Excitement is in the air as the magnificent snowy peaks of the South Shetland Islands are laid out before us. Depending on ice and weather conditions, we enter the South Shetlands via the McFarlane Strait, with an objective of Half Moon Island, or nearby Yankee Harbour. Arriving on shore, a sizeable rookery of chinstrap penguins act as a very noisy welcoming committee and we hope to observe our first substantial elephant seal colony here. There are some good hiking options along the rocky beach to a high point. Otherwise observe the chinstraps at close proximity as they establish their nests.
Overnight we cross the Bransfield Strait and are now along the coastline of continental Antarctica. Our itinerary is deliberately flexible to account for early season ice conditions, and to take advantage of optimal snow conditions at several of our favourite landing sites. Our planned exploration starts in the vicinity of Mikkelson Harbour and neighbouring Cierva Cove – both beautiful locations and the perfect introduction to Antarctica. Both spots provide excellent Zodiac cruising and it is fascinating to observe the very beginning of the penguin breeding cycle and the courtship rituals that take place. We keep our eyes out for the powerful leopard seal, which we frequently find hauled out on the ice-floes around here.
We continue our journey and are now on our way to Antarctic Sound - the gateway into the icy Weddell Sea. Depending on the seasonal ice conditions, we visit a number of outstanding locations on the way into the Weddell. Our plan is to sail the ship into the flooded volcanic caldera at Deception Island. This is a very dramatic place and history is all around us as we explore the old whaling station, with the rusted old boilers and dilapidated wooden huts. At the far end of the beach is an old aircraft hangar. This is where Australian, Sir Hubert Wilkins, made the very first flight in Antarctica in 1928. There is also an outstanding hike, high up onto the rim of the crater. The Aitcho Islands provide some great hiking routes showcasing the colourful mosses and lichens found on the island. Gentoo and chinstrap penguins nest here and on the beaches, we usually encounter seals coming and going from the surrounding waters. Fort Point situated on Greenwich Island is another possible location for a visit.