25 Million years ago the Bransfield Strait experienced its first stages of vulcanism. Episodes have been repeated on several occasions since then, with a couple of peaks in the activity about 10 million years and 3 million years ago. Of approximately this time dates Deception Island. By then a growing volcano, becoming higher and higher above the sea level. Is thought that as recently as about 10.000 years ago, the large volcanic building fell into a magma chamber that was by then largely depleted. The origin of Deception Island collapsed and flooded the caldera, where nowadays ships can sail in through the narrow entrance of Neptune’s Bellows. At Starboardside the high orange cliffs of Cathedral Craggs, on port lays the submerged hazard of Raven’s rock. A short but intense passage under the morning strong winds leads to the natural harbor of Port Foster.
35, gusts of 40kn as we sail in. Facing those strong Northwesterlies, Europa pushed through to the northern side of the caldera, maybe some shelter can be found there for a landfall at Telefon Bay. And so it seemed. Still blowing hard but with less force, the wind may allow for dropping anchor and give it a try with the zodiacs. And so it was, just a try for both, anchor and boats. 5 shackles went down, and 5 shackles soon dragged over the loose sea bottom. 2 Zodiacs were launched not without difficulty in the gusting winds, and soon they were picked up again on deck. Conditions are not good yet. Better wait until the afternoon when a slight improvement in the situation is forecasted.
A few hours passed the gusts eventually eased. Time to drop anchor again at Gonzalez Harbour and head towards the picturesque Telefon Bay. With its barren landscape, several small craters and lagoons, is a witness of the recent volcanic activity in the area. From atop the hills and ridges, at the distance, one of the best views over Port Foster. Down below a maze of colorful ponds, channels, and inlets. There seeking for good shelter, a Brazilian expedition sailing yacht lays at anchor. Under our feet the loose gravels and volcanic rocks of a Moonscape devoid of life. Sand and dust fly and swirl today, swept by the strong winds over the desert ground. Barely any vegetation has settled here yet.
The wind, though has abated since this morning, still blows pretty hard once getting off any sheltered corner. So we all felt it when back onboard and the anchor is pulled home, Europa heads southwards inside Port Forster. About 6nm to go to arrive at Whalers Bay, right next to Neptune’s Bellows.
Forceful gusts didn’t make for a safe and comfortable anchorage there, instead, the ship drifted while the rubber boats headed ashore for an evening landing.
Whalers Bay, is a legendary cove in Deception Island. 15th November 1820, the date when Nathaniel Palmer on board the small Hero set sail from one of the main harbors for the sealing fleet, between the islands of Livingston and Smith, and came across Deception island. The Hero squeezed through the narrow entrance to the interior of the island and the crew landed at a nearby beach. Palmer took a short hike to a distinctive saddle up the cliffs. Cape petrels nest nearby and offer a good meal of fresh eggs. But looking at the southeastern horizon something was shining far over there, glaciers and snowy mountains. Soon he would sail in that direction and find land which proved to be the Antarctic mainland. 10 months before, the Russian Fabian von Bellingshausen first, followed three days later by Edward Bransfield had also sighted the White Continent, the mythical Terra Australis that defeated James Cook 45 years before. Antarctica, the last continent to have seen any humans sailing its icy waters, walking its glaciated lands and rocky shores, has been officially found.
Landing on the rough wind and steep waves ashore, we all set off for a taste of Nathaniel Palmer’s hike above Cathedral Crags and Neptune’s Window. The Bransfield Strait opens before us, looking west Neptune’s Bellows. Above, the rocks and glaciers of Mount Pond, with over 500m in height is the highest hill in Deception. Today the visibility isn’t good enough to reach over 60nm of open waters to the mainland.
Down the valley, the flat large beach area of Whalers Bay. At the coastline, a beautiful Leopard seal rests. Skuas and Kelp gulls feed.
Here, the old times of seal hunting were soon followed by whaling on a commercial scale. Whaling ships started operating in the area and about 90 years after the discovery of Deception, the Norwegian Hector Whaling Station was built. It processed large amounts of whales until 1931 when the whale oil business collapsed.
During those times too, the first ever flight in Antarctica took off from the flats above the beach, on the 16th of November 1928.
What is left behind from those times lay all around the bay, dwarfed by the surrounding harsh and desolate landscape. Old sloops, barrel staves, boat shelters, oil tanks, pressure boilers, and decaying buildings. Infrastructure that was put in use after the whaling era on a couple of occasions. First, the Station was established as a Base for the English “Operation Tabarin” during the Second World War, with the top secret task of monitoring any possible German Naval communications in the South Atlantic and Southern Ocean. Then The Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS), the former British Antarctic Survey, used the buildings, now for scientific purposes.
Nighttime was falling and the boats were sent for yet another wet and bumpy pickup. The wind and seas haven’t calmed down yet, but it is time to go. It is time to leave the South Shetlands behind. Without hesitation, once everyone is on board, the captain steers straight off the island. Larger swells here to steam against but also a motor sailing angle to set the Lower Staysails and Spanker. Overnight we head south towards the Antarctic Peninsula coasts.