South Orkney Islands Destinations!
There is a small group of icy islands in the Scotia Sea of the Southern Ocean that is quite unknown to polar travellers. Stumbling across them on a world map is mostly a surprise: the South Orkney Islands – what?! Like crumbs of rocks rounded up by the prevailing westerly winds of that remote part of the world’s oceans, the South Orkneys can easily be located on the south-eastern side of a triangle connecting Cape Horn, South Georgia and the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The islands are 1300 km / 810 miles from Tierra del Fuego, 840 km / 520 miles southwest of South Georgia, and about 560 km / 350 miles to the northeast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Obviously the South Orkneys have no neighbours. To make worse, an imaginary trip from here along the circle of latitude at 60°30’ South would lead you around the world without touching any land – until our imaginary Antarctic expedition would reach the South Orkneys again, from the other side. The archipelago is made up of four major islands (Coronation, Signy, Powell, Laurie) and a number of minor islets and rocks, which all form the exposed part of a continental fragment that once connected South America and the Antarctic. Together, the South Orkneys comprise a land area of 622 square kilometres and rise up to 1265 m / 4150 feet at Mount Nivea on Coronation Island. Being about 800 km / 500 miles south of the Polar Front (the Antarctic Convergence), Antarctica cruises that make their way to these remote and rarely visited shores come upon a “true” polar landscape. Approximately 85 per cent of these mountainous islands are glaciated, and polar sea ice completely insulates this tiny archipelago from the outside world between May and December, in the southern winter. But even in the Antarctic summer, between mid-December and mid-March, relicts of pack ice that has drifted in from the Weddell Sea in winter can obstruct the coastline and often inhibit zodiac landings. Large, beautiful icebergs can be encountered off the shores of South Orkney, some of them originate from the local iceberg production of the countless glaciers discharging their loads of glacier ice into the sea, others have been pushed here by winds and sea currents from southern regions. The climate is maritime providing for cold, wet weather and a characteristic cloud cover of over 80 per cent in summer. On average, the sun shines less than two hours per day. The mean annual air temperature is –3.8°C / 25°F. Besides, the desolate geographical position of the South Orkney Islands in the middle of one of the roughest oceans on the globe is the cause for extremely windy conditions. The average speed of the prevailing westerly is 26 km per hour / 14 knots. But extreme gusts of up to 115 knots / 213 km per hour have been measured. Gales occur every sixth day on average.
History and Climate
Like all the other islands of the sub-Antarctic, whalers and sealers first sighted the South Orkney
Islands. The glory of discovery is attributed to both, the American sealer Nathaniel Palmer from
Connecticut in his vessel James Monroe and the British sealer George Powell in Dove. They had been
on a joint cruise when discovering the South Orkneys on 6th December 1821. The new islands were
named Powell’s Group. Coronation Island, the largest of the group and the first one discovered
(extending about 48 km / 30 miles, or 478 square kilometres / 185 square miles), was named by
Powell to celebrate and commemorate the crowning of King George IV which had taken place in July
1821, about half a year before Powell arrived at the South Orkneys.
However, only a few months later, on 13th January 1823, James Weddell in his expedition vessels Jane
and Beaufoy reached the eastern end of the South Orkneys being on his way further south to beat
Captain James Cook’s record. The famous sealer-explorer Weddell named the islands South Orkney
for they are located at the same latitude south as Britain’s Orkney Islands north of Scotland occupy in
the north. So, over the years, Weddell’s name for the islands became the more popular one.
Soon after the discovery, news had spread about the immense numbers of fur seals in that region – and just a few decades later the sealers of the 19th century had managed to kill every single Antarctic fur seal on the shores of the South Orkneys. When nothing was left to harvest, sealers and whalers moved on to other regions of the far south being more productive still. Now time had come for science to establish itself on the South Orkney Islands. On 1st April 1903 the vessel Scotia of the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, 1902–04 appeared in those chilly waters. The leader of that Antarctic expedition, the oceanographer Dr. William Speirs Bruce, started meteorological observations on Laurie Island. His small scientific station, Omond House, together with the entire island, was acquired by Argentina about ten months later, on 22nd February 1904. From that day until today, Argentina has had its station on Laurie Island permanently manned making it the longest continually operated scientific station in Antarctica. Modern Orcadas Base of Argentina now consists of 11 buildings providing 1370 square metres of space for work and housing of maximum 50 persons. Scientific programs include meteorology, magnetism, geology, seismology, observation of the southern lights, glaciology, monitoring sea ice, and biology.
