Category Archives: Deception Island

Wilkins’ Mechanic

Yesterday we were exploring the remnants of the Hector whaling station in Whalers Bay of Deception Island. The derelict remains of building once devoted to the wholesale slaughter of whales marks an important part of Antarctica’s history, but amidst the rusting hulks of steamers and the rotting remains of the whaling industry, Whales Bay also offers an insight into the spirit of adventure and exploration that marked the early operations in this region. The site boasts the remains of a British research station abandoned in the volcanic eruptions that saw massive mudslides hitting the area in the late 1960s, but it also is home to a rather non-descript hanger like building that perched on the northern end of the beach. And indeed it is a hanger, and in fact the hanger once housed the plane that embarked upon the first powered flight over Antarctica – captained by an Aussie by the name of Sir Hubert Wilkins.

Today as we leave Deception in our wake we were privileged to hear the reminiscences of the daughter of the mechanic who helped Wilkins piece together this amazing endeavour. A young man born in 1896 in Washington, Ona’s father started working on Model T fords and ended up participating in no less than 5 expeditions with Wilkins visiting both poles and being central to the operation to get the first flights up and running. Apparently they saw it all as a rather dry operation with his diary reflecting comments such as “Plane assembly in makeshift hanger, 55 degrees below” with little commentary on the guts of exploration … a feature which makes many of the men of early aviation history. Wilkins and his team did not search for fame or glory. This was a precise operation to reach a defined goal to aid our understanding of the world and to promote a cooperative approach to the exploration of the planet.  As we look back it is fantastic to gather an insight into the lives and opinions of these pioneers who pushed the boundaries of our knowledge into the ice south.

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Yesterday we were hunkered down unable to hold anchor in wild weather with winds gusting to over 100 knots. The wind was whipping the water into a writhing carpet of foam, the waves were rolling the ship from side to side and stray items were flinging across the cabins. Clearly landings at Deception Island were not going to be an option and we spend the day talking about how impressive the weather was and how barren the black rocks of this active volcano appeared.

Likewise, the morning was heralded by gusting winds and ominous grey clouds,yet by breakfast the wind was such that you could just about stand up on deck without being flung into the frothing ocean and we decided to have an attempt at launching the small boats and getting to shore. As it turned out the wind gradually diminished and after a couple of hours of strolling amidst the crumbling remains of the whaling station at Whalers Bay, the clouds were trailing away on the horizon and the wind was dropping.

Two hours later we were sailing through calm seas and exploring the brilliant white sea-ice of Pendulum Cove beneath a clear blue sky. Penguins glanced anxiously at us as we followed leads in the ice into the heart of white and I even managed to get sunburnt.

Now we are crossing the Bransfield Strait with the Antarctic Peninsula stretching out before us, the sun glinting of icebergs on the horizon and a gentle following sea rocking the boat gracefully. It is certainly a rapid change but this comes hand in hand with any venture in the South …. It can be horrible one minute and benign the next … I just hope the order of weather does not reverse itself tomorrow when I shall be sleeping under the southern skies in a thin goretex bag while we camp out at Dorian Bay!

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The Volcano

At present we are anchored in the caldera of an active volcano in the South Shetland Islands. Deception Island was named after the fact that it took them a few times of sailing around the island before they discovered that through a narrow entrance named Neptunes bellows, you could sail into the empathy expanse of water that is, in fact, the crater of an active volcano. It could equally have been named for the fact that while the island seemed like a sleeping giant it was, in fact, rather a light sleeper. In just 30 years ago the island awoke and spewed pumice and ash all over the various scientific bases that have taken over from the whaling stations that set up shop here in the early 1900’s causing panic and the evacuation of all personnel.

The glacial record of ash deposits in the region suggests that this volcano does actually erupt every 30 years and the fact that the last catastrophic eruption was in the early 1970s is some cause for concern, but right now, it is a sheltered anchorage and a place to catch up on sleep after a very bust first day in the Antarctic.

We awoke at 6:00 for a early landing at Barrientos Island in the Aitcho group where we walked upon the fresh snow of the season amidst Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins with a few Weddell Seals thrown in for good measure. The landscape here is absorbing and I could spend hours immersed in the jagged rocky peaks, glaciers and icecaps if it wasn’t for the thousands of penguins constantly passing to and fro as they establishing their nests for the season… and it looks like it will be a great season as the gentoos are already proudly defending their eggs  which last year at this time were merely a glint in the eye with many penguins being punished by heavy snowfalls and thus not laying until much later. However, this year the season looks good, and at our second landing of the day we were again greeted by hordes of chinstrap penguins getting ready for a busy season of raising chicks. A busy season ahead for me as well as I prepare for several months sailing around Antarctica, but a few moments amidst the grand scenery, vibrant life and strong smells (penguin colonies smell like ..well… guano) reminds me that this really is paradise.

