Antarctica for historians: key points

  • History surrounds you wherever you go in Antarctica – it's impossible to take a step without being aware of those who have gone before you
  • From unsung explorers, whalers and scientists to giants like Amundsen, Scott, and Shackleton, Antarctica's visitors have left indelible footprints on the continent
  • Visiting historic sites makes a thrilling addition to any trip, from the post office at Port Lockroy and Shackleton's grave on South Georgia to Scott's base on the Ross Sea
  • Antarctica's historic sites are surprisingly diverse, from ghostly whaling stations and touching memorials to perfectly preserved explorers' huts
  • Every ship has its own expert polar historian, adept at bringing Antarctica's stories to life during on-board talks and when you're out on the ice

Where can I find Antarctic History?

What historic locations can I visit in Antarctica?

The Antarctic Peninsula

The gentoo penguin colony outside the Penguin Post Office at Port Lockroy in Antarctica

The 'Penguin Post Office' at the historic base at Port Lockroy

The names of the places visited on the Antarctic Peninsula are replete with the echoes of the earliest days of polar exploration.

Many cruise ships sail through the Gerlache Strait, named for the Gerlache expedition that sailed in 1897, kickstarting the Heroic Era of Antarctic exploration. When the ship was caught in the ice its crew became the first people to spend the winter in Antarctica, but there’s no such fear for modern visitors, who can delight in the numbers of humpback whales who congregate here instead.

One of the most places highest on many Antarctic wishlists bears a different pedigree. Port Lockroy dates from 1944 when a British base was founded here as part of the wartime polar intrigues of Operation Tabarin. It is still run today as living museum, drawing visitors to its ‘penguin post office’.Other historic research bases include those on Damoy and Stonington Islands.

North of the Peninsula, many cruise ships call in, Deception Island, formed from the crater of a long-collapsed volcano. The weather-beaten remains of Antarctica’s only land whaling station are an eerie reminder of a bloody history, while its calm bay was the launching point for the continent’s first flight by the Australian aviator George Hubert Wilkins in 1928. Its waters today are a popular location for tourists making their polar plunge.

South Georgia

Two tourists by Shackleton's grave at Grytviken in South Georgia

By Shackleton's grave at Grytviken in South Georgia

No figure towers over Antarctic exploration like that of Sir Ernest Shackleton, and no destination has more places associated with him that it's possible to visit like the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia.

It was from here that Shackleton set out on his fated Endurance expedition in 1914, and here that he returned to after the miraculous voyage of the James Caird to get help for his stranded shipmates on Elephant Island.

Today, if South Georgia's wild weather allows, it's possible to follow the Shackleton Walk that retraces the final part of his desperate march across the island to raise the alarm, communing with history by following his footsteps and those of his companions Frank Worsley and Tom Cream by hiking to the old whaling station at Stromness Harbour.

Alternatively, visitors may discover the spirit of ‘the Boss’ by raising a toast of whisky by Shackleton's grave in the old whaling station of Grytviken, where he died in 1922. Follow up with a tour of the South Georgia Museum, which houses much Shackleton memorabilia including a replica of the James Caird itself. Thrillingly, some South Georgia cruises may also include the chance of sailing past Elephant Island. This is the ultimate voyage for any enthusiast, but difficult sea conditions make landings here incredibly rare – remember that it took even Shackleton four attempts to rescue his men here! 

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Paul says

If Shackleton’s voyage in the James Caird sounds incredible when you read about it in a book, try sailing the same seas between South Georgia and Elephant Island in a modern, comfortable ship. The perspective you’ll get from being there only makes his supreme achievement seem even more incredible.

Paul Clammer Guidebook Editor

Follow the Shackleton Walk with Swoop

After the epic voyage of the James Caird, Shackleton and his companions hiked across the unmapped interior of South Georgia to safety. Many South Georgia cruises offer the opportunity to recreate the final leg of their trek with a 3-4 walk to Stromness Harbour.

