Two Gentoo penguins at Petermann island, One with it's head up in the air and beak open.

Petermann Island, Antarctica: Penguins & Iceberg Graveyard

If youre crossing Drake Passage on a trip to Antarctic Peninsula, you may have a chance to explore Petremann Island. Situated a short distance to the south of the Lemaire Channel, Petermann Island emerges as a rocky and partly glaciated expanse renowned for its colonies of Adélie and Gentoo penguins, abundant seabird populations, and a captivating resting place for icebergs. A haven for both wildlife and landscape photographers, this small yet highly frequented island presents an awe-inspiring Antarctic location waiting to be explored. 

Zodiacs coming towards the ship from Petermann Island in the distance.

Where is Petermann Island?

Petermann Island is a picturesque small island just off the northwest coast of Kyiv Peninsula. Its gentle, rounded contours complement the surrounding icy expanse. It is found just a stone’s throw south of Booth Island and the famed Lemaire Channel. Known for its scenic allure and a broad range of wildlife, Petermann Island has earned its place as a popular destination among tourists. Rightly so! It offers a glimpse into the mesmerizing wonders of Antarctica’s remote and captivating landscapes.

Stretching across a kilometre in length, this island elevates itself to an altitude of roughly 150 meters above sea level. A striking ice cap envelops the island’s northwestern edge, while a crevassed expanse of permanent ice blankets its southern reaches. Delicate cobbled bays carve into the island’s coastline, accompanied by an almost unbroken series of rocky formations lining the shoreline.

Our visit

Date: afternoon, 12 December 2022.

Conditions: Cloudy with a few sunny spells. Very mild, at 1°C (34°F) and very little wind. 

What We Did: 

  • Hiking up from Port Circumcision to see the Iceberg “graveyard” on the other side of the island. 
  • Observing Gentoo Penguin colony. 
  • Seabird watching. 

Notable Things We Saw: 

  • Gentoo Penguins with eggs in their brooding pouches sitting on their nests.
  • Lots of stole stealing activity.
  • Some huge icebergs in the graveyard. 
  • South Polar Skuas, Imperial Shags and other seabirds. 
  • Groussac refuge (Argentine refuge hut).
  • A cross to commemorate British expedition members who died in 1982. 

Landing site on Petermann Island

The possibility of landing on Petermann Island can depend on a range of factors. They include the condition of the sea ice, the state of onshore snow, tidal influences, overall weather conditions and more. However, if conditions allow, you will be landing along the rocky coastline of Port Circumcision.

As you approach the shoreline, you will see a commemorative cross and huts. This historic site signifies sad history and deaths in the name of science and exploration. 

Gentoo penguins on the shoreline at Petermann island, framed between people in red jackets on the zodiac boat.

Port Circumcision

Port Circumcision stands as a testament to human exploration amidst the frozen wilderness. At this remote outpost, a simple wooden cross and historic huts take centre stage, signifying the resilience and spirit of early polar expeditions. These huts, weathered by time and nature’s fury, pay homage to the daring men who once sought to conquer the unforgiving landscape.

The name “Port Circumcision” itself holds a historical significance, going back to the Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897-1899 led by Adrien de Gerlache. The name reflects the expedition’s Catholic roots and their arrival on the island during the Feast of the Circumcision.

Gentoo penguin colony at the shore of Petermann Island.

The zodiacs approached the rounded rocks along the coast, where we got off and stepped foot straight into the middle of Gentoo penguin colony. Most were sitting on their eggs on their nests and didn’t even notice us arriving. They were more preoccupied with keeping a close watch on their neighbours trying to steal stones from their nests. The immediate landing site may not be the white winter wonderland paradise you expected. The snow is covered in red penguin poop. But the scenery changes as you carry on walking inland. 

Gentoo penguin looking after its eggs on its nest.

From Port Circumcision, a marked route will take you towards the cairns of the Magalestris Hill.  Due to the terrain and proximity of penguins, the walking area is narrow and there isn’t much room to move around. However, there are plenty of opportunities to capture birds up close. The section below discusses all the wildlife you may be able to see on the way!

View down towards the lading site at Petermann Island.

Once we reached the top of the Magalestris Hill, alongside the West coast of the island, we saw an iceberg graveyard. This area is extremely visually striking and is a perfect location for photographers and tourists interested in witnessing the unique and temporary formations created by the convergence of icebergs. It’s a place where icebergs come to rest, resembling a sort of frozen landscape or burial ground for these massive chunks of ice. 

Iceberg graveyard behind Petermann Island.

Iceberg Graveyard

An iceberg graveyard, also known as an ice graveyard or ice cemetery, refers to a location where a collection of icebergs has drifted or become grounded in a specific area of a body of water, typically a bay or a coastal region. These icebergs may have broken off from nearby glaciers or ice shelves and then gathered in a certain location due to ocean currents, tides, and other environmental factors.

Large iceberg behind Petermann Island, looking very blue under the water.


Certain sections of the island are restricted from tourist access, serving as protective zones for the breeding Adélie penguins and blue-eyed shags located at the island’s northeastern tip, as well as at elevated points northwest of Port Circumcision. The southwestern extremity of the island is similarly off-limits to visitors, safeguarding the breeding grounds of skuas, gentoo penguins, Wilson’s storm petrels, and the delicate vegetation that thrives there.

In order to preserve the delicate ecosystem, stringent regulations govern the presence of ships and passengers on Petermann Island. A maximum of three ships are authorized to visit the islands daily, with passenger capacities capped at 200 for two of the three vessels. Additionally, a maximum of 100 individuals can be onshore simultaneously. 

