Heads or Tail – Le Finale

March 5, 2023

Deception Island, AM

A bunch of islands lay ahead as we crossed Bransfield Strait notorious for underwater volcanic activity. You think Drake’s Passage is bad? Unpredictable underwater tectonic shifts sound more unnerving. Bransfield Strait lies over a chain of seamounts with active volcanoes a team of researchers continue to monitor for seismic activity, unaware to the average person. Dramatic slopes tainted in snow and mixed with ash emerged as we sailed closer to the horse shoe shaped Deception Island, one of the 11 major islands of the South Shetland Islands first surveyed and mapped by Edward Bransfield in 1820, last erupted in 1970.

Sans steam permeating the sky and red hot lava tumbling into the sea, Deception Island is an active volcano. We were given the all clear to land until we were not. The weather worsened. High winds, which is often the case. Never mind, the shore at Bailey Head was buzzing with activity. Chin strap penguins marching around, oblivious to the largest seals in the world staring at them in the background, Southern Elephant seals.

I was totally blown away by the mishmash of colors as we drifted along the shore. Our guide gradually increased the pace to Neptune’s Bellow, the 500m wide entrance of the caldera. He rambled on about how some 4,000 years ago a volcanic eruption under the sea, gave rise to Deception island’s unique rocky structure made out of minerals, rocks…all that technical stuff went over my head. I was distracted by Pete’s Pillar, a random singled-out rock formation that popped out of the sea. Formely a landmark to guide sealers into what was once a trading hotspot. The rocky cliffs we cruised by flourished with vegetation revealing bursts of mosses, lichens and flowers alive with chin strap penguins.

Deception Island was first visited by Nathaniel Palmer in 1820 after British Sealer, Joseph Herring sighted it a few months earlier in the same year. The controversy doesn’t end here. Separate groups claim to have sighted it before; including the Maoris, Greeks, Dutch, Spanish and Americans who failed to prove it because their PR strategy was non existent. Meanwhile, Palmer, unaware of the above, was “deceived” by the lagoon he sailed into and named it Deception without even recognizing it was a caldera, Port Foster. He set up whaling and sealing factories between 1820 to 1825 exporting Antarctic fur seal skins to China and London. It wasn’t the only deception, he fortuitously met one of Russia’s greatest explorers Von Bellingshausen instigating the mystery of who was really the first person or group to discover the unexplored southern continent, Terra Australis. I shall not digress.

After they ran out of seals, they moved to other islands in the “area” and left this one abandoned until 1904, escaping two big volcanic eruptions in 1828 and 1842.

In 1906, the Norwegians and Chileans took advantage of excellent summer weather conditions and moored their whale factory station in the caldera until 1931. As soon as word got out, Whaler’s Bay became the Wall Street of Commodity trading. Boom! They made money, ran out of whales, and that’s how Hektor Whaling Station ended its production and fell into the hands of the British who used it for research and remember Operation Tabarin ? Some buildings were used by researchers from Chile and Argentina until they were all destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1969. Nowadays, it’s the Spanish and Argentinians who operate their research stations in the summer.

We strolled around the shore over the residuals of a booming town in the middle of the Ocean, haunted by aggressive Antarctic fur seals barking at us to steer clear from their territory. Apparently, a tourist was attacked by one sometime in Dec 2022. In the meantime, volcanic eruptions are still active, the last seismic activity was in 2007.

The horror continues. Roman sea God, Neptune, whom the channel was named after, was probably on a break when the MV Explorer owned by Canadian G.A.P. Adventures hit an iceberg and sank in November 2007, 20 hours after initial impact. Before we freak out, all 100 tourists were rescued, leaving their belongings behind, probably drifting underneath us. They blamed the captain for it.

Half Moon Island – PM

Finally! I got to shake my legs on a 4.4km hike on Half Moon Island over undulating rocky terrain.

We headed towards the cove from the ship and landed on the pebbly beach, a Weddel seal hauled on shore could have been mistaken for a giant rock. I ditched that and the penguins for a bit of heart rate elevation. We went uphill from shore, turned right and walked towards the highest point, Xenia Hill. The Argentinian Camara Base to our left.

From the cliff, we munched on Cadbury chocolate bars, oo’hed and aaa’hed at the breathtaking view of the rugged snowcapped mountain range on Livingstone Island merged into the blue ocean, white bitsy bergs seesawing with the movement of the tide. We made it back cautious of Antarctic fur seals camouflaged against the rocks. They were on the prowl. The last thing I wanted to do was look one in the eye.

March 6 & 7, 2023 – Drake’s Passage

The adventure continued. Two more days on the Drake before docking at Ushuaia. Word was, we escaped an impending storm. At this point, I didn’t really care. We sat through lectures and awareness campaigns slowly checked into reality and uninterrupted mobile network.

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