The Southern Ocean is the expanse of ocean surrounding Antarctica. Although not a widely familiar name (due to the lack of any permanent population and the term's relatively recent introduction), it identifies a region that is distinct in many ways from the more hospitable Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans to the north. The Southern Ocean is formally defined as the waters south of the 60th parallel, but is often broadened to include the waters containing various sub-Antarctic islands south of 45th parallel, islands with a distinctly Southern climate and geography (i.e. cold and rugged).
Antarctic islands edit
These islands south of the 60th parallel are governed by the Antarctic Treaty. East to west these islands are:
- 1 Scott Island, discovered in 1902, is also part of the NZ Ross Dependency. It's only 565 m long by at most 340 m wide and has no base. In 2009 a couple were married here by their ship's captain, so Barbados is facing more competition.
- 2 South Orkney Islands largest member is Coronation Island, discovered in 1821 and named for newly-crowned King George IV of Britain. It's 46 km long and about 10 km wide, with Mount Nivea its highest peak at 1266 m. It's almost entirely ice-clad, with a few ice-free patches along the coast, and is a breeding ground for chinstrap penguins, Cape petrels and snow petrels. Signy Island to the south has a British research station, staffed in summer. Laurie Island to the east has the Argentine station Orcadas, staffed year-round. Powell and Fredriksen are the other two significant islands, lying between Coronation and Laurie islands.
- 3 Iceberg A23a is a rhomboid 75 km by 60 km and over 350 m thick. As of 18 Jan 2024 it's 500 km northeast of the tip of the Peninsula and drifting towards South Georgia, and its size means it will persist and likely get there. It calved from the Filchner–Ronne Ice Shelf way back in 1986 but stuck aground in the Weddell Sea until 2020.
- 4 Peter I Island in the Bellingshausen Sea is a dependency of Norway. It was first sighted in 1821 but is usually hemmed in by pack ice, so the first landing was only in 1929. It's 11 km long by 19 km broad, about the size of Staten Island. It's mostly covered by glacier, with a 1640 m mountain, and has no base.
Sub-Antarctic islands edit
These islands north of the 60th parallel are governed by different countries. East to west these islands are:
- 5 New Zealand Subantarctic Islands are in five groups: The Snares, Bounty Islands, Antipodes, Auckland Islands and Campbell Island.
- 6 Macquarie Island, part of Tasmania in Australia, is a wildlife reserve 20 miles long by 3 miles wide.
- 7 Heard Island and McDonald Islands are a territory of Australia, with that nation's only active volcanoes, last erupting in 2016. It's also a UNESCO World Heritage Site
- 8 Kerguelen is part of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands territory. The main island Grande Terre is 90 miles east-west by 70 miles north-south and has a permanent scientific settlement. There are some 300 lesser isles in the archipelago.
- 9 Crozet Islands are a French archipelago, with the research station Alfred Faure on Île de la Possession.
- 10 Prince Edward Islands are part of South Africa, 1200 miles southeast of the Cape, with Marion Island the larger and Prince Edward the smaller island.
- 11 Bouvet Island is Norwegian, ice-clad, and volcanic though with no recent eruptions.
- 12 Balleny Islands are part of the Ross Dependency of New Zealand. The three main islands (all about 25 km long by 3 km wide, and ice-clad) are Young, Buckle and Sturge. There's no base here and since their discovery in 1839, humans have only set foot on them on four occasions.
- 13 South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are administered by Britain. South Georgia is an icy, mountainous British island, with the old whaling stations of Grytviken and South Leith. The South Sandwich Islands are volcanic and stretch almost to the 60th parallel, so they're on the threshold of Antarctica and are the most difficult to access of all the sub-Antarctic islands.
The Antarctic islands have a marine polar climate: very cold, but not as extremely cold as the mainland, so the sea only freezes over in the very depths of winter. Sub-Antarctic islands are also cold but not polar deep freeze: modulated by the ocean, their midsummer temperature is about 5-10°C and their winters average 0 to -10°C. That makes them more approachable by ship, and they're often the first or last points of call of cruises into Antarctica. However, they're beyond the range of individual travel, so you need to join an expedition, cruise or similar organised party.
The islands lying south of the 60th parallel are all governed by the Antarctic Treaty, which (as on the mainland) seeks to protect the fragile environment, forbids military use, and sets aside national claims. Thus, various nations own and operate bases here and have hypothetical claims to territory which they waive. References to nations on this page should be understood accordingly. The Treaty restricts commercial activity but doesn't affect fishing on the open ocean.
Although the sub-Antarctic islands north of the 60th parallel support a thin tundra vegetation and are just about habitable, though they have no permanent residents. So it's not their coldness but their remoteness and lack of population, hence lack of transport and amenities, that renders them a challenge to the traveller.
This page doesn't cover islands which lie closer to the mainland (often welded to it by thick ice) and are described on those relevant pages. Along the Antarctic Peninsula, these include Anvers and Wiencke islands, with Port Lockroy; on the other side of the continent is Ross Island, with McMurdo base and Scott base.
Nor does this page cover the islands close to mainland South America, the Falkland Islands and Tierra del Fuego. They have towns, places to stay and eat, and regular transport. Many people visit them as part of an organised trip down into Antarctica but you can get yourself there independently. You'll need warm clothing but the general descriptions and advice for the sub-Antarctic islands doesn't apply to them.
Get in edit
Visiting this area of the world generally requires careful planning and preparation. There are few, if any, permanent human inhabitants on these islands. Those that do inhabit this area of the world are often scientists and weather observers. Access to these destinations generally requires mounting an expedition. You may need permission to visit these destinations as many are wildlife sanctuaries or have unique environments. Special environmental conditions may be imposed. Travel is normally by ship as there are few landing strips for aircraft and most of the islands are beyond the range of helicopters.
