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Fort Point (Greenwich Island) and Whalers Bay (Deception Island)

Approaching the South Shetland Islands and catching sight of land after the last few days enduring the open waters of the Drake Passage, seem to cheer up everybody, despite the overcast and rainy day. Soon safety lines and nets are stowed away, zodiacs prepared, and about 09:00h all is ready to go ashore, while the Europa drops anchor at the picturesque and dramatic rocky peninsula of Fort Point. Sticking out to the Bransfield Strait from the shores of Greenwich Island, this place of rough beauty will be our first landfall in the South Shetlands. This group of Islands were officially the first land ever seen from Antarctica. Already dating from 1598, some sailing ships seem to have reported their existence. During this year, the Dutch merchant Dirck Gherritz, on board the Blijde Bootschap, was blown southwards of South America by a furious storm. During his struggles to overcame it he reported to have seen land. This un-orthodox report, lacking any evidence, can suggest that Gherritz may have sighted the South Shetland Islands. Others think that the discovery was made by Gabriel de Castilla in 1603, while sailing from Peru to the Straits of Magellan he was also caught in a storm, ending up far from his appointed course. In the logs of one of the sailors on board, the Dutch Laurenz Claesz appears that they reached as far as 64º S and saw snow covered lands. But actually, it was not until 1811 that the discovery of the islands was properly documented and accepted, after another controversial part of Polar history. Then, a group of 5 English businessman gathered founds
to build a trading ship. One of them was William Smith, born 1790 in the coastal village of Seaton Sluice, and raised three miles further north in the port of Blythe (a toponym that give us a hint of the place name for tomorrow’s plans at Desolation Island, in Blythe Bay). The new ship launched in 1812 was named “Williams” and started trading with South America, with William Smith as Captain. During one of her trips in 1819, and like many other before, she was blown south off Cape Horn, ending up at about 62ºS where William sighted land.  After this discovery, a year later a British Navy Expedition was put together to investigate these new lands, that have been named “South Shetland”, since the Scottish Shetland Islands occupied an equivalent latitude in the North. Captain Edward Bransfield with William Smith and a crew of 43, sailed south from the Chilean city of Valparaiso, sighting Livingston Island on the 16th Jan 1820. They followed the northern coasts of the islands and landed south of King George Island, naming it after George III of England. Their discoveries led to a large-scale commercial sealing and whaling in Antarctic waters, that greatly affected the populations of those marine
mammals. Their reports of large concentrations of marine mammals caused that first the sealers, then the whalers embark on their hunting adventures to the uncharted waters of the Southern Ocean. It was actually the sealers who discovered many sub-Antarctic and Antarctic islands. The Fur seals were hunted for their exceptionally good pelt: two layers of fur, one long and stiff (guard hairs) and the other short and smooth (under coat), which was much more valuable than the pelts of true seals. The sealers were exposed to constant dangers, uncharted waters, navigation among icebergs, unpredictable and stormy weather, howling winds, and frostbite. They were also under constant threat of shipwreck upon those isolated islands. Often, a group of sealers would be put ashore to spend days and even months in precarious conditions, living in small huts made of rock with a canvas roof, or maybe under an upturned rowing boat, while the ship departed to explore other areas. Once the fur seals were killed and no more remained upon the beach, they were skinned and the pelt was salted. After just a few years of indiscriminate hunting in South Shetland and Antarctic waters, whale and seal populations were largely decimated. Nowadays their numbers are recovering. Most spectacularly Antarctic Fur seals are taking over again the South Georgia and some Antarctic shores, as we could experience ourselves today during our landings in Greenwich and Deception Islands. The first of them started smoothly in the morning, when the zodiacs are launched and our guide stake the first run for a good scouting of the landing site. Soon we were all called to don the life jackets and embark our boats to land at the narrow boulder peninsula framed between glaciers and rocky cliffs, that characterizes this site. Poorly chartered waters surround this spectacular place, and together
with its exposed orientation to the open waters of the Bransfield Strait makes of this place a seldom visited, though fantastic area. Setting foot ashore here often involve surge and waves at the beach, hence the need for the guides to wear dry-suits to ensure a safe and swift landing maneuvers.
Ashore creches of Chinstrap penguin chicks welcome us, together with Gentoo youngsters scattered virtually all around. Here and there on the larger rocks, recently fledged Antarctic shags take what seems to be their first approach to the ocean. Along the isthmus that connects the vertical basaltic cliffs at the end of the beach with the glacier fronts of Greenwich Island, hundreds of adult male Fur seals and younger non-breeders, seem to chill out taking a snooze. Not long ago, they left their breeding grounds located further north, looking for peace in Antarctica.