A quick glimpse on some of the long-term data gathered by the Orcadas Station puts across a sentiment for the rough weather at that remote spot:
yearly average –4,5°C / 24°F
monthly highest 0,4°C / 32,7°F (in February)
monthly lowest –10,6°C / 13°F (in July)
absolute maximum 12,6°C / 55°F (in April 1957)
absolute minimum –40,1°C / -40,1°F (in August 1904)
Average wind speed 4,6 m/sec (= 16,6 km/h / 10,3 miles/h or 9 knots; 10-year-average) From the northwest
yearly average cloud cover 89% (10-year-average)
days totally cloudy 318 (= 87% of the year)
days with clear sky 7,3
yearly average 409 mm / 16 inches (70-year-average)
monthly highest 55 mm / 2,2 inches (in March)
monthly lowest 26,5 mm / 1 inch (in June)
From these present-day statistics, we should look back quickly to Bruce’s vessel Scotia. This historic ship certainly deserves to be referred to more in detail. As with many other polar vessels used for Arctic or Antarctic exploration, the Scotia was built under a different name and first used for quite different purposes. Constructed in Norway in 1872 as Hekla, the ship was used for sealing. In 1889, a Norwegian skipper used it to explore the northeast coast of Greenland to where it was taken again in the years 1891 to 1892 on Carl Ryder’s expedition to survey the inner parts of Scoresby Sund in East Greenland. The Scotsman William S. Bruce finally purchased the Hekla in 1902 for the sum of 2620 Pound Sterling, re-named it Scotia, repaired it (in the first half of 1902) and furnished the ship with a new engine (total cost: another 8000 Pounds). Then it was ready to be the polar expedition vessel for the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition. Bruce spent the southern winter of 1903 at Laurie Island in the South Orkneys, and in the following year discovered previously unknown coastline in the Antarctic. Back in the United Kingdom in July 1904, William S. Bruce sold the Scotia, and she was again used for sealing out of Dundee, Scotland. Later, the vessel was appointed to be the first international North Atlantic Ice Patrol ship, a new duty carried out following the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and under the command of Thomas Robertson who had already joined Bruce on his Antarctic expedition. During World War II, the Scotia became a freighter in the English Channel, caught fire and burnt out in the Bristol Channel in January 1916. Thus ended the existence of the Scotia that after all had given its name to the Scotia Sea, a stormy and cold part of the Southern Ocean and the South Atlantic where the South Orkney Islands are located.
Five years after the destruction of his former expedition vessel, and a decade before the Scotia Sea got its name, William Speirs Bruce died in Edinburgh in 1921. His ashes were scattered in the Southern Ocean.
In the years 1907 to 1908, following Bruce’s survey of the South Orkneys, whaling had started. And at the same time, in 1908, Great Britain had claimed the islands under the Falkland Islands Dependencies – a claim which was later, in 1925, challenged by Argentina.
In 1912/1913, the captain of the whale catcher Paal, Petter Sørlle, named Signy Island after his wife Signy Therese Sørlle (1892-1988). From 1980 until her death, Signy Sørlle kept contact with the scientists working on “her” island in the South Orkneys.
This Norwegian whaling captain owned and operated a whaling station in Factory Cove on Signy Island from 1920 to 1926. Later, when weather data was need during the Second World War, the British set up their Base H on 18th March 1947. This former war-time meteorological station is still operated today by the British Antarctic Survey BAS, but serves as a summer only station since 1996.
Up to the year 1995, Signy Station was the centre of biological research of the British Antarctic Survey BAS when the marine sciences were moved from Signy to Britain’s Rothera Station on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula. In 1996 and 1997, Signy Station was modified to become a summer station centred around the main building called Sørlle House (60°42'S, 45°36' W). It can accommodate up to 8 persons. The scientific work today involves biological research on penguins, seabirds and seals, limnology and terrestrial biology related to the southern ocean ecosystems as well as climate change.
Nature and Wildlife
The South Orkney Islands are the least visited area of the Antarctic Peninsula region. Visitors to the
South Orkney Islands all must come by ship, and normally pass here on a larger Antarctic voyage
including the Falklands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula.
