Chinstrap penguin posing on a rock.

Orne Harbour: continental landing site on Antarctic Peninsula

Orne Harbour is often the only possible continental landing site on the Antarctic Peninsula for most expedition cruises – and it’s one of the most stunning locations you will visit on our 7th continent! From the grand elevated views, the majestic icebergs floating in the Errera Channel and Gerlache Strait to the most beautiful Chinstrap penguins and blue-eyed shags with piercing stare, Orne Harbour has it all! Grab your camera, and let’s explore the best Antarctic continent has to offer…

Where is Orne Harbour?

Orne Harbour (sometimes spelt Orne Harbor) is a breathtaking natural spot located on the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula on the west coast of Graham Land. Situated at approximately 64 degrees south latitude and 62 degrees west longitude, it is nestled within the pristine confines of the icy continent, making it a remote and secluded destination for intrepid explorers and travellers.

Explorers in red coats going up to the saddle in Orne Harbour.

The landscape of Orne Harbour is a mesmerizing fusion of ice and rock. Towering, jagged peaks and rugged cliffs surround the bay, creating a dramatic backdrop against the pristine waters of the Southern Ocean.

Massive glaciers cascade down from the mountains, their blue-tinged ice sheets forming impressive icefalls that occasionally calve into the sea. These glaciers lend the area an ethereal beauty, their frozen surfaces contrasting starkly with the dark, volcanic rock formations that are scattered along the shoreline.

Our visit to Orne Harbour

Date: Afternoon, 15 December 2022.

Conditions: Overcast and cold (0°C).

What We Did:  

  • Climbed to a viewing point on the saddle overlooking the Errera Channel, Gerlache Strait, and Anvers and Brabant Islands.
  • Observed Chinstrap penguins together with the ship’s ornithologist. 

Notable Things We Saw: 

  • Chinstrap penguin colonies
  • Lots of blue-eyed shags
  • Weddel seals swimming in the waters near the shores. 
Ieva climbing up the hill in the snow at orne harbour.

Continental landing site in Orne Harbour

The landing site in Orne Harbour is a picturesque low-lying rock platform, strategically positioned about 500 meters along the southern shore from the entrance to the harbour, just below the saddle leading to Spigot Peak.

As we were approaching the harbour, we knew that the views from the top would take our breath away! It was our first landing site (and the only one) on the Antarctic mainland. 

After a short zodiac ride from the ship, we got off on the low rocks on the shore and proceeded on a steep walk up to the southern side of the saddle. The journey involves a strenuous but rewarding serpentine-style hike, offering glimpses of the charming chinstrap and gentoo penguin colonies nestled amid rocky outcrops along the way. The expedition team diligently clears paths through the snow, emphasizing the importance of staying on marked routes to avoid hidden crevasses. 

A chinstrap penguin on the rocks surrounded by snow.

While the charming penguins provide delightful entertainment, it’s the panoramic views from the saddle, with Spigot Peak as a striking backdrop, that truly steal the limelight, making this landing in Orne Harbour an unforgettable Antarctic highlight.

Orne Harbour welcomes a maximum of three ships per day, each carrying no more than 500 passengers, ensuring the preservation of its pristine environment. At any given time, the site has a maximum of 100 visitors, so it never feels overcrowded. 

A zodiac boat approaching the landing site in Orne Harbour.

Incredible views of the frozen continent

From the top of the saddle in Orne Harbour, the vistas that reveal before your eyes are nothing short of awe-inspiring. To the east, the rugged scree slopes of Cuverville Island present a stark contrast against the pristine waters of the Antarctic Peninsula. You look south and you see a beautiful silhouette of Rongé Island, its jagged peaks jutting skyward amidst an expanse of ice and sea, studded with majestic icebergs

Directly below, the rocky shoreline of Orne Harbour gives way to the cold waters, offering a glimpse of the resident wildlife, including chinstrap and gentoo penguins, as they navigate the rocky outcrops as well as an occasional Minke Whale coming up to the surface of the water. 

Spiggot peak on Orne Harbour and one red-coated person in front of it.

As you stand atop the saddle, gazing out over these breathtaking views, it becomes abundantly clear why Orne Harbour is a must-visit destination for those seeking the true essence of Antarctica’s grandeur and majesty. Visit our Antarctica Photography Tips to learn more about how to capture the beauty of the frozen continent on your camera.

