Sailing the Southern Ocean
Of the world’s five oceans, the Southern Ocean is probably the least well known, not least because it’s the coldest, most inhospitable and remotest water mass there is, hugging the South Pole and continent of Antarctica like a cold, icy blanket.
Merging the waters of the South Atlantic Ocean, the South Pacific Ocean and the South Indian Ocean in latitudes south of 60°S, it’s the second smallest ocean on Earth, covering 6% of its surface. It’s also the home of the King Penguin and the Wandering Albatross.
All visitors to Antarctica need to navigate the wild waters of the Southern Ocean to reach its shores. The ocean is scattered with a circle of island outposts discovered by the early explorers on their missions to find and set foot on Terra Incognita. Sailing from South America, you will encounter the windswept and wildlife-rich havens of the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, the South Shetland Islands and the South Orkney Islands. Approaching from the Ross Sea side, travellers will encounter Heard and Macquarie Islands, rich with seabirds.
Bartolomeo Diaz was the first known explorer to have reached the Southern Ocean, when he circumnavigated the Cape of Good Hope in 1487. In 1770, Captain James Cook searched for land in the Southern Ocean but found none, but discovered the prize of Botany Bay, Australia instead. In 1819, land was first sighted in the Antarctic Circle and it took until 1911 for the first person, Roald Amundsen, to reach the South Pole.
During the winter, ice-cold winds flow off the continent and chill the surface waters of the Southern Ocean. It does not take much for these already cold waters to freeze over and in the winter, sea ice grows out from the continent and large iceberg fragments drift in the water. However, unlike the Arctic Ocean, Southern Ocean winter sea ice almost all melts in the summer time, allowing access to these waters by animals and of course, humans. During the summer, the cold, oxygenated waters combine with the sunshine to create perfect conditions for algae to grow. The algae attracts Atlantic Krill - a main food source of whales, seals and seabirds – which is a magnet for wildlife and sealife to the dine and feast on.
One of these islands is worth special mention - South Georgia - ‘the Pearl of Antarctica’. The island lies directly at the periphery of the Southern Ocean, just south of the Antarctic convergence. The island is a part of the Andes Mountains to the east, however, South Georgia’s flora and fauna are very much Sub-Antarctic. Described by some of our expedition team members as the ‘Serengeti of the Southern Ocean’, this should give you an indication of the wildlife safari that this rocky outcrop is home to. Visiting South Georgia provides an unprecedented opportunity to see its vast populations of King Penguins and other seabirds, and also fur and elephant seals. South Georgia also has a great historical legacy, drawn from the tales of early explorers as well as the now-defunct sealing and whaling industries the island attracted.
Text by Hurtigruten expedition team members, Friederike Bronny - Geographer and John Chardine - Ornithologist.