William Smith, sailing in the British ship Williams, was blown off course while rounding Cape Horn for Valparaiso, Chile, and discovered the islands on February 19, 1819, but he made no landing. He returned later in the year and landed on King George Island on October 17, claiming the islands for King George III.

On Christmas Day that same year, the first British sealing ship arrived (with Joseph Herring, who had been the mate of the Williams when the islands were discovered). A veritable navy descended upon the seal-rich islands the next year.

During the summer of 1819–20, the senior British naval officer for the western coast of South America, William Henry Shirreff, chartered the Williams and placed Edward Bransfield aboard as senior naval officer. Smith and Bransfield surveyed the island group and today the strait between the South Shetlands and the northwestern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula bears Bransfield’s name. Bransfield landed on both King George Island (January 22, 1820) and Clarence Island (February 4) to claim them for the new sovereign, King George IV.

Smith returned to the South Shetlands for a fifth time during the summer season of 1820–21, this time on a sealing voyage. His two vessels took an extraordinary 60,000 fur-seal skins.

An incredible 91 sealing ships operated in the South Shetlands during that season, most of them British or American, and the fur seals were almost completely gone by the end of 1821. It was half a century before sealers visited the islands again in great numbers. From 1871–74 a handful of American sealing ships took another 33,000 fur seals from the slowly recovering populations. By 1888–89 the American sealer Sarah W Hunt reported taking just 39 skins in a season.

Death visited the sealers as well as the seals: with so many vessels operating in such treacherous waters, there were many wrecks – six ships foundered between 1819 and 1821 alone.

Antarctica’s First Tourists

  • The first Antarctic tourist flight, by LAN Chile in 1956, flew over the South Shetlands and the Antarctic Peninsula.
  • Two of the earliest cruises to Antarctica, by the Argentine ship Les Eclaireurs, reached the South Shetlands in January and February 1958.
  • In 1959 the Argentine ship Yapeyú and the Chilean vessel Navarino both took passengers to the South Shetlands.
  • In the earliest mass visit to the Antarctic, Spanish cruise ship Cabo San Roque carried 900 passengers to the South Shetlands and the Peninsula in 1973.