Dead whales, retired  spies and living volcanos

Yesterday, Wednesday, we visited Deception Island. The horseshoe of hills is a classic caldera of a still-active volcano. At some point a massive eruption has left the 500m high ring around a basin, flooded because of a break in the rim to the south east. The basin is about seven miles long, though only about two miles wide.

Neptune’s Bellows, the entrance channel, is aptly named as wind whistles through, and inside is often windier than out as katabatic gusts fall off the heights. That was true yesterday, with continual buffets and battles happening around the ship.

Nonetheless, the indomitable zodiacs went into action to get us to Whalers Bay, a huge beach of black volcanic grit. If you scrape a hole just six inches deep, the welling water is warm, even though the frigid sea is pushing at your feet.

The Bay was, of course, an industrial whale processing site where hundreds of thousands of whales were slaughtered annually between the early 1880’s and 1931. The remains linger: rusting oil silos towering above the sand, crumbling wooden barrels, a couple of decaying boats, scattered whale bones.

In the Second World War, the UK government used the site as part of Operation Tabarin, a surveillance operation in Drakes Passage, It then passed to the Falkand Island Dependency Service (FIDS), a precursor of today’s British Antarctic Survey.

In 1967, the island reminded everyone of its true nature. The hills are shrouded i layers of mud, ice and ash. The island warmed up enough to melt the ice and huge mudslides engulfed much of the research base. Today a few huts stand, an aircraft hangar and tiny graveyard. Human bones are under small cairns of volcanic rock marked with wooden crosses,

The black sand undulates in dunes or dips into small rifts where the slide was strongest. In places snow lies, rucked by the wind and darkened by the grit, like a filthy tablecloth. The wind whips it all up to peck at any exposed skin. Across the grey water rises the other side of the crater, even bleaker and steeper than this one.

The young male fur seals, resting after their breeding excursions elsewhere, are delighted at the break in their routine. The y gambol around us, barking and growling, daring us to a fight, One stamp, or even a cross word, sees them back away. They play around the remains of the whale dead, as if gamboling in the graveyard of forgotten mammoths.

The wind became so strong we left the caldera and reanchored near the Sewing Machine Needle Rocks. Plan A was to leave around 2000 to cross the Bransfield Strait.. It turned out that the wind was widespread, when HMS Protector warned of 60 knot winds in the strait. So we stayed put (with the help of two anchors and a lot of chain). Instead we got underway 0400 and are now sailing briskly eastwards with sun and a fine breeze, heading for the Weddell Sea,

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2 Comments

  1. Wendy and Graham

    Sarah – loving the story of your journey – following the ship every day.Enjoying second hand your fanstasic experience. Take care x

  2. I can’t wait to see the photos. It sounds fascinating, but desperately desolate. Hope the next leg goes well & the wind is not too fierce.
    Love from Diana & the Bandits

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