Sometime after our first week on the ship, we learned not to ask where we would be going next, or where we would be stopping. Our itinerary was completely dependent on weather, ice, and the comings and goings of other ships in the region. So it wasn’t really a surprise when we were told that we would be making our way back north across the Drake Passage a day earlier than expected. There were two storms coming, we were told, and the captain wanted to outrace the second storm.
Ok – But what about that first storm?
We tried not to think about it too much so we could enjoy one last landing in Antarctica at Deception Island. Because the captain was really eager to get going, we wouldn’t have much time onshore as the ship would be headed out to open sea by 10:30 am.
As I’ve mentioned before, Antarctica creates her own itinerary for you. While Deception Island is a well-known destination for Antarctic visitors, for us, it was squeezed into the itinerary at the last minute, before coming face to face again with the Drake Passage.
We were all up on deck before breakfast as we entered Neptune’s Bellows, the narrow entrance to the flooded volcanic caldera that sits in the middle of the island. The captain hugged close to the steep basaltic cliffs as we passed, to avoid the shipwreck in the middle of the Bellows.
Deception Island is shaped in a ring with a diameter of approximately 7.5 miles (12 km). It’s an active volcano that last erupted in 1970 – but has been under constant geophysical monitoring for the past ~30 years by UK, Argentinian, and Spanish research teams.
The island was discovered in 1820 and became a center for fur seal hunting. It was abandoned in the 1840’s when it came alive with volcanic eruptions. In the early 1900’s it was a popular spot for whalers, and apparently, there was a community of several hundred men, run by the British. Scientific research stations were established in the 1940’s by the Britain, Chile and Argentina. But the island was abandoned again after a spate of volcanic activity in the late 1960’s through 1970, when the British and Chilean stations were destroyed.
Geologically, Deception Island is somewhat of an enigma. The usual contenders for mid-ocean volcanic activity include plate subduction (like what you’d find in the Cascades of North America, or in Japan) and hot-spot activity (Hawaii). The less common cause of such volcanic activity would be a rift zone, and it’s been suggested that the Bransfield Strait, the swath of ocean between the South Shetland Islands (where Deception is located) and the Antarctic Peninsula, is a small rift zone in a marginal ocean basin.
It’s definitely still active, as indicated by a swarm of small earthquakes at Deception Island and through the Strait in 2014 and 2015. These were apparently associated with movement of magma underneath the Bransfield basin. It’s even possible to take a hot bath on one of Deception’s black sand beaches that line the caldera by digging a pit on down to fumerole-heated waters.
Bathing in volcanically-heated waters, while it sounds nice, was not our plan. But Deception Island was the one opportunity we had to do the ‘Polar Plunge’ – a chance to swim in the Southern Ocean waters (albeit, the calm waters of the caldera). We were ferried ashore to a wide, black sand beach in Telefon Bay.
I fully intended to do the Polar Plunge when I left for Antarctica. But something happened in the intervening weeks that changed my mind. Maybe it was that dreaded gastrointestinal illness I had early in the trip, that drained my energy for a good week. Or the accumulation of many nights with subpar and not enough sleep. I just couldn’t bring myself to torture my body further. Not to mention the knowledge that we would be headed out to open sea in just a few hours, and sea-sickness is exasperated by exhaustion from swimming in 32F water. But a lot of people chose to do the plunge.
So, despite the temptation of a once-in-a-lifetime dip in the Southern Ocean, I was pulled in another direction. I wanted to walk instead – out onto this amazing volcanic landscape toward a black glacier.
I was in good company, as there was a small group of us that chose not to do the polar plunge. I think we were all eager to stretch our legs on solid ground for as long as we could before having to stretch them just to stay sort of upright on the Drake Passage.
I’ve had the privilege of visiting many basaltic landscapes in my lifetime, and this one shared some similarities with the others: the crunch of sand and glass beneath your feet, that distortion of space in your mind, where everything seems closer than it actually is.
But I’ve never seen a glacier like this one – formed through centuries of dust and ash mixing with glacial ice. From a distance, it was actually a bit difficult to distinguish from the surrounding rocks and rim of the caldera. The giveaway was in the glassy black shine, and the thin layers of back and white that created a striped pattern on the ice – a pattern you could only see as you got a bit closer.
I could have wandered out on that volcanic-alluvial plain all day, discovering bits of algae or interesting features in the ice and rock. I would have gladly done that to avoid what awaited us on the open ocean.
Deception Island is home to a colony of Chinstrap penguins. I was really excited to see them because I had been sick during our previous landing with a Chinstrap colony. We didn’t see the colony, but these guys were really curious about why all these unfeathered crazy people were trying to swim in their waters.
We headed back to the ship shortly after this picture was taken. The Captain took us slowly through Neptune’s Bellows again, and many of us were on deck to marvel at our last views of Antarctica before racing out to the Drake Passage to greet that first storm head on and learn what it really means to be on the ‘high seas’.
Some references – If you’d like to read more about the science: