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Day 9 - January 26, 2009 - South Shetland Islands

By Berenice Charpin

Whalers Bay, Deception Island – Lat. 62° 59’ S, Long. 60° 34’ W
Barrientos Island, Aitcho Islands – Lat. 62° 24’ S, Long. 59° 47’ W
Temperature: 4ºC / 40ºF, Pressure: 979hPa
55km/h NW wind

Very early in the morning, we entered Deception Island. The navigation through the very narrow passage known as “Neptune’s Bellows” was breathtaking: the Captain skilfully led the Prince Albert II close to the cliffs in order to avoid the shallow waters.

Deception Island is horseshoe-shaped and 8 nautical miles in diameter, enclosing a large harbour called Port Foster. This bay inside Deception Volcano's caldera is a landlocked basin 5 nautical miles long and 3.5 nautical miles wide. Deception is the largest of three recent volcanic centres in the South Shetlands, with Penguin and Bridgeman Islands being the other two. The rim has an average elevation of 300 meters. It is composed of lava and cinders, but above 100 meters it is dominated by glaciers and ash-covered ice that reaches the sea at many places along the coast and on the east side of Port Foster. The water in Port Foster is warmer than the surrounding sea because of numerous active fumaroles. There were eruptions in 1800, 1812, 1842, 1871, 1912, 1956, 1967, 1969, 1970, and 1972.

It was a cloudy, chilly day but nevertheless, we headed for our excursion to Whalers’ Bay. The French explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot named the bay because of its heavy use by whalers at the turn of the 20th century. As we got off the Zodiacs, most of us hiked up Neptune’s Window and saw some Cape Petrels nesting on the cliffs. Later on, we made our way along the beach and had a chance to take photos of a young Fur Seal. Young Fur Seals are frequently seen on the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. Once they reach sexual maturity they gather at their subantarctic breeding grounds, the largest colonies being found in South Georgia Island.

This landing site bears many remains from the early whaling period such as water boats and wood barrels. Besides, there are the remains of the Norwegian Hektor whaling station, which opened in 1911 and worked until 1931. We could walk around getting a close view of the facilities: boilers, tanks, houses and even a cemetery. Other buildings belonged to the British Tabarin Operation (1944-1945) and to the British scientific station (1945-1969). These facilities were abandoned in the summer of 1969 when an eruption melted the nearby glacier and produced a mudflow that destroyed most of this station. The most courageous of our fellow travellers took advantage of the volcanically heated water at the shoreline and plunged into the water!

Once back onboard, we enjoyed a second late breakfast. Meanwhile, our vessel lifted anchor and headed northwards.

After lunch, we were invited to the last landing of our voyage on Aitcho Islands. This group of small islands lies in the north entrance to English Strait. Robert Island is to the east, Dee Island to the southwest, and Greenwich Island beyond Dee to the south. The islands were charted and named in 1936 by the Discovery Investigations (1925-39). Our Expedition Leader, Ignacio, arranged this landing to show us a penguin species we had not seen yet: the Chinstrap Penguins. We spent a long time walking among their colonies, watching their behaviour and taking many photos!

It was now time to start the 500-nautical miles navigation across the Drake Passage towards Ushuaia on the southernmost tip of South America. Thus, by dinnertime we were already leaving the South Shetland Islands.

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