The Weddell Sea

Wreck of the Shackleton's ship Endurance beneath the Weddell Sea

The wreck of Shackleton's ship Endurance below the Weddell Sea

The Weddell Sea, with its great fields of tabular icebergs east of the Antarctic Peninsula, firmly landed back on many travellers’ radar in 2022 when the wreck of Shackleton’s ship Endurance was discovered 3000m beneath its surface. It was the Weddell’s pack ice that literally crushed Shackleton’s hopes of crossing the continent, and while the location of the wreck can only be reached by icebreaker, sailing here in his wake remains a powerful evocation of the Heroic Era. The wreck itself is a protected monument and cannot be disturbed in any way. 

Canny polar historians know the Weddell as the place of another equally incredible story of survival – that of the Nordenskjold Expedition. The prefabricated hut from 1902 on Snow Hill island where the expedition over-wintered remains a surprisingly cosy place to visit. It stands in stark comparison to its companion on nearby Paulet Island. This simple construction of stone was built in desperation by the crew of the expedition’s relief ship when it too was caught in the ice and sank. 14 men spent the winter here living off penguins and diminishing hope before they could launch a small boat to bring relief.

Only a small number of expedition cruise ships attempt to visit this remote part of the Western Peninsula every year, but coming here offers powerful testimony about the will to survive in such extreme conditions.

The Ross Sea

Inside Shackleton's hut at Cape Royds on Ross Island

Inside Shackleton's hut at Cape Royds

The Ross Sea is where Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen all based themselves in the early years of the 20th century when the starter gun was fired on the race to the South Pole. Many of their huts can still be visited today – holy grails for many Antarctic travellers.

Visiting Scott’s Hut at Cape Evans on Ross Island is perhaps the most emotionally resonant experience any history enthusiast can have in Antarctica. This is the hut built for the Terra Nova expedition in 1911 during which he and his companions perished during their return from the pole. So sensitive has been the conservation and presentation of the hut that one imagines they might still step in at any moment.

Also on Ross Island are Scott’s Discovery Hut at Hut Point and Shackleton’s Hut at Cape Adare built for the Nimrod expedition during which he attained his gruelling furthest south. It's also sometimes possible to call at Borchgrevink's Hut at Cape Adare, where the first expedition overwintered on the continent in 1899: another place of pilgrimage for the dedicated historian but also famously one of the windiest places on the continent.

Just a few ships sail to this region every year. The ice and weather in this region remains as challenging today as it did for the original explorers however, so visits to individual locations cannot be guaranteed. 

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What our customers think of Exploring Antarctic History

10/10 - Combines great parts of the Antarctic area. History, culture, wildlife, geology were fascinating. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2022

John Metcalfe - USA

Everyone should do it to get close to Shackleton and everyone else who attempts south pole destination. We still knew where our next meal is going to come from and those guys on the ice crossing the continent did not. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2022

Manish Daulat - USA

I enjoyed learning about the history of discovery, women in Antarctica, the birds, mammals and bathymetry. The glacial lectures were very informative. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2021

Diane Walcher - USA

There were multiple high points: visiting Shackleton's gravesite at Grytviken, South Georgia; kayaking at various points around South Georgia and Antarctic Peninsula. I got to meet some really interesting people including passengers, the crew and staff. My twenty-three day trip might be too long for some people but for me it was perfect. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2018

Shane Dolan - United States Of America

The highlights for me were the whaling station at Grytviken and Shackleton's grave, and being able to hike the ridges above our landing sites. In regard to the wildlife, the vast quantity of wildlife, and how close you are to it, leaves you speechless. Read the full review

Travelled: November 2018

James Jarman - United States Of America

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The highlights were the Shackleton history and being able to stand on the top of the pass where the trio looked down on the whaling base at Stromness - their destination.

Travelled: November 2017

Neill - New Zealand

I learnt a lot more about polar history than I thought I ever would thanks to Katie, the onboard historian. The wildlife experts, Dick, Jacque and Bruce are very knowledgeable and were always on hand to point out and explain about the animals sighted.

Travelled: February 2017

Chow - Singapore

Shackleton should have gone with Swoop.

Travelled: January 2017

Catherine - UK


The Falkland Islands

A view of Christchurch Cathedral in Stanley on the Falkland Is;ands, with its arch made of blue whale jawbones

The blue whale jawbone arch outside Stanley's Christchurch Cathedral

Visited as part of expedition cruise itineraries taking in South Georgia as well as the Antarctic Peninsula, the Falkland Islands hold much of interest for history buffs.

