Feb. 18 – Deception Island

Deception Island is a study in black and white – beauty and ugliness, hot and cold, war and peace, pain and healing. I overheard one of our interpreters saying how this was her least favorite part of the cruise, but personally I found it fascinating. It helped put the rest of our Antarctic journey into context for me. It also appealed to the James Bond fan in me. 🙂

What stood out for me:

  • Deception Island provides one of the safest harbors off the Antarctic peninsula … until the volcano erupts. Once you are inside the caldera of the volcano, you are relatively protected from the harsh seas on all sides.
  • The “ash” at this location is very grainy… sort of like small pee-gravel. Unlike the blue we saw everywhere else on the cruise, the ash and snow created a land of black and white. I found it very compelling, while others found it depressing.
  • Ironically, in the midst of all that black and white, there was also green. I presume that the warmth from the volcano makes it possible for lichens, moss, and algae to grow here that have difficulty growing elsewhere in Antarctica.
  • There were fur seals at this location. We were reminded not to venture to close as these guard dogs with flippers seals are quite fast on land and can inflict harm with their sharp teeth. Legend has it that at least one Antarctic visitor has scars in his backside from such an encounter.
  • Because of its strategic significance, Deception Island has been the backdrop to several sovereignty squabbles, with countries coming in and pulling up the flags of others, establishing whaling stations and research bases, etc. Argentina, the British, Chile, Norway, and even Spain have been/are involved in the mix. The island is now under the administration of the Antarctic Treaty System. (For one of the more interesting asides, read about Operation Tabarin.)
  • In 1941, the British destroyed coal dumps and put large holes in the side of the oil tanks at the site of the old, abandoned whaling station, to prevent their possible use by the Germans. Reportedly, the fear was that Deception Island would become a U-boat base that the Axis powers could use to disrupt trade around Cape Horn. I found the story very “James Bond-esque.”
  • Yes, the volcano erupts. We were told a story of how British researchers once  had to flee the island holding corrugated sheets of steel over their heads to avoid falling pellets. I presume that the research stations currently in the caldera have better monitoring equipment.
  • There was no debating that this is still an active volcanic site.  If you use your boot heel to kick a hole into the “sand” along the shore and let the water seep in, that water is warm. I believe it is discouraged now, but in the past island visitors have dug their own “hot tubs” into the beach.
  • There is a graveyard, partially washed out by a mudslide, at the site. Yes, real people chose to live (and ultimately die) in this remote corner of the world.
  • Aviation fans, there is an old hangar at the location we visited. The fuselage of the DeHavilland Single Otter aircraft that once stood derelict here was removed in 2004.
  • The remnants of the abandoned whaling station were eerie and fascinating. The old boilers, once used to render whale fat into oil, stand like giant Daleks occupying the island. And the giant size of the tanks (complete with British commando, U-boat foiling,  holes) that once held the rendered oil put the magnitude of the whaling operations in Antarctica into perspective for me. I still have a hard time imagining that you could hunt and kill enough whales to fill those things! The fact that the station is now rusting away and the whale populations around Antarctica are on the rebound made for an interesting contrast. Neener, neener, neener. Whales win.

Deception Island is not a stop for everyone, but for me it was the ideal melancholy bookend to the end of our visit to Antarctica. One more stop and we would be heading home.

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Greg Tjosvold is a teacher, writer, and innovator. One of the first to crowdsource his biography, he is apparently 12 ft tall, has no body fat, is always polite, and is the only living recipient of an Oscar, Tony, Emmy, Stanley Cup, Pulitzer, and two Nobel prizes (Economics and Break Dancing). He is currently reevaluating the merits of crowdsourcing.

He is the father of two amazing children and currently lives with his wonderful wife in the wilds of suburban Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.