By the Antarctic Treaty (1959), South Shetland Islands are free for use (for non-military purposes). However, since 1962 their territory have been claimed by the UK's British Antarctic Territory, also by Chile (since 1940) as part of the Chilean Antártic territories (in the province Antártica Chilena) and by Argentina (since 1943) as part of the Argentinean province Tierra del Fuego).
South Shetland Islands are located approx 93 km (58 ml / from Deception Island) and 269 km (167 ml / from Clarence Island) north-northwest of Graham Land (Antarctic Peninsula). The group is also approx 940 km (580 ml) south of Falkland Islands.
The list of the main islands includes Elephant Island (named "Mordvinova Island" by Russia), Clarence Island (named "Shishkova Island" by Russia), King George Island (named "May 25 island" by Argentina, and "Vaterloo Island" by Russia), Nelson Island (named "Leipzig Island" by Russia), Robert Island (named "Polotsk Island" by Russia), Greenwich Island (named "Berezina Island" by Russia), Livingston Island (named "Smolensk Island" by Russia), Snow Island (named "Maly Yaroslavets Island" by Russia), Smith Island (named "Borodino Island" by Russia), Deception Island (named "Teylya Island" by Russia), Low Island.
Smaller-sized islands include Cornwallis, Rowett, Gibbs, Eadie, Bridgeman, Desolation, Penguin Island, The Watchkeeper, Aitcho Islands, Seal Islands, Half Moon Island, Table Island, Rugged Island.
The archipelago has 11 major (plus several minor) isles with total land area 3687 km2 (1424 ml2) and population around 500. The group extends southwest to northeast some 510 km (317 ml) - between Smith Island and Clarence Island.
- The highest elevation point is the Clarence Island's Mt Irving (2,3 km / 7500 ft). Between 80-90% of the territory is permanently glaciated, with over 80% of it remaining ice-covered even during summer.
- Between early April - early December, the waters around South Shetland Islands remain frozen. Between April and November, the average temperature is below 0 C (32 F), the hieghst temperature being around 1,5 C (34,7 F). The lowest temperature during winter is around −5 C (23 F). The climate is cloudy, with constant strong winds from the west.
- The islands' tundra vegetation consists of algae, lichens and mosses. Wildlife is represented by seabirds, penguins and seals.
Currently, there are 16 research stations on the islands, maintained by different countries, but mainly during the summer months only. Most bases are on the King George Island (the largest, total area of 1150 km2 (440 ml2), as it is served by the Eduardo Frei airfield (at the Chilean base). The second largest is Livingston Island (uninhabited, total area of 798 km2 / 308 ml2). The list of Antarctic bases on the South Shetland Islands (listed alphabetically by country) includes:
- Argentina (Camara, Carlini, Decepción)
- Bulgaria (St Kliment Ohridski)
- Brazil (Comandante Ferraz - maintained the whole-year-round)
- Czech Republic (Eco-Nelson)
- Chile (Presidente Eduardo Frei, Profesor Julio Escudero, Captain Arturo Prat - all maintained the whole-year-round)
- Chile-USA (Shirreff Base / since 1990)
- China (Chang Cheng)
- Ecuador (Pedro Vicente Maldonado)
- Spain (Juan Carlos, Gabriel de Castilla)
- South Korea (King Sejong - maintained the whole-year-round)
- Peru (Machu Picchu)
- Poland (Henryk Arctowski - maintained the whole-year-round)
- Russia (Bellingshausen - maintained the whole-year-round)
- Uruguay (Artigas - maintained the whole-year-round)
- USA (Copacabana)
In 1958 was initiated the Antarctic cruise ship) tourism. Today, the number of visiting tourists is in tens of thousands (summer-only) annually, with over 95% of the tours being to the South Shetland islands and the Antarctica Peninsula, Among the most visited cruise ship destinations in the archipelago are Hannah Point (on the Livingston's southern coast), Half Moon Island and Deception Island, as well as the Aitcho Islands (north of Greenwich Island). Passengers are being offloaded via Zodiacs (inflatable boats) and offered nature walks, skiing and climbing, wildlife watching tours.
Port South Shetland Islands cruise ship schedule shows timetable calendars of all arrival and departure dates by month. The port's schedule lists all ships (in links) with cruises going to or leaving from South Shetland Islands, Antarctica. To see the full itineraries (ports of call dates and arrival / departure times) and their lowest rates – just follow the corresponding ship-link.
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