The tiny capital of Stanley is a popular port of call for cruise ships. It's a town packed with historic monuments and buildings – as well as its shores being dotted with shipwrecks. Its most unmissable old building is Christchurch Cathedral, the most southerly cathedral in the world with its massive arch of blue whale jawbones.

Beyond the cathedral is the excellent Historic Dockyard Museum, which tells the story of the islands in a highly engaging manner, including rooms dedicated to the 1982 War as well as the Falklands' close connections to Antarctic exploration. During a day spent in Stanley it is sometimes possible to arrange a separate tour of battlefield sites from the 1982 War.

Protecting Antarctica's historic sites

Baby elephant seal on a ruined whaling boat at Deception Island

Baby elephant seal amid a ruined whaling station on Deception Island

Antarctica is home to over 90 Historic Site and Monuments (HSMs) as registered under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty, ranging from simple cairns and graves to the impressive huts from the heroic era of exploration.

While the harsh polar environment has inevitably made its own mark on these sites, many are cared for by national heritage bodies such as the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust (such as Port Lockroy) or the New Zealand Heritage Trust (such as the Terra Nova and Nimrod huts).

Each historic site has a carefully designed management plan to protect, with strict rules in place to govern visits by tourists, including caps on numbers during a landing. During any visit, it is essential to adhere to the rules as laid out by the ship’s expedition leader. Only by doing this can we help keep these precious sites safe for future generations.

Sites in South Georgia are subject to their own management plan laid out by the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands.

Please note that visits to specific historic can never be guaranteed. Plans can change as fast as the polar weather: decisions on which locations to visit are always made on the day by the ship's captain and expedition leader.

Exploring Antarctica's history: FAQs

  • Where can I best see traces of the Heroic Era of Antarctic exploration?

    If it's the race to the South Pole that excites you most, the Ross Sea will be at the top of your list, because of the well-preserved historic huts there that were once occupied by the men of Scott and Shackleton's expeditions there. Alternatively, head for South Georgia for its plethora of locations associated with Sir Ernest Shackleton, including a chance to recreate part of his walk across the island, see a replica of the James Caird in the South Georgia Museum and make a graveside toast to him in Grytviken.

  • Are there many historic locations to see on the Antarctic Peninsula?

    There are a surprising number of historic sites dotted around the Antarctic Peninsula and visiting them is a great way of understanding the richness of polar history. Your guides will you to a host of places associated with epic stories of exploration that lie under the headlines. De Gerlache, Nordenskjold, Charcot, Bransfield plus a host of anonymous sealers and whalers all left their marks to be discovered here.

  • Can I visit the wreck of Shackleton's ship Endurance?

    The wreck of the Endurance was discovered in March 2022, exactly 100 years to the day after Shackleton's funeral. It lies 3000 metres below the ice of the Weddell Sea, making it impossible to visit in person, although our Weddell Sea cruises can give you a taste of the scenery the Endurance crew encountered on their voyage of survival.

  • Can you guarantee visits to specific historic locations?

    Can you guarantee visits to specific historic locations? Mother Nature calls the shots in Antarctica, and as such visiting any specific location is subject to weather and ice conditions. However, both your ship's captain and expedition leader well understand the talismanic nature of certain locations and will do their best to attempt landings if conditions allow. In South Georgia, all cruise ships must call at Grytviken for immigration and biosecurity checks, so if you trip includes the island you'll almost certainly get to visit Shackleton's grave and raise a toast to 'the Boss' there.

  • Are there any historic sites associated with Antarctica in the South American ports of call?

    Absolutely. Most cruises start and finish in Ushuaia, whose Museo Marítimo (a converted prison) has an excellent wing dedicated to the exploration of Antarctica, including a fine collection of model ships from every major expedition.

    If you fly to Antarctica from Punta Arenas, that city has its own walking trail of historic buildings and monuments associated with Antarctica, along with the Museo Nao Victoria with its recreations of historic exploration ships. It's a must to visit the waterfront to see the preserved prow of the Yelcho, the Chilean ship that rescued the crew of Endurance in 1916, along with the statue of its captain, Luis Pardo.

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