One of the optional extras you can book is camping on the shore which I’m sure is a pretty fucking amazing experience if freezing to death is high on your bucket list, but conditions have to be right. They’d tried early on in the trip and last night they’d tried again but it had started raining, the wind was getting up, the snow wouldn’t hold the pegs and they’d declared it cancelled because quite frankly it sounded miserable.
The captain raised the anchor straight away and instead of mooring where we were as per Plan A, we headed north back to the South Shetland Islands. We’d have gone there anyway after the campers were back on board but we’d only have gotten a quick zodiac exploration. We sailed through the night and an hour after Mario gently coaxed us awake through the PA system, Deception Island loomed outside the ship.
So it’s a volcano and not a dormant one at that but it’s not erupted since 1970. There’s one way in and out of the really quite epic caldera, an entrance called Neptune’s Bellows which leads to a vast expanse called Whaler’s Bay and I think you can guess why. This is where we’d be landing thanks to the camping being cancelled. Turned out it was a good consolation prize for the campers and the whole ship got to benefit from being able to spend a good couple of hours exploring this tiny but insanely interesting fraction of the island.
There was a long hike you could do and a few people signed up for that. We decided not to on account of the fact there was a smaller hike on offer with the chance to glean information about volcanos from Keith and the history of the Norwegian whalers from Katie. Plus the bog boots we had to wear ashore were about as comfortable as you’d expect something proudly calling itself a bog boot would be. You might as well strap splints to your ankles and walk up the biggest hill you could find.
After breakfast we were loaded into zodiacs and ferried the short distance to dry land, and this is pretty fucking cool; if you dig a little hole in the sand at the shoreline the water that immediately fills it is hot. Like, hot hot. The water lapping against the shore is a little bit warm too. I mean, you wouldn’t run your bath to that temperature but it wouldn’t send your nerve ending into shock. And the smell! For once our nostrils weren’t brutally assaulted by the stench of penguin guano, but sulphur instead. I’m not entirely sure what’s worse.
The whaling station ruins were to the left and the chance to walk up a little hill was to the right so we headed off to the right first past chinstrap penguins waddling out of the sea. There were so many penguins in this bay, speeding around in the water, launching themselves out of it like dolphins. It doesn’t matter how many times I see this I still excitedly point at them and yell, “PENGUINS!!” like Captain fucking Obvious. A bit further along the beach just as you’re meant to swing a left to walk up the hill, there was a leopard seal just chilling. What an absolute treat!
The staff had said that yesterday was the first time they’d seen leopard seals all season and now there was one right here on the beach giving exactly zero fucks about identical red clad bipeds gawping at it, waiting for it to yawn. Because that’s what you want to see, that ridiculously terrifying yawn. It’s almost like it unhinges its jaw like a fucking snake. They’re not the cutest seal in the ocean, bless it, with its Joker energy grin. Its also got a definite head and neck unlike most seals which are just chonky torpedo bois. Every time it shifted slightly we all readied cameras, then eventually it threw its head back in the most dramatic yawn I’ve ever seen from a mammal, and I live with Tarrant, the undisputed queen of The Dramatic.
Having gotten my leopard seal teeth fix I shuffled up the hill for a view then realised I now had to get down said hill without the aid of walking poles or Tarrant because she’d already gotten bored of the seal and wandered off. Fuck. I asked Sarah if I could sit down and shuffle but the only point of contact between you and Antarctica should be your boots and any walking aids which are disinfected before and after every landing. My butt was not one of the aforementioned walking aids. I slowly egded down sideways, lost my footing and plonked my fat arse and at least one hand on Deception Island. Well, shit. Even worse, at least two people saw me and were genuinely concerned for my wellbeing which was very sweet but yep, I’m at that age. Well, bollocks.
I found Tarrant, stared at the seal a little longer, then started walking towards the ruins via several more penguins which I duly pointed at and yelled, “PENGUINS!!” The tide had started to go out and you could see the steam rising as the hot sand was exposed to the cold air. Honestly, such a spectacular island and I’m so pleased we got to come here. Obviously gutted for the campers but the few I spoke to agreed this wasn’t a terrible Plan B.
We had a look at a few buildings and found Katie who told us all about the history of the Aktieselskabet whaling station. It started off as a place to hunt fur seals which you don’t really see around here anymore, and that industry went rapidly bust. The Norwegian whalers moved in in the 1920s and hung around for a good ten years hunting humpback whales initially until some utter bastard invented an exploding harpoon which meant even blue whales were fair game. They’d tow the whales to shore, melt the blubber into oil in digesters then store the oil in these fuck off great big tanks. It would have stank. When factory ships became a thing that existed they could kill more whales more efficiently, drove down the price of whale oil, so land based operations like this one were no longer financially viable and it was abandoned.
During WWII the British became concerned that the Nazis would try and set up a base in Antarctica so they set up here and punched holes in the tanks so Nazis couldn’t use them to store fuel. Chile also set up a base here but after eruptions in 1968 and 1968 everyone quite rightly thought bugger this and abandoned the island. The Chileans apparently had a very fine wine cellar which was buried in one of the eruptions so if you do find yourself inconveniently stranded on Deception Island, perhaps start digging. There are a couple of bases these days that exist to monitor seismic activity.
We spent, like, two and a half hours exploring the island / staring intensely at a leopard seal before we headed back to the ship for a spot of lunch. We stay moored where we were for ages, we were all holding out hope for the polar plunge to occur, something everyone had been looking forward to, but we were veritable Antarctica veterans now and tried to manage our expectations because the continent does whatever it pleases. We’d probably run out of time anyway even if conditions were right for it and to be fair we’d seen some incredible things so launching yourself into heart attack inducingly cold water was a low priority.
We couldn’t help but feel a pang of disappointment though when the anchor was raised and we started sailing without any manner of announcement from Mario. Then Tarrant pointed out that we were moving away from Neptune’s Bellows, not towards, and if this was the only access point in and out of the caldera that meant we were heading further in and… could it be? Sure enough Mario’s voice came over the PA, telling us we were moving to a different bay within the caldera where we’d be doing the polar plunge! YES!!
It took a while to get to where we were going on account of the fact it’s a fucking massive basin, then the anchor was dropped and we flocked into the mudroom. The atmosphere was brilliant to be fair, they had music going and Joe, the hotel manager, was pouring out shots of a Norwegian whiskey for after the plunge. I’d spent the last week carefully building up the blubber for this shit with the insane amounts of incredible food they’d been feeding us. My trousers didn’t fit any more. I was ready. We were quite close to the front of the queue and the people getting back on the boat were all greeted with whoops and cheers, huge grins spread across their faces. It was equal parts nerve wracking and exciting.
The staff had this shit down. You’re tethered to the boat for safety and they had the next three people harnessed and ready to go. As soon as you reentered the mudroom you’d be given a towel, your harness would be removed and put onto the next person, Mario would give you a hug and Sarah handed you a shot. Best conveyer belt ever. Then it was my turn. I was clipped in, I checked probably more times than necessary that I was safe to jump, plopped into the water like an uncoordinated tellytubby and fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck! Oh dear gosh yes, that was cold.
I thought I was under for a lot longer than I was. I felt like I was climbing upwards, briefly wondering what had happened to the surface, but watching the video back it was a fraction of a second. As soon as I was in I wanted to get straight back out again and couldn’t get out quickly enough, my feet were sliding all over the metal ladders as the guys grabbed onto my arms and hauled me up. Fuck me, that was exhilarating! What an experience! Apparently the water was 3.5°C. Eric was filming our jumps on our phones and he kindly panned the camera around the scenery whilst we were exiting the water so we didn’t have to watch ourselves frantically scrambling like a maniac to get out of the water.
I got my towel, my hug and my shot and hung around for a bit to cheer a few more people on. My biggest worry was getting warm again but honestly once you’re wrapped up it really doesn’t take long and there’s a sauna right there if you really need it. We got dressed and went up to the top deck to watch a few more people execute all manner of jumps ranging from graceful headlong dives to comedy belly flops to one guy who decided to jump in backwards and nearly smacked his face on the gangway. Matt was in a zodiac, I assume in case anyone needed rescuing, and he was a one man comedy show. He was absolutely cracking us up with his one liners.
What an amazing last proper day. Sure, we still had a couple more days on board but we were heading back across the Drake Passage to Ushuaia now. The rocking of the boat hadn’t even gotten too bad before I had to excuse myself from dinner to go and lie down. Ohhh fuck this shit. We’d been so, so lucky with the Drake Passage heading south, there’s no way we’d escape the wrath of the Drake Shake in the way back to Ushuaia. I planned to drug myself up to the eyeballs, perhaps beyond, with seasickness tablets that induce the kind of doziness you’d associate with a full frontal lobotomy and hopefully just drool through it until we got to port.
🇦🇶 Bransfield