Antarctica is a strange place, there’s no getting around it. It’s remote, hard to reach and undeniably inhospitable. But it’s also beautiful, serene and captivating in a way unlike any other I’ve visited. Much of what I did and saw in Antarctica was expected. There were icebergs and penguins, whales and massive glaciers. But one thing that was unexpected was Deception Island, an old outpost frozen in time.
Reaching the bay of the strange island isn’t easy, ships must navigate the narrow entrance way known simply as Neptune’s Bellows. But this unique geography is what has made the island one of the safest ports in Antarctica. In fact, even the term island is a little misleading. Deception Island is actually the caldera of an active volcano that last reared its ugly head in the 1960s. This unique and slightly dangerous geography is ultimately what made it so attractive to sealers in the 19th century who used this remote outpost as their base of operations.
Although the sealers established a base here in the early 19th century, the volcano forced them to leave and ultimately is why no permanent settlement succeeded. Most recently a Norwegian whaling company in the early 20th century used the island to boil down whale carcasses to process whale oil. Ultimately they left too, leaving nothing more than a few tanks and a sad and lonely graveyard.
Landing on Deception Island by Zodiac boat, the first thing I noticed was the black sand, the first indication of the volcano. I was too entranced by what I saw on shore though to be too interested in the geography. Massive iron tanks, long since rusted jutted out of the ground like massive tombstones. Not far away stood long forgotten buildings, administrative offices home still to old office equipment and even paperwork. Just out of sight though was the saddest scene, a small graveyard home to those sailors who never again left the Antarctic peninsula. It is a testament to just how harsh and unforgiving Antarctica can be.
Walking along the shore steam radiated from the water, again the volcano giving clues to its presence. That heat though makes the waters near shore a popular spot for adventurous souls who go swimming in what is the ultimate polar bear swim. Further up shore, approaching the mountains are more sad clues to the island’s past, whale bones, resting where the last sailor left them. I’m still amazed that the island was so quickly abandoned. I can’t help but wonder what those last days were like.
That was my favorite part about exploring Antarctica, that almost childlike sense of wonder and awe that welled up constantly amidst the massive icebergs and gentle penguins. And that, almost more than anything else is what makes a trip there a true adventure.