Signy Island, South Orkney Islands

Photo: Ben Tullis from Cambridge, United Kingdom (Signy, the base and the bay) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Antarctica is really, really far away. You knew that, of course. But it didn’t really sink in until your long-planned trip became a reality. The days at sea seem endless. The wind keeps getting stronger and stronger. Plus you’re not entirely confident that the ship can hold its ground against the merciless waves. So you assume that your mind is playing tricks on you when start to see land ahead.

It’s not a joke. It’s not quite Antarctica, but it’s real land. Islands to be exact. And, right now, they’re a sight for sore eyes. You can’t wait to have your feet planted on the firm ground—for at least a little while. You immediately start bundling up so that you can catch the first Zodiac boat to shore.

The islands ahead are the South Orkney Islands. The small archipelago lies 375 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula’s northeastern tip and 800 miles southeast of the Falkland Islands. The four main islands—Coronation, Signy, Powell, and Laurie—were first discovered in 1821 by American and British sealers. They called the islands Powell’s Group, though another British sailer renamed them after Scotland’s Orkney Islands—since they lie at roughly the same latitude north and south—two years later. Sealers and whalers were the islands’ only visitors for the rest of the 19th century. Then in 1903, a Scottish scientist established a meteorological station on Laurie Island. The South Orkney Islands have been a scientific research base ever since.

You’re making landfall on Signy Island. Factory Cove is home to the Signy Research Station. It opened, also a meteorological station, in 1947 on the site of an old whaling station. In the 1960s, its focus shifted to biological research. Eight scientists now live at the station each summer (November-April).

But researchers aren’t the only ones on Signy Island. The ice-covered island is also a bird-breeding colony. Nearly 17,000 pairs of Adélie penguins. Nearly 20,000 pairs of chinstrap penguins. 23,000 pairs of southern giant petrels. 50,000 pairs of Antarctic prions. 200,000 pairs of Wilson’s storm petrels. Plus, though not birds, more than 20,000 Antarctic fur seals hang out in the surrounding waters. The island may be remote, but with all of these birds, it’s far from quiet. It’s also a welcome distraction from the monotonous days at sea.

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