Deception Island – hauntingly beautiful
I’m hugely excited about this morning because despite being sad about leaving the Antarctic Peninsula we are heading to the South Shetland Islands to Whalers Bay and specifically Deception Island – an area steeped in history. Breakfast is consumed quickly and I’m on the outside deck by 8am, warmly clothed as it is snowing. As the name suggests many explorers were unaware that it was an island. Its entrance, called Neptune’s Bellows, makes it appear almost fiord like, but once inside it is like a donut with a small bite taken out. Its curvature makes it incredibly picturesque, albeit difficult to capture in 2D.
Deception Island is an active volcano; its last eruption in the 1960s saw scientists running for their lives with sheets of iron over their heads to avoid the flying rocks being catapulted into the atmosphere.
If only this island could speak.
I wonder if the eruption was an attempt for nature to bury some of man’s ills, for this was once home to one of the largest whaling stations.
It’s a hauntingly beautiful place with its black lava ash beach freshly dusted in what looks like icing sugar, large rusting oil drums and desolate buildings against a backdrop of snow blanketed mountains.
Make no mistake this place was once a thriving community of 12 factory ships, 27 whale catches and 200 young men, roughing the conditions to make a quick buck in order to get ahead in life. Whales were wounded and dragged ashore still alive, the fat cut off them and put into these giant drums where they were boiled producing blubber – liquid gold. Between 1912-1913 5,000 whales were caught, killed and processed. Seals and sea lions feared worse as they were thrown into the boiling water alive.
I’m careful with my steps as young males Fur seals have made Deception Island their home. Too small to compete for a harem this season, they are parked up conserving their energy. If we venture too close they let us know with a throaty growl before yawning and lying back down to resume snoozing. Thankfully today they are safe here, from humans at least.
Deception Island was used as a base for air flights in the Antarctic including by the well-respected polar pilot, American Richard Byrd, arriving on Christmas day in 1928 with three aircraft, 50 men and 95 dogs. Up until recently one of the planes was still here, now all that is left is the hanger housing just ice and snow.
Contrasting its violent and barbaric past is the most stunning scenery. We hike up to a high spot called Neptune’s Window. Out of this window all you can see for miles is ocean, far across the Bransfield Straight. Behind us the panoramic vista is made all the more spectacular with the snow that’s fallen since the early hours of this morning. It’s black and white in colour, a photographers dream.