Dr. Roger Kirkwood is an Expedition Leader, Naturalist and polar expert who has been exploring the polar regions for over 30 years. With his help, we dive into what makes the Weddell Sea region so special and why travel to this unique region of Antarctica is an absolute must for adventurous travellers.
So, what makes the Weddell Sea region so special?
The feeling of achievement and the unexpected rewards from entering this magical region are second to none. Positioned on the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula, the Weddell Sea is characterised by denser pack-ice conditions. It’s a real adventure to explore as every day is different, and accessibility is very dependent on ice and weather conditions.
Thick pack ice and large icebergs streaming northwards in fast moving currents can often reduce access and movement far into the Weddell Sea. There is an edge-of-your-seat feeling as the Expedition Team works with the Captain to find a way through the ice, or to navigate to Plan B. The weather in the Weddell Sea region is often windy and can also become quite foggy, which creates a unique, eerie and otherwordly atmosphere. The Captain must follow a compass path determined by GPS, until the the coastline gradually reveals itself out of the fog.
Adventures to the Weddell Sea feel more exploratory and adventurous than other Antarctic expeditions – because they are. Fewer vessels travel to this region, in part because entrance into the Weddell Sea cannot be assured, but also because there are fewer landing options in the Weddell Sea compared to the more heavily-visited Gerlache Strait area on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Geological Marvels & Fossil Hunting
The geology of the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula is very different to the west. While the west side has some extrusive, surface-formed volcanic rocks (for example Deception Island), the east side is mainly intrusive, with deeply formed, granite-type, volcanic and metamorphic rocks. In the east, there are recent volcanics, predominantly associated with the formation of James Ross Island, and sedimentary rocks.
Because of this, it’s a great location for fossil hunting. The sedimentary-based islands, including Seymour and Snow Hill, are lower-lying, not as mountainous, with stoney surfaces and muddy areas. Here we mostly find ammonite fossils , along with other molluscs. However, these locations are also famous for findings of vertebrate fossils, and the strong representation of the K-T boundary, formed around 65 million years ago when a large celestial body hit Earth, leading to the extinction of dinosaurs.
On a small-ship expedition to the Weddell Sea, you will see enormous icebergs, including large tabular icebergs that have broken from the huge ice tongues and ice sheets that feed into the Weddell Sea from the east. Even icebergs birthed in the Ross Sea manage to find their way to the Weddell Sea to be pushed out into the Southern Ocean from there. Unfortunately, the breaking up of ice sheets including Larsen A and B are definitive examples of how climate change is affecting the Antarctic Peninsula.
Wildlife in the Weddell Sea
The Weddell Sea region is rich with iconic Antarctic wildlife. In fact, the north area of the region contains some of the largest colonies of Adélie Penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula! Paulet Island, just north of the entrance to the Antarctic Sound, is one notable wildlife hotspot. Sometimes, there are so many Antarctic penguins on the beach at Paulet Island that it’s impossible to land. Luckily, you can still see its many penguins and fascinating iceberg structures on a Zodiac cruise.
The abundant ice in the Weddell Sea region also attracts seals including crabeater, leopard and of course Weddell seals, which all breed and birth on the sea ice. You can also see diverse seabirds, with Antarctic blue-eyed shags jostling for space with nest-building Wilson’s storm petrels on rocky slopes. Throughout your Weddell Sea expedition, be on high alert for orca, humpback and minke whales.
Tragedies and Triumphs of Trailblazing Explorers
The history of the Weddell Sea can’t help but inspire and excite, even if you don’t consider yourself a history buff. The start of the 1900s was characterised by great triumphs and tragedies, and was the beginning of privately funded scientific investigations in Antarctica. However, there are two inspiring tales of early explorers to the Weddell Sea region that stand out above the rest.
Otto von Nordenskjöld & Carl Anton Larsen
In 1901, Otto von Nordenskjöld led a Swedish expedition to the Weddell Sea. They constructed a hut on Snow Hill Island and conducted a successful expedition despite considerable hardship. After their first winter, Nordenskjöld and his men spent a productive summer conducting research around the northern Weddell Sea. Unknown to them, their ship, the Antarctic, was struggling to retrieve them. First, they unloaded a team of three men at Hope Bay to try to reach the scientific team over the land and sea ice, then the ship tried another route to Snow Hill. The three men were unable to find their way to Snow Hill so they returned to Hope Bay to await pickup by the ship. Meanwhile the ship, under Captain Carl Anton Larsen, was crushed in the ice and sank. Larsen and his men escaped to Paulet Island and built a hut there to spend the winter. After a series of adventures and extraordinary hardship involving small groups of men stranded at different places, the whole party was rescued in November 1903 by the Argentine corvette, Uruguay-led by Commander, Julian Irizar. The scientific results of this expedition proved to be very important, and included the first fossil penguins from Antarctica.
An iconic explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton had planned to land in the Weddell Sea and lead six men 2,900 kilometres (1,800 miles) across the continent, via the South Pole. However, things did not go well, almost from the start. Shackleton took the Endurance into the Weddell Sea in early December in 1914 and found ice conditions especially difficult. By mid January 1915 they were hopelessly trapped in pack ice. By October, the ship began to be crushed, so they abandoned her and set up camp on nearby ice, where they were marooned for months. By early April in 1916, they had ridden the moving sea ice platform to the north edge of the Weddell Sea and the ice finally released them. They took off in three lifeboats and, after six difficult days, managed to reached Elephant Island.
Shackleton then decided to set off in the largest boat with five companions to seek help from a Norwegian whaling station on South Georgia. Departing on 24 April, the six men crossed 1,280 kilometres (794 miles) of rough seas in 16 days in the open boat to reach the island. Unfortunately, they landed on the wrong side and were forced to climb over an unknown mountain range with very little equipment. After their near-miraculous trek over South Georgia, Shackleton set about rescuing the rest of his crew. On 30 August 1916, after four months and three unsuccessful rescue attempts, Shackleton returned onboard a Chilean vessel to rescue the men left behind at Elephant Island. All of them managed to survived their ordeal.
Weddell Sea Expeditions
If you are dreaming of experiencing the Weddell Sea for yourself, and having the fascinating stories of brave explorers brought to life by your Expedition Team, we have four Weddell Sea expeditions that dare to venture into this wild region to choose from.