South Georgia: key information

  • South Georgia has the densest concentration of marine mammals and birds on the planet, and is known as the Serengeti of the Southern Ocean
  • The island is nearly 1400km (870 miles) from its nearest neighbour and is only accessible by boat
  • Visitors arrive by expedition cruise ship, allowing them to tour sites across the island. There is no hotel accommodation on shore
  • The visitor season is restricted to the austral summer of November to March only, with seasonal nuances in weather, wildlife and light conditions
  • Trips to South Georgia are typically combined with both the Antarctic Peninsula and the Falkland Islands

About South Georgia

Wildlife

In the golden light of daw, a line of king penguins walk on the pebble beach of St Andrews Bay on South Georgia island. There are mountains in the background

King penguins on the beach at St Andrews Bay

South Georgia may be tiny, but it punches far above its weight to offer a wildlife experience like no other. Seals, penguins and other seabirds are counted in the millions: at the height of the breeding season, nowhere else on Earth has such a density of wildlife.

Four species of penguin breed here: gentoos, chinstraps and macaronis, along with the majestic king penguins whose epic colonies are one of the islands biggest attractions. Albatrosses wheel overhead, while you can listen out for the distinctive song of the South Georgia pipit, the world's most southerly songbird, whose numbers are in resurgence after rats were eradicated in 2018.

On the beaches, as many as fur seals crowd the shores, while giant male elephant seals lord it over their harems. In some locations in high summer, the sheer density of seals can make beach landings near impossible. South Georgia's waters are rich feeding grounds for whales.

Although their numbers were devastated by the whaling industry in the last century, humpback whale numbers have almost completely recovered around the island, with fin whale numbers also increasing. Blue and southern right whales remain rare sights. >

Landscapes

A wide view of Gold Harbour in South Georgia. A wide bay with a beach dotted with king penguins and fur seals, and a huge glacier covering the mountains

The hike to Gold Head viewpoint above Gold Harbour

South Georgia is spectacularly picturesque. The island is almost completely dominated by a dragon's spine of the Allardyce and Salvesen Mountain ranges that rise straight out of the ocean. Over half the island is permanently covered in snow and glaciers. The highest peak in South Georgia is Mount Paget (2934m/9626 feet). The coastline is crinkled with many fjords and bays that offer sheltered spots for ships to anchor.

There are no trees on South Georgia. In snow-free areas the landscape is dominated by tussock, grassland and peaty bogs. Tussock in particular forms an important breeding location for many bird species, as well as muddy wallows for elephant seals.

Several landing sites are dominated by large glacial outwash plains. These areas are increasing due to South Georgia's fragility in the face of climate change. Some 97% of the islands glaciers that previously terminated in the sea have retreated in the past 50 years. Ironically, this has increased the breeding areas available to species like king penguins, whose numbers have grown in the corresponding period.

Like many small islands South Georgia is highly susceptible to introduced species. In recent years the South Georgia Heritage Trust successfully oversaw a largescale project to eradicate rats, as well as the reindeer that had been introduced by whalers and were overgrazing native plants. A project to control introduced plant species is ongoing.

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Cassia says

Whether you want to see unimaginable numbers of penguins, gaze at mind-blowing landscapes or connect with polar history, South Georgia delivers in spades. Few other places on the planet have such a 'wow' factor.

Cassia Jackson Polar Specialist

History

Rusting ruins of the abandoned Stromness Harbour whaling station on South Georgia, with mountains in the background

The abandoned whaling station at Stromness Harbour

The history of this small island is no less intoxicating than the wildlife and scenery, steeped as it is in the history of both Antarctic exploration and the earlier sealers and whalers.

South Georgia appeared on maps with the first sighting in 1675 by London merchant Antoine de la Roche. Then in 1775 Captain James Cook circumnavigated the island and made the first landing, claiming the territory for Great Britain, thereby beginning a long relationship which continues to this day.

Passing observations made in Cook’s reports of significant numbers of fur and elephant seals attracted the unwanted attentions of 18th-century sealers who triggered the first bloody chapter in the island’s history. By the 1830’s the fur seal population had been decimated almost to the point of collapse, leading to the decline of the unchecked sealing industry itself.

This wasn’t the last time though that South Georgia’s natural bounty would fall foul to commercial gain. The establishment of the first land-based whaling station at Grytviken in 1904 provided whalers with their first toe-hold on the island, after which operations expanded with further stations, and it became a base for whaling operations.

Fuelled by Europe’s growing appetite for the oils that whales could provide - mostly for margarine and soap - the whalers headed south. It's estimated the subsequent bonanza over six decades led to approx.1.6 million whales being killed in the Southern Ocean. It wasn’t until 1965 that the whaling stations doors were finally closed forever and left to decay.