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Back in the Drake

The ship is starting to rock again as we set our bows to the drake passage after a wet cold day in the South Shetland Islands. These islands have a tendency to be grey and wet but it suits the mood of the location, especially at Deception Island amidst the bleak remnants of the whaling era and the abandoned research station that saw scientists fleeing with burning ash settling on the station that had been home. Today the sand of deception was cool however and there was not a shred of warmth coming from the earth to chase off the chill on a cold expedition staff member.

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Rainy day in the South Shetlands

We arrived in the South Shetland Islands today and began the day with a landing in pretty windy conditions blowing rain into our eyes as we zipped between land and the ship in the zodiacs. But when we got ashore I noticed something odd. Halfmoon Island, where we landed, is normally a pretty riotous affair due to the chinstrap penguin colony. Chinstraps are an agro bunch and are normally busily picking fights with their neighbours in a noisome squabbling fray. But today the colony was strangely subdued. On closer inspection the reason was apparent. The first chinstrap chicks of the season had appeared the last night and the parents were busily tending to their tiny fragile charges, with the small grey chicks waking into a wet cold world and meeting the Antarctic weather for the first time.

Meanwhile back on the ship we were doing quite the opposite and changing the atmosphere from subdued to festive. With Bing Crosby blaring over the speakers we decked the decks with Christmas cheer and prepared for the merry season by setting up Christmas trees and introducing some season’s cheer to the Akademik Ioffe.

Right now I am preparing to fall into an exhausted sleep after another landing in Deception Island in the rain. Immediately afterwards we spent an hour lugging garbage and fuel between our vessel and another passing ship as a favour and now I am pleasantly exhausted while I sip a pint of Guinness and prepare to say goodnight to the world.

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Deceptive Deception

Today I woke up early to prepare for a landing in Deception Island – the very alive volcano that is now about 5 years overdue for its somewhat regular 30-year eruption cycle. Unfortunately a peek out the porthole showed not the rocky crags and cliffs I was expecting but snow being blown in sheets across the water by strong winds. Looks like a landing was out of the question! Instead we turned tail and fled before the growing gale until we found shelter at Mikkelson Harbour on the southern side of Trinity Island. As soon as we jumped in the Zodiacs the weather turned crystal clear and the clouds pealed back to expose blue sky over the glorious white ice of the Antarctic. Thus we had a long landing amidst gentoo penguins and a veritable slumber party of Weddell Seals all lazing on the snow banks happily digesting fish with only an occasional pause to scratch an itch. All up …not a bad day.

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High seas and strong breeze

Today we were up at 5:00 to launch zodiacs in a strong swell off Half Moon Island. My job was to run the skiers up to the landing around the back of the island, which is a long haul in big swell carrying a lot of gear. All went pretty well until we got to the steep beach landing, only to be deluged with a steep swell that must have originated from a glacial carving event. Ended up with waves crashing over the back of the boat and chunks of ice swilling around my feet. Yet another day in wet trousers. Still another fantastic day in Antarctica – and the wet cold feeling rapidly disappears while wandering around the chinstrap colony.

Next landing was at Deception Island were the swell had also picked up and the wind was howling through at about 35 knots. These passengers have had an exciting trip so far with pretty challenging conditions but most of them have taken it in their stride … perhaps its just insanity since nearly a third of them insisted on swimming at Deception despite the weather! But as I said … an early start and I need my sleep…

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27 November 2010

Overnight we steamed across the Bransfield Strait while a party raged in the bar … but there were a few sore heads in the morning! No worries though, remarkable how a quick dip in Antarctic water clears the head. First stop of the day was Deception island where we wandered around the ruins of the British Antarctic Survey base and a few more adventurous types braved the water for 10 seconds of fame and a photograph. Then half moon which is a standard stop but very nice – also got there at low tide which means you can cross the flooded spit of land that is separated from the main island at high tide … doesn’t happen often but if you get across there is a colony of Blue Eyed shag that is pretty cool. Now we are battening down the hatches for the mighty Drake!

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