The archipelago is an important breeding area for seabirds. Some bird species reach significant
numbers of individuals:
Chinstrap penguin – 600’000 pairs
Adélie penguin – 200’000 pairs
Gentoo penguin – 11’000 pairs
Macaroni penguin – 50+ pairs
Southern giant petrel – 9000 pairs
Southern fulmar – up to 1 million pairs
Cape petrel – up to 100'000 pairs
Snow petrel – 1000 pairs (20% of which breed on Signy)
Antarctic prion – hundreds of thousands of pairs
Wilson’s storm petrel – 100'000 pairs (on Signy alone)
American sheathbill – Ca. 5000 pairs (representing about half of the world’s population)
Furthermore, there are Black-bellied Storm-petrels, Antarctic shags, South Polar and Braun skuas, Kelp gulls and Antarctic terns. Antarctic travellers should not expect much vegetation. Lichens and mosses grow in the coastal areas that are at all free of ice. Due to strong, unpredictable winds and drifting icebergs, landings are dangerous and rare as are the landing spots.
Antarctica cruises typically try to visit the Argentine Orcadas Base (60°45’S, 44°43’W) on Laurie Island. This is the historic site of William S. Bruce’s Omond House built in 1903 the remains of which can still be seen not far from the beach. Orcadas being the oldest scientific station in Antarctica still in operation is manned throughout the year by a team of friendly, hospitable Argentine personnel who do not hesitate to answer questions, explain their scientific work and show visitors around. The station is managed by the Dirección Nacional del Antártico – Instituto Antártico Argentino in Buenos Aires.
Zodiacs are typically landed at a shingle beach from the south, in Scotia Bay. North of the station buildings is Uruguay Cove.
The fauna in the vicinity of Orcadas Base consists of Cape petrels (nesting on a cliff to the West of the base), Southern giant petrels, Snow petrels, Black-bellied and Wilson’s storm-petrels, Kelp gulls, Antarctic terns, and Snowy sheathbills. Rarely, Macaroni penguins have been seen in the vicinity of the station, and some Gentoo and Adélie penguins breed in a small colony at nearby Puerto Martín where landings are prohibited.
Another important landing site for Antarctica cruises is Shingle Cove located on the south coast of Coronation Island, at 60°39'S, 45°34'W. Part of Iceberg Bay, this U-shaped little cove is bordered by glaciers. Above the cove, there is Shingle Hut, which was erected in January 1963 by scientists from Signy Station who used it as a depot and staging post for their travels on Coronation Island.
Coronation Island is predominantly composed of regionally metamorphosed rocks that belong to the Scotia metamorphic complex.
Just opposite Shingle Cove is Signy Island where Signy Station of the British Antarctic Survey BAS is located. Tourist landings here are normally not possible.
Half of Signy Island is covered by a permanent icecap. The island’s highest point, Tioga Hill, is a rock outcrop that juts out of that ice field (a so called nunatak). However, all glaciers and ice fields of Signy are retreating due to higher temperatures, and every year new areas of rock are exposed. A large portion of ice-free Signy is covered in lakes.
Mosses dominate the plant life here, too: about 50 species have been reported from Signy Island. Those coexist with 12 species of liverworts and 120 species of lichens. In wetter areas, algae and cyanobacteria can be found. Nevertheless, the two only flowering plants of the Antarctic region, both the Antarctic hair grass (Deschampsia antarctica) and the Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis), can be seen on the island. In higher areas, fellfield-like types of landscape can be encountered in which patches of mosses and lichens intercept areas with bare soil.
Among Signy’s breeding birds, there are Chinstrap and Adélie as well as Gentoo penguins. Every now and then, a few Macaroni penguins may be found breeding. The rest of the bird list is made up of the following species: Southern giant petrel, Cape and Snow petrel, Antarctic prion, Wilson's storm petrel, Blue-eyed shag, American sheathbill, Brown skua, South polar skua, Kelp gull, Antarctic tern and Black-bellied storm petrel. Antarctic fulmars use nearby islands as their preferred breeding ground. In addition, 27 visiting bird species and vagrants have been recorded over the years such as Blackbrowed albatrosses, Antarctic petrels and others.
As in all Antarctica, there are no terrestrial vertebrates on Signy Island. However, seals use the beaches for haul-out including Weddell seal and Elephant seal. The most dominant seal is the Antarctic fur seal. Formerly a treasured prey by the sealers of the 19th century and virtually extinct by them, the fur seal population on Signy Island has been increasing rapidly in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
More than 20’000 fur seals can now be found on the beaches here. Not the edge of island but ice floes in the bays and straits off the coast are the haul out sites of Leopard seals and the Crabeater seals which, however, are not often encountered here in the summer. The South Orkney Islands being within the Antarctic realm are part of the area protected by the Antarctic Treaty.