40kn of winds and steep swell right onto Europa’s nose made for a slow way since we left Fort Point last evening.
With the gust picking up and easing and the changeable swell characteristics, for many hours her speed goes up and down between 1 and 3kn.
On those conditions plus a forecast of first increasing winds then easing down a bit, last night it was difficult to estimate our arrival time to Deception Island. There we plan to spend our last day of Antarctic adventure¡res before facing the open waters of the legendary Drake Passage.
But as the hours pass and the clock gets to the early morning hours, blows and waves ease down probably making it possible to approximately keep the planned schedule.
Half an hour after breakfast Europa deals with the entrance to Deception Island volcanic caldera, the Neptune’s Bellows, American sealers before 1822 named it like that because of the strong gusts they often experienced at this sort of funnel. This narrow channel runs between the 160m high rusty-coloured cliffs of the Cathedral Crags and gentle slopes up the hills on our Portside. Right at the middle part of the passage lays the treacherous shallow of Ravn’s Rock. Skillful navigation is needed to steer on this area, but soon we find ourselves in the wide embayment inside the island, Port Foster.
At our Starboard side we could see in the distance another expedition ship of the fleet trying a landing at the remains of the popular Norwegian Hektor Whaling Station, in operation between 1912 and 1931). The buildings were used on a couple of occasions later on, first as art of the “Tabarin” British Secret Military Operation during WWII, and then refurbished into a research facility by the Falkland Islands Dependencies.
Nowadays all the structures are slowly falling apart as a witness of those important episodes in Antarctic history.
But for the morning Europa aimed for another spot, right at the northern shores of Port Foster, the scenic Telefon Bay.
Not related to modern technology, the name dates back to the chart published by Jean Baptiste Charcot after his expedition in 1908-10, and refers to the ship Telefon a salvaged vessel moored in the bay in 1909 awaiting repairs.
The wind still blows hard in Deception, but the landfall for the morning appears to be more and more possible as we approach the area. By the time the anchor hits the sea bottom, the zodiacs are readied in good enough weather conditions to try a morning hike.
Rubber boats drive us into Gonzalez Harbour, a small cove on the western side of Telefon Bay, consisting of several linked explosion craters flooded by the sea. Named in honor of Prof. Oscar Gonzalez-Ferran, the author of several important papers on the evolution of the Deception Island volcano. With this description of the area, we can imagine the incredible landscape and its barren beauty. Volcanic cones, green and blue lagoons, and meltwater ponds are all surrounded by the higher cliffs and volcanoes that form the ridge of Deception.
Clouds lift a bit, and the visibility improves during the morning, though still in windy conditions, it gave us a good view of the Deception Caldera
Plans laid out for the afternoon still seem to be a possibility in those weather conditions. So, soon the ship moves a handful of miles to Whalers Bay, next to the island’s entrance of the Neptune’s Bellows.
The remains of the Hektor Whaling Station stand scattered over a large plain, testifying to the large-scale whale hunting that took place in the surrounding waters. Before having time to roam around them, it was worth joining a bit of a hike.
Snowfields and glaciers buried in volcanic ashes that hang from the slopes around, melt more and more during summer and the water streams running from them have carved a picturesque valley. Hiking along it, the path leads to an impressive viewpoint. From up there, Neptune’s Bellows and its high cliffs reveal the only entry point to the caldera as we look southwards. Between them and ourselves, hides behind a corner a saddle amongst the cliffs of Cathedral Crag, called Neptune’s Window. A gap amongst the rocky walls with a story that brings us back to the past, to the old times that saw the first people who ever stepped on those lands: it was in 1820 when from the Neptune’s Widow the young sealer Nathaniel Palmer, spotted unfamiliar lands further to the Southwest. Glaciers and Mountains at the distance that could not be part of the South Shetland Islands, and indeed, later on, it turned out what was thought to be the first sighting of the mainland Antarctic Peninsula. But not known to him in a time when long-range communications at sea were inexistent, further to the East the continent had been sighted already months earlier by Thaddeus von Bellingshausen, a scientist and explorer sailing for the Russian Czar.
For having that view, a visibility of over 80nm is needed, not a common condition here, and indeed not today. Nevertheless, the panorama all around is amazing: the forceful winds and the swell travel along the Bransfield Strait that stretches from under our feet down below the cliffs, to where the eye can see. The cliffs and vertical rocky towers of the outer rim of Deception look spectacular. The hills at our back climb up to the highest peak on the Island, Mount Pond over 500m in height and covered in glaciers.
Descending the same way we came up to this viewpoint, the whaling station in ruins offers a good roaming ground to soak into this episode on the historical background of Antarctica.
Ashore lay half buried in some abandoned wooden boats, used by the whalers to bring ice and water to the facility and to disembark the whaling ships. A bit further stand up several huge oil tanks. Close by, are different sorts of boilers. Amongst all of them barely stand some of the buildings and constructions. In the background stick out of the ground two crosses and a coffin. They remain from the over 40 whaler’s graves that once were here, but were covered by the mud and ash flows after the last eruptions of 1969 occurred high above the slopes surrounding the bay.
A ghostly and different sort of landing than the rest we had made during our journey, and also the last one of the trip. After coming back on board it is time to start the way to Ushuaia, through the legendary waters of the Drake Passage.
Europa has to steer first through the Bellows while safety nets and lines are rigged on her decks and her braces have to be pulled sharp on Port tack. Just off Deception, she finds herself battling once more against the 30kn of wind and steep swell as she heads towards the Boyd Strait into the Drake.
It will be not until the early morning when her engines stop and she finds again fair winds to set sail.