At their background the big swell crashes against the rocks and cliffs as the large waves approach and curl at the shoreline. Taking it easy, we all slowly walk along the beach towards the magnificent glacier fronts that frame the peninsula, making our way through the sleepy Fur seals. From a safe distance we all enjoy the high ice cliffs being battered by the big swell, making for a rough and would
sight. From there, many joined our guides for a bit of an extended walk. Slightly inland, a pointy rocky outcrop sticks out of the calving
glacier. Named “Nunataks” this mountain tops tower off the ice fields, and had been sharply sculpted by the ice surrounding them at all sides. Usually they melt the ice surrounding them in a ring shaped way, leaving here an accessible gap between the cliffs and the ice. Up there we climbed for breath-taking views over the whole landing site. We haven’t got time for much more, as already lunch was about to be served on board, and a long way of about 40nm lay ahead of us until reaching Deception Island, where we plan our next landfall.
Drizzle, snow showers, cold weather and low visibility were with us during our way, and it was just when we approached the outer coasts of Deception when we could have the first views of this volcanic ring-shaped island. The curious name of Deception dates back to at least 1821, with an origin that remains a mystery, though some tried to relate it with several circumstances specific to the island: Deception is one of the most visited places in Antarctica. It is famous for its beauty and rich history, but also for its foul weather. As an active volcano, its shores are warm, often steaming with sulphurous fumes, feature that creates its own weather, frequently hiding the high hills and mountains up to 540m behind a veil of clouds. Also while Port Foster, the inner harbour of the caldera seems to offer perfect shelter, the winds sometimes can blow over the surrounding mountains, shooting down to the sea level again with great force. Besides that the slightly warmer waters than somewhere else in Antarctic Peninsula, make for a different environment not really
appreciated by the highly adapted to the cold Antarctic species, reason why the wildlife inside there harbour is scarce. A different story is the underwater flora and fauna, where filter feeders, polichaetes, sponges, sea urchins, sea stars and brittle stars thrive in great
numbers. And last but not least, it is not an easy task to steer the ships squeezing through Neptune’s Bellows, the only narrow gate to the inner caldera of the island. For this we needed to leave the cliffs of Cathedral Craggs right on our Starboard side, while on Port large
shallows that extend to the Southern shores of the entrance. In the middle, the infamous Ravn’s Rock is barely submerged, representing a hazard for navigation, and has already damaged several ships and even sinking some. As a witness to these dangers, the Southern Huntress, wrecked here in 1957 is still showing parts of her bow amongst the orange rocks at the beach. Once inside Port Foster Whalers Bay, the planned landing for this evening, after an early dinner, is just around the corner. Already from deck all the buildings of the “Hektor” Norwegian Whaling Station that sits here, can be seen. Built in 1912, it was abandoned in 1931 and today represents an impressive open-air museum and Antarctic Historical Site. In no time all was ready for us to land on the calm waters of the bay. Once ashore our guides offer the option to spend the duration of the landing around the historical remains of the Station or join first a longer hike to the impressive viewpoint of Neptune’s Window, the saddle that bites the ridge that follows up from Neptune’s Bellows cliffs.
Down at the flat long beach, we all had time enough to soak into the eerie spectacle of the crumbing constructions that lay all around.
The Station was definitely out of use and abandoned when they were heavily affected by the 1969 volcanic eruption that happened up the close by slopes, creating a lahar or mud flow that cut right in-between the whaling base. Many buildings, boilers and tanks are nowadays partially buried as a result of that, together with the numerous Norwegian whaler’s graves of its cemetery. As a reminder of the spot where it used to lay, nowadays just a couple of refurbished crosses and an open coffin can be seen.
The evening ended up making our way towards the landing site, just in front of a U-shaped sort of floating pier. A structure that when loaded can be placed under the damaged hulls or propellers of the whaling ships, then pumped with pressurized air could rise the ships for repairs. As the light dimmed, some of us decided to have a swim off the beach in the frigid waters of Port Foster before heading back on board.  From then on the plan was to cross the Bransfield Strait, the 120nm wide stretch of sea that separate the South Shetland Islands from the Antarctic Peninsula. There we plan to head to the entrance of the famed Weddell Sea, to try to spend the next few days on that area.

Written by:
Jordi Plana Morales | Guide

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