Main places of interest on South Georgia

Illustrated Guide
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What our customers think of South Georgia

South Georgia trips scored 4.4/5 from 180 reviews

We discovered why South Georgia is called The Serengeti of the Antarctic! We were surrounded by hundreds of thousands penguins, fur seals, elephant seals to such an extent that it was sometimes too dangerous to make a zodiac landing as the wildlife on shore was too dense. The landscape and the true wilderness of South Georgia is breathtaking. Read the full review

Travelled: November 2022

Helena Polackova - UK

So many once in a life-time moments. I loved the wildlife encounters: tens of thousands of penguins on the beach; interactions of penguins and fur seal pups. Amazing to watch a leopard seal hunt and catch a penguin. Who knew that icebergs could be so amazing and fascinating? Read the full review

Travelled: February 2022

Scott Hunter - USA

We saw seven different penguin species up close and personal. Five different seal species with amazing encounters with the apex predator "leopard seal". Watching a leopard seal hunt and catch a penguin was nature at its rawest and finest. We saw the complete circle of life from fur seal pups to the demise of a poor gentoo penguin. There were times when the water was boiling with fur seal pups frolicking in the waves. Read the full review

Travelled: February 2022

Scott Hunter - USA

South Georgia was the highlight with so much wildlife and the history. The museum in Grytviken and the church were also very interesting. All the penguins, thousands of them at a time, was very overwhelming at times. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2021

Gordon Pickering - USA

The wildlife in South Georgia was really overwhelming! Read the full review

Travelled: December 2019

Günter Csebits - Austria

I have been to several places where I had seen pictures before I got to my destination and the reality greatly exceeded the pictures. There is no way you can imagine 200,000 nesting pairs of penguins or nesting albatrosses until you have seen them in real life. Read the full review

Travelled: November 2018

Donald Schoengold - United States Of America

There are no words to describe how it feels once you have accomplished a life-long goal. I have now been to South Georgia Island and nothing can take that away from me. Read the full review

Travelled: November 2018

James Jarman - United States Of America

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South Georgia was daunting with all 4 seasons in one afternoon!!! It is a trip of a lifetime and we would recommend it as a "Top Priority" on any bucket list.

Travelled: January 2018

Lucien & Marie-Eve - South Africa

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The trip was the most amazing experience of our lives! It's difficult to determine what the best moments were, but I would say our time in South Georgia and on the Antarctic Continent were the best.

Travelled: December 2017

Susan & Jay - Washington

South Georgia was fantastic. Seeing the sheer volume of wildlife was incredible. Going early in the season gave us pristine snowy landscapes. We had the unique opportunity to see a lone emperor penguin.

Travelled: November 2017

Janet - California

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South Georgia island FAQs

  • How do I get to South Georgia?

    As South Georgia doesn’t have enough flat land for an airport, all visitors must arrive by sea. Under usual sea conditions it takes two days to sail to South Georgia from the Antarctic Peninsula, or just over a day from the Falkland Islands. 

    The closest airport to South Georgia is at Stanley on the Falkland Islands – a small number of voyages may start here, involving a flight to the islands from Punta Arenas in Chile. 

    For more information see our page Getting to South Georgia

  • When is the best time to visit?

    The visitor season runs from November to March. There isn’t a ‘best time’ to visit as such because South Georgia is such a wildlife dense destination, and you may want to balance the timing with your preferred time to be on the Antarctic peninsula. It's worth noting however that thanks to their unusual breeding cycle, fluffy king penguin chicks will be present whenever you visit.

    For more information see our page When to go to South Georgia

  • What is the weather like on South Georgia Island?

    The weather is very windy and variable, and it's more than possible to experience all four seasons in a day. Summer temperatures between November and March, range from 1 to 8°C. The characteristics of the island are very telling of the climate; with 75% coverage of permanent snow and ice. 

  • Where can I stay on South Georgia?

    There’s no accommodation on South Georgia, which is why people visit by expedition ship or the occasional intrepid and self-sufficient yacht.

  • Do I need a visa for South Georgia?

    No – you don’t need a visa to visit South Georgia. Visitor permits are automatically arranged for you if arriving by cruise ship.

  • Can I get a South Georgia passport stamp?

    Yes – all visitors have their passport stamps when they arrive in Grytviken. This is automatically arranged for you by the team on your expedition cruise ship. 

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A single rockhopper penguin stands on a rock surrounded by black-browed albatross at West Point in the Falkland Islands

The Falkland Islands

The Falkland Islands are a small, remote and thinly populated archipelago that punch well above their size when to comes to amazing wildlife and scenery.

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