent at sea from Ushuaia, Argentina, to West Falkland began with 7:45 a.m. wake-up calls. The marine animal specialist, Annie, gave presentations on seals and whales while our ornithologist, Adrian, helped us identify birds of the Falklands and South Georgia Islands. Acacia, our photography guide taught us how to capture the perfect photo. Woody presented the history of the Falkland Islands.

The Expedition Team tried to prepare us for the amazing experience of landing at Westpoint Island, but can you ever really be prepared? Westpoint has a summer population of just four people, with black-browed nesting albatross and Rockhopper penguins by the thousands along the cliffs. We had to be careful not to step on these small (but most noisy) penguins, and the endangered albatross that mate for life with their partners.

Albatross and Rockhopper penguins make their home at Westpoint Island in the South Shetlands.

Albatross and Rockhopper penguins make their home at Westpoint Island in the South Shetlands.
Photo: Dawn Peterson

In the afternoon, the ship sailed to Saunders Island, site of the first English settlement in 1765. It is now home to 11,000 breeding pairs of black-browed albatross and five penguin species. The way I keep them straight:

Rockhopper–noisy and yellow brows

Gentoo–look like they have red lipstick and they are quite funny to watch as they steal rocks from other nests. They are quite animated.

Magellanic–live in burrows and bray like a donkey

Macaroni–Have a Donald Trump hairstyle and other presidential mannerisms.

King–tallest penguin in the Falklands (only the emperor is bigger) with orange markings. Juveniles are fluffy brown and must molt before they can enter the water to eat. Some of them are larger than their parents. Apparently, molting is a miserable experience as they seem to be shunned or perhaps depressed.

How can you tell Rockhopper, Magellanic, Gentoo, Macaroni and King penguins apart?

How can you tell Rockhopper, Magellanic, Gentoo, Macaroni and King penguins apart?
Photo: Dawn Peterson

We also saw whale bones above the beach and two predators–the Skua looking so sweet with the baby chick (but they are quite vicious) and the Striated Caracara just waiting for a baby penguin left alone.

Cierva Cove, Antarctica

Cierva Cove is a serious glacial area on the Western side of Graham Land, up near the top of the Antarctic Peninsula. Under a brilliant blue sky, flat-topped tabular icebergs floated in Hughes Bay. We zodiac cruised around them, pressing forward into thick brash ice that popped and crackled as air trapped millennia ago released from the melting pieces. Imagine, what animal exhaled that air last, now being freed into the atmosphere again.

Quark Expeditions passengers zodiac cruise the ice-choked waters of Cierva Cove, beneath sprawling icebergs.

Quark Expeditions passengers zodiac cruise the ice-choked waters of Cierva Cove, beneath sprawling icebergs. Photo: Dawn Peterson

Forging our way, bouncing over and around ice chunks, I easily imagined what it might feel like to get trapped like adventurous explorers a century ago.

Coming around a flat berg, I held my breath passing a sleeping Leopard Seal with a blood-smeared mouth. With reports of them attacking zodiac boats, I hoped it didn’t decide to wake up and jump at us. Other seals live and breed in colonies. These guys are loners, eating other seals and penguins along with krill and fish. The shape of the head looks more reptilian rather than the cute seals doing tricks at Sea World.

We laughed with delight when a Minke whale surfaced, blowing a geyser of water sky-high. Minke’s are the second smallest of the baleen whales. (S)he stayed around us, feeding for quite a while. A clue this is a Minke is both the blowhole and fin showing at the same time at the water’s edge.

Immense bergs floated around us, caved off nearby glaciers. Ice jumbled in odd shapes while every surface sparkled under the sun.

Weddell seals peek out from behind chunks of ice on an iceberg in Cierva Cove

Weddell seals peek out from behind chunks of ice on an iceberg in Cierva Cove (top right).
Photos: Dawn Peterson

Weddell seals laid on ice, sunbathing and lazy on this summer day in Antarctica.

Coming around this amazing iceberg, we were surprised by a swimming leopard seal. Although this is the third we’d seen on this trip, this was the first in the water, emphasizing such agility and speed. I’m glad no one fell in the water.

Primavera, Argentina’s summer station in Antarctica.

Primavera, Argentina’s summer station in Antarctica. Photo: Dawn Peterson

This picture is Primavera, the Argentinian summer station. They waved at us, and probably got a kick out of those brave (?) souls who participated in the polar plunge while chinstrap penguins looked on, shaking their heads in disbelief.

Deception Island, South Shetland Islands Archipelago 

Put yourself on a ship that navigates through a narrow opening called Neptune’s Bellows, into the sunken caldera of an active volcano. A submerged rock lies about eight feet below the surface, smack-dab in the very middle of the channel. Bite your nails. The current is wild, and a shipwreck lies just inside the entrance as a reminder how quickly life can go bad. Red ash looks like folded curtains along the cliffs and you may see wisps of steam.

Navigating the waters at Deception Island, in the South Shetland chain, on Antarctic expedition.

Navigating the waters at Deception Island, in the South Shetland chain, on Antarctic expedition.
Photo: Dawn Peterson

This isn’t the opening of a Hollywood thriller, this is every day drama at Deception Island, in the South Shetland chain.

The sea floor is rising as magma pushes up. and some water temperatures have been recorded at 158 degrees Fahrenheit. During eruptions in the 1960’s the water was so hot, paint melted off of ships.

Deception Island is home to rare Antarctic plant life and incredible historic relics.

Deception Island is home to rare Antarctic plant life and incredible historic relics. Photo: Dawn Peterson

There are so many cool reasons to experience this closely monitored site. The volcano has changed the micro-climate, allowing over 18 species of moss and lichens not found ANYWHERE else in Antarctica.

If you were a bird, would you want to hang out where it’s warm? Of course. The world’s largest chinstrap penguin colony with over 100,000 breeding pairs are here. We also saw blue-eyed shags (cormorants) with juveniles as big as the adults, nesting high above on the cliffs. (Thank goodness for that 600mm lens!)

Inside the caldera is the historic site at Whaler’s Bay where ruins of oil tanks, buildings and boats from the early 1900’s sit upon a black ash beach.

Relics and ruins dot the landscape at Deception Island, Antarctica.

Relics and ruins dot the landscape at Deception Island, Antarctica. Photos: Dawn Peterson

Two lonely graves still haunt me. This used to be the largest cemetery (35 men buried and 10 memorials to presumed drowned) in all of Antarctica before the last eruptions. I cannot let the memory go, knowing they are so far from home.

There’s an airplane hanger at one end. This is where the first trans-Antarctic flights began in 1928.

During and after WWII, the British destroyed some of the whaling remains, and set up a remote military post. There was great concern that the German’s would use Antarctica for nefarious reasons. After the war, the station returned to scientific study until 1967.

On the Internet, there are pictures of tourists soaking in pools dug into the warm sand. This isn’t allowed anymore (Hello? Environmental impact?) and there’s discussion about reducing the numbers of ships coming here. Count yourself l-u-c-k-y if you can visit this unique historic and environmental site.

Editor’s Note: A special thank you to Dawn Peterson for her guest contribution! Dawn’s posts were originally published on her blog, Adventure Quest.

Want to learn more about what life is like on an Antarctic expedition?

To learn more about the full itinerary of Dawn’s expedition, and others like it, click here.

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