17 October, 1996
Subject: Re: Journal 17 September 1996
Live from the Polar Duke at Deception Island
Location: 62.58S X 60.34 Wind Speed: 16.9 m/sec
Boat Speed: at anchor Wind Direction: 310 degrees
Boat Heading: 180 degrees Barometer: 972.16 mb
Humidity: 84.8% Air Temp.: -4.4 C
Salinity: 33.9 0/00 Water Temp.: -1.4 C
General Weather Conditions: Very cold and windy. Skies are overcast and it's snowing sideways again and wind speeds up to 50 mph.
We arrived at Deception Island this morning, I knew this because I could see the rocks and what I thought was a steaming beach this morning through my porthole. The steam, a mirage, turned out to be blowing snow. When whalers were active here in the late part of the last century there were many reports of the water being so warm from the thermal activity that it would actually melt the paint off of the hulls of the ships! There are swimming opportunities at Deception, because of this geothermal activity, in some places a few inches below the ground temperatures may be as high as 112 F.
When I heard the anchor chain drop I knew it was time to move, I didn't want to miss the first zodiac trip to the island. Deception Island is part of The Shetland Islands, an acrhipelago that is 335 miles long and contains 11 large islands and many smaller ones. All of the islands are volcanic in origin and covered with ice-fields and glaciers.
The South Shetlands were discovered by William Smith in February of 1819. His ship was blown off course and forced south as he was trying to round Cape Horn. Edward Bransfield charted the area in 1820 and reported large populations of whales, elephant and fur seals. By 1823, the sealers had almost completely wiped out the elephant and fur seal populations.
Whalers Bay on Deception Island is reached by sailing through a narrow opening, Neptune's Bellows, which is guarded by tall basaltic spires. The bay is actually a caldera, the center of a volcano that is still active. The last period of intense activity was between 1967-1970, when it eruped several times destroying British and Chilean research stations. I said a quiet prayer to Pele the god of volcanoes, as I stepped into the zodiac, to please, just for today, hold off on any excitement.
Most of us went ashore on the 1000 zodiac run. It was a wet trip, even in this well protected harbor waves were breaking over the bow of the inflatable. Our landing party was greeted by four to five chinstrap penguins who seemed as curious about us as we were of them. I don't know how many rolls of film were exposed photographing that small group, but it must have been some kind of record.
We tramped through the snow, up the beach, still wearing our float coats to ward off the biting wind, to begin our investigation of the abandoned whaling station. Although whalers had been plying the waters around Antarctic since the 1800's The Southern Ocean whaling industry did not begin to florish until 1904. At one point there were nine factory ships 29 whale catchers, these were the small fast harpooning boats, and many shore stations. Whalers Bay, established in 1910, was the southernmost shore station in the world. The licence permitting whaling and processing here ran out in 1931 and the station was abandoned.
We toured the area and all of the decrepted, decaying structures. There were try-works out in front of the buildings. These are huge kettles that were used to cook the whale blubber down to the valuable oil. Next to the try-works there were some huge rusting tanks, they may have used these to store the whale oil or maybe fuel. Beyond the tanks were two large wood framed structures, most likely the living quarters for the men that worked here. It wasn't too long ago that this was a properous community of whalers. I tried to imagine what is was like here 70 years ago when a whale was brought in by one of the whale catchers. I wondered what it smelled like, probably pretty gross. All of the
buildings had wiring for lights we assumed and heating elements. We stumbled into what was once a pantry and found rusting cans of
beets and other vegetables.
Beyond the houses was a rather large stucture that was used as an airplane hanger. While walking over we oassed a grave marked by a plain wooden cross with a Norwegian name and the dates of 188?-1928 (I don't remember the 188? date). Adjacent to the hanger was the fuselage of a small airplane, no wings. We all climbed in and took pictures.
As we were waiting for the zodiacs to pick us up for the trip back to the ship another group of penguins pullled up. This time there were about 30. As we walked down the beach to the landing the penguins followed in the water. It is a wonderful experience to see them swim. We didn't have the opportunity to return to the island after lunch, the winds picked up even more and the captain decided that it was too dangerous.
As we left through Neptune's Bellows to make our way back to the Gerlache Strait a group of about 100 penguins raced the ship. They came up on our port side and crossed the bow of the ship, all porpoising in and out of the water. I lost them when my attention turned to a Wal-Mart sized ice floe.
Thanks for all your mail!
NSF Teacher in Antarctica
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