People wearing red jackets in front of a snowy mountain iat Petermann Island Antarctica.

Short History

The origin of the island’s name is quite simple: During the Dallmann expedition of 1873 – 1874 (during which the island was discovered), it was named in honour of German geographer August Petermann. 

During the French Antarctic Expedition of 1908-10 on Pourquoi Pas ship, the expedition members found a haven in a cove nestled on the southeastern flank of the island, christening it Port Circumcision due to its discovery on the customary day of the Feast of the Circumcision, January 1, 1909. 

While the huts once erected by these pioneers have vanished into time, a poignant cairn persists as a touchstone to their presence. In addition, an Argentina-built refuge hut, stands as a testament to enduring human endeavour. Originally dubbed Hippolyte Bouchard, this refuge was officially inaugurated on February 6, 1955, and proudly overseen by the Argentine Navy.  

Amidst this historical background, a cross stands tall, a sombre tribute to three fallen members of the British Antarctic Survey, commemorating their valiant 1982 endeavour to cross the sea ice from Petermann to Faraday Station (Vernadsky Station).

These days, Petermann Islands is a popular tourist destination, as well as researchers studying birds or green and red algae. 

Cross at Petermann Island.

Wildlife on and around Petermann Island

A captivating array of wildlife, showcasing the rich biodiversity of this Antarctic oasis invites visitors to Petermann Island. 

  • Penguins: Adélie and Gentoo penguins dominate the landscape, with their charming antics and bustling colonies providing captivating scenes of Antarctic life. There are an estimated 3000 pairs of gentoo penguins on the island, as well as 300 pairs of Adélies. Read more about types of penguins in Antarctica here.
  • Seabirds: Keen an eye out for blue-eyed shags, also known as Imperial shags on the rocky outcrops as well as skuas looking to steal penguins’ eggs. Wilson’s storm petrels dart through the skies often too. 
  • Whales: The surrounding waters occasionally welcome the presence of humpbacks and minke whales.
  • Seals: An occasional Weddell seal or elephant seal may often be spotted lounging on an ice floe around Petermann Island too.
Skua and Penguin perched on a rock.

Photography opportunities

  1. Penguin Behaviours: Capture the charisma of Antarctica’s photogenic inhabitants – penguins. These beloved creatures, renowned for their endearing waddles and playful antics, captivate the hearts of wildlife photographers. Yet, capturing their essence amidst the untouched wilderness requires finesse and preparation. Delve into our Penguin Photography Guide, an indispensable resource where we unravel techniques and indispensable advice for capturing heartwarming penguin portraits.
  2. Majestic Iceberg Photography: Petermann Island with its iceberg graveyard is a perfect location for capturing the ethereal beauty of one of these enchanting natural spectacles. Our Iceberg Photography Guide is a treasure trove of pragmatic insights, encompassing camera settings, motion techniques, and optimal vantage points to freeze these monumental wonders in time (no pun intended).
  3. Seabirds: From graceful Wilson’s storm petrel to majestic south polar skua, this region’s birdlife is a spectacle to behold. Whether your lens is high-end or entry-level, our Antarctic Bird Photography guide empowers you to snap amazing photos of these winged wonders through expert tips and techniques.
  4. Water Dances – Whales and Seals: As you navigate the icy waters on the zodiac cruise, keep an eye out for the majestic whales emerging from the depths, offering fleeting glimpses of their mighty flukes. And don’t overlook the enigmatic dark specks dotting the ice floes – they’re not just rocks, but seals basking in the sun.
  5. Majestic Landscapes: Amidst Petermann Island’s pristine polar panorama lie endless opportunities for landscape photographers.
Penguin trying to stop another penguin from taking stones from its nest.

What else is there to do on Petermann Island?

Besides stepping foot on Petermann Island, there are a bunch of great things to do around here that’ll make your Antarctic trip unforgettable. Even just relaxing on the cruise ship’s top deck, soaking in some amazing views and snapping shots of icy landscapes, lots of birds, and maybe even a whale or seal show.

Evening light on the mountains around Petermann Island.

You’ll also be amazed by all the bird action around Petermann Island. These feathered creatures are gliding above or hanging out on the rocks by the shore, giving you some great photo opportunities. 

Keep your camera ready for Minke and humpback whales that can often be spotted investigating the ship, or simply swimming alongside the zodiac boats. 

Feelin’ adventurous? Some cruise lines arrange kayaking adventures around Petermann Island. Imagine paddling around the ice-filled bays, snapping shots of huge icebergs, and catching penguins going around their day on the shore.

Even if a landing is not possible, you may be able to hop on a Zodiac boat and get up close and personal with massive icebergs, watch penguins dive in and out of the water, and if you’re lucky, you might even spot a whale or seal close to your boat.

Weddell seal perched on n iceberg at sunset.

Read next

Bottom line

In the realm of Antarctica’s majestic wilderness, Petermann Island stands as a true gem, inviting adventurers on expedition cruises and keen photographers to capture its beauty. Adélie and Gentoo penguins, along with a vibrant array of seabirds make for an eventful landing site. The island’s iceberg graveyard,  nothing less than a masterpiece sculpted by nature, offers unparalleled opportunities for photographers and nature enthusiasts alike. From the poignant history etched into Port Circumcision’s huts and cross to the mesmerizing encounters with wildlife in their untouched habitat, Petermann Island is one of the most amazing landing sites we visited on our trip! 

Sunset at Petermann Island.

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