Wildlife enthusiasts’ dream

  • Penguins. Large Chinstrap penguin colony is the main thing to see, with their charming antics giving a glimpse of ordinary Antarctic life. But we saw a bunch of Gentoo penguins too. Read more about different types of penguins in Antarctica here. And visit our Penguin Photography article for tips and tricks on how to capture them on your camera.
Chinstrap penguins on the rocks in Orne Harbour.
  • Seabirds. Keep an eye out for blue-eyed shags, also known as Imperial shags on the rocky outcrops. They nest on the northern tip of Orne Harbour and you can often see them on your zodiac cruises. See if you can spot Antarctic Terns and Kelp Gulls. We also saw a Cape Petrel, Wilson’s Storm Petrel and a Southern Giant Petrel darting through the skies. We have lots of photos and tips on how to capture Antarctic Seabirds on camera.
Sheathbill at Orne Harbour, lading on the railing on the ship.
Sheathbill at Orne Harbour
  • Whales. The surrounding waters occasionally welcome the presence of Humpback whales and Minke whales.
  • Seals. Weddell seals and Antarctic Fur Seals are often spotted in the area. We also saw a leopard seal lounging on an ice floe in the distance. 

History of Orne Harbour

Orne Harbour, nestled along the northern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, has a history as intriguing as its icy landscapes. Whilst it was first discovered by a Belgian Antarctic expedition, the harbour’s name is attributed to Captain David Orne, an American sealer who operated in Antarctic waters during the early 19th century. His exploration and sealing activities in this region contributed to the naming of Orne Harbour, a tribute to his maritime endeavours.

The area around Orne Harbour has been a focal point for Antarctic exploration and scientific research for well over a century. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it served as a base for various scientific expeditions, particularly those led by European nations, as they sought to unlock the secrets of Antarctica’s unique environment.

Hurtigruten MS Fritjof Nansen framed by a rocky outcrop at Orne Harbour, Antartica.

During the era of whaling, the waters around Orne Harbour were frequented by whalers seeking the valuable resources that the Southern Ocean had to offer. The remnants of whaling stations can still be found in some parts of the region, serving as a stark reminder of the exploitation of marine life in this remote wilderness.

In more recent times, Orne Harbour has evolved into a destination for eco-tourism and scientific research.

What to do in Orne Harbour?

​If you are able to take the steep walk up to the saddle, we highly recommend that you do. The views from the top will not disappoint, to say the least. But even if the landing is not possible due to sea ice blocking the entrance, most cruise companies arrange a zodiac cruise along the rocky shoreline of Orne Harbour. 

Before our landing in the afternoon, we cruised around Orne Harbour and Danco Coast to see the steep cliffs and patches of permanent snow from a different angle. The zodiac driver took us to the nearby glacier to see halving ice as well (at a safe distance, of course). 

Blue pattern on the underside of a beached iceberg.

​For the extra adventurous travellers, some ships organise a renowned polar plunge, where you can jump straight into the ice-cold Antarctic Waters, so look out for any announcements on your ship. 

Scientists on our ship were taking water samples just off the shores of Orne Harbour, and many passengers later participated in a workshop where the composition of the water was analysed in the ship’s lab. Have a look if your cruise line is participating in Citizen’s Science Projects!

In addition to setting foot on land in Orne Harbour, there are numerous activities to enhance your Antarctic expedition. While aboard the cruise ship, taking in the breathtaking vistas from the top deck offers a chance to capture stunning images of the icy landscapes, abundant birdlife, and the occasional whale or seal sighting.

Sea ice near the shorline by the Orne Harbour in Antarctica.

Orne Harbour is a haven for bird enthusiasts too, with various avian species gracefully soaring above or perched on the rocky shoreline, presenting excellent opportunities for photography.

Keep your camera at the ready for potential sightings of Minke and humpback whales, which often investigate the ship or swim alongside the zodiac boats.

For the more adventurous, certain cruise lines organize kayaking excursions around Orne Harbour, providing a unique opportunity to paddle through ice-filled bays, photograph colossal icebergs, and observe penguins going about their daily activities on the shore.

Kayakers in the waters close to Orne Harbor in Antarctica.

Other destinations on Antarctic expedition cruise

If you are planning an expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula, you may be interested in some of the other locations we visited on our Hurtigruten “Highlights of Antarctica” cruise. 

A chinstrap penguin on the snow with rocky backdrop with snowflakes falling on it.

Bottom line

In summary, Orne Harbour undoubtedly stands as our favourite destination on our Antarctic Expedition cruise. Its status as a continental landing site, coupled with its mesmerizing natural beauty, made it the culmination of our journey on the seventh continent. From sweeping panoramas of icebergs to captivating encounters with wildlife, Orne Harbour delivers an immersive Antarctic experience that’s nothing short of extraordinary. Its rich history and modern-day scientific significance add depth to its allure. Orne Harbour represents the very essence of Antarctica’s grandeur and leaves an enduring impression on all fortunate enough to explore its pristine wilderness.

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