Visitors to any land or sea south of 60°S need permission from an Antarctic Treaty member country. Your tour or cruise organiser will take care of this but those travelling independently should apply six months in advance. Individual, non-governmental visitors can contact the Antarctic Policy Unit, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Private Bag 18901, Wellington NZ. Phone: +64 4 439 8000 Fax: +64 4 439 8103
By boat edit
It's not too difficult for those islands near a regular cruise route to Antarctica and with a harbour or at least a sheltered beach that a Rib / Zodiac can access. These are routinely visited by cruises in summer: see Antarctica#Get in for options. Cruises from Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego towards the Antarctic Peninsula often take in South Georgia, and those from New Zealand towards the Ross Sea might take in the NZ Group or Macquarie. The Antarctic cruises from Ushuaia take a couple of weeks and cost over US$5000 per person. Boating is also the only way to reach the islands beyond King George.
At the other end of the scale, islands far from a cruise route and lacking harbours are very challenging to reach, and then there's the getting out to consider. Bouvet Island is one bleak and daunting example. Some of these places have only been reached by a handful of people in the 250 years since they were discovered.
Midpoint on the scale of difficulty is Kerguelen. Tourists may visit on the regular supply ship from Réunion, which makes a one-month circuit of the heaving ocean and also calls at Crozet and Amsterdam Island.
You may need official permission to land, or even to sail close to shore - this is chiefly to protect the wildlife. Cruise operators and expedition organisers are responsible for arranging this, and it may need to be sorted several months in advance.
By plane edit
Villa las Estrellas (TNM IATA) on King George Island in the South Shetlands, 150 km north of the Antarctic Peninsula, has a gravel all-seasons runway suitable for large wheeled aircraft. Flights from Punta Arenas take about 4 hours. There are no commercial scheduled flights, but there are air tours, and transfers of visitors joining small-ship cruises.
Get around edit
Antarctic and Sub-Antarctic islands are small compared to the great continent near them but that doesn't mean that they are all small by any means. While some of the islands are compact, others would take a couple days to hike across. The lack of development on these islands means that there are no roads or even any form of paths on most of them.
You need a boat to get from one island to another, as the sea seldom not frozen.
- No trees: Antarctic and sub-Antarctic scenery lacks trees and shrubs, and resembles tundra. This means that birds (including penguins) nest on open ground, where they are vulnerable to rats or visitor disturbance. The islands have rocky outcrops and tussocky grasslands; there may be ice caps at high elevations, but not on low ground.
- Sea life includes seals and whales. They were once hunted commercially, and some islands have the rusty ruins of old whaling stations.
- Penguins: Huge penguin colonies are found on many of the islands, and some species have their principal habitat here rather than on the mainland.
- Volcanoes are active on Heard Island and the McDonald Islands, and along the chain of South Sandwich Islands. Their active history is only partially known, as it's only in the 21st century that satellite imaging has spotted their belchings of steam and ash. Penguins are fond of volcanoes, as the geothermal warmth creates areas free of glaciers.
- Huge icebergs – defined as 20 km or more across – are common around Antarctica, and may last for decades, but most remain pinned within the pack ice. A few escape, and the largest may reach the sub-Antarctic islands and shipping lanes of these latitudes, so they're tracked by the US Ice Center. A good example was A68a, which in 2021 approached South Georgia before breaking up. "A" means it calved in the quadrant between 0° and 90° West, the Bellingshausen and Weddell seas – in this case it was the Larsen Ice Shelf on the west coast of the Peninsula. B-icebergs are from the quadrant 90° to 180° West, and so on round. A68 means it was the 68th iceberg from Quadrant A, and when it broke into pieces that were huge in their own right, these were labelled A68b, c, d etc, with the mother-berg being A68a. Its end was unexpected: it didn't gradually fracture, but suddenly foamed and fizzed away like a colossal Alkaseltzer. Probably day-time melt water permeated it to freeze and expand at night, pushing open the cracks for the next day's melt water, until there was massive structural failure. So A68a has given us insight into how other bodies of ice might suddenly destabilise.
- Like mainland Antarctica, the most important thing for you to do is to come home safe.
- These little-explored islands are quiet places with little or no population, so hiking is really your only option.
Buy, eat, and drink edit
You must bring everything you need with you and take everything away, especially trash.
There may be fresh water sources in summer, but the birds will get there first and may foul it.
The Antarctic islands south of the 60th parallel not the place for wild camping. You (or your trip organiser) must negotiate access to a base, or bring a heavy-duty self-sufficient expedition. Air tours to King George have their own campsite.
Stay safe edit
The environment is extreme, with latitudes called the roaring forties, filthy fifties and screaming sixties for good reason. Storms sweeping off Antarctica, unobstructed by any land, bring cold strong winds, rain or snow and rough seas to the region. This part of the world is the preserve of deep sea fishing ships (not boats), warships on fisheries patrols, oceanographic research ships, round-the-world yachts and the occasional icebreaker on its way to Antarctica. If you get into trouble, you must be prepared to rescue yourself, as emergency rescue services may be thousands of miles and several days away.
Surprise surprise, there's no mobile or Wi-Fi signal in these remote waters. Ships use satellite phones and charge for brief access.
There's a Post Office at Villa Las Estrellas on King George Island.
Go next edit
Cruises to this area are usually continuing along the Antarctic Peninsula, and this isn't a good way to approach the South Pole, it's too far north, and the flights go via faraway airfields.