Day 8 |
Feb 26, 2012

Deception Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica

By Peter W. Damisch, Historian and General Naturalist

Co-ordinates: 62o 59’ S, 060o 36’ W
Weather: Mostly overcast with some patches of blue sky and windy
Air Temperature: 2o C / 36 o F
Pressure: 999 HPa
Wind: 70 km / hour

We could not have asked for a better day for our final operations in the Antarctic. As is the case in our trip itineraries, Silversea tries to have some ‘variety in our diet’. This means that one important aspect of our landing and Zodiac operations is to give guests the opportunity to observe many different aspects of this amazing Continent. We’ve conducted activities at sites where penguins are the main attraction. Other spots have shown us the grace of Crabeater, Weddell or Leopard Seals moving through the water or sleeping on ice. We’ve visited 4 out of only 84 Historic Site Monuments in Antarctica. There have been ship cruises through some of the most beautiful waterways and gorgeous water channels in the world. Today gave us the chance to focus on geology with just a little bit of history mixed in for good measure.

At just about 8 o’clock, the Silver Explorer carefully cruised through the narrow entrance called Neptune’s Bellows into the caldera of Deception Island. Where else in the world can you sail a ship into the flooded mouth of an enormous volcanic crater whose slopes are covered with glaciers? It’s truly a fantastic experience! Our first stop of the day was in a side-cove called Whaler’s Bay. This great location allows us to offer a wide variety of activities depending on everyone’s specific interest.

One group of guests opted to hike with Expedition Team members along the beach towards Neptune’s Window. The beach area often has an interesting variety of sea life including kelp, krill, salps and ice fish washed up on the shore. Robin, our Marine Biologist, helped guide this walk and we’ve been very luck this year to observe so many species at the tidal line, perhaps partially attracted by the somewhat warmer water that wells up after being slightly heated by residual volcanic heat.

The ‘Window’ portion of this hike is actually a large cutout in the volcanic caldera wall, which permits a view from the inside to the outside of the island. Here our guests are literally walking in the footsteps of history as they match the exact actions of Nathaniel Palmer in 1820. He sailed down to the Antarctic as Captain of his own sealing vessel at the age of 20, then climbed the very same path in November of that year to be one of the first people to sight the continent of Antarctica. In fact he did that on a vessel only 14.5 meters / 47 feet long! Fortunately the Silver Explorer provides quite a bit more comfort!

I initially helped to show guests the remains of the Hektor Whaling Station 1(910 – 1931). It’s somewhat hard to believe that in this now peaceful and beautiful location that less than one century ago there was a major, industrial operation here at the end of the world dedicated to the killing of whales. I chatted about the motivations of the whalers as well as the results of that era.

This location was also the historic site of the very first aircraft flight in the Antarctic. 1928 doesn’t seem that long ago, but this international effort led by an Australian and supported by an American was operating at the very limits of available technology.

Also located at this historic site are the remains of a whaler’s cemetery as well as the buildings used by the predecessor of the British Antarctic Survey. They conducted research from 1944 through the end of the 1960s. However, at that time, a series of volcanic eruptions caused the base to be evacuated, first temporarily, then permanently. Of course everyone had chance to ask many questions about the structures that we could see from the many eras of history represented as Whaler’s Bay

As planned, Stefan and Juan Carlos, our geologists, came by to rendezvous with this group to continue onwards and upwards to climb Ronald Hill. The top of this volcanic cinder cone provides an excellent overview of the caldera for everyone to enjoy.

In addition, a few hardy souls stripped down to their bathing costumes and plunged into the frigid waters as part of our traditional Polar Plunge. This is always great fun with everyone else shouting encouragement.

All too soon it was time to head back on board for lunch while the ship repositioned further into the 12-km-diameter inner caldera. The afternoon saw us do something not previously possible during the voyage: offer both short and long walks away from the landing site and through an area of volcanic pit craters. I’ve always wanted to walk on the Moon and this is about as close as I can get. There is an ethereal quality of walking across such a desolate but starkly beautiful landscape.

Several General Naturalists, including myself, led groups that came up to the lip of one enormous crater then turned to climb another cinder cone, giving us a wonderful panorama of this completely awesome location. Descending down the other side we were then able to loop around the backside of one crater, something not often done. Along the way I discussed the volcanic process as well as plate tectonics and answered a few questions about general geology. We still had another cinder cone to climb for a different, fantastic view before descending down to the beach area.

Today’s wonderful landing not only concludes this voyage but sadly also finishes Silversea’s 2011 – 2012 season in the Antarctic. I’m also on my way home for a short break and I’ll very much be missing the excitement of daily activities in remote places on the Silver Explorer. I’ll also be missing the teamwork, friendship and camaraderie of the Expedition Team until after I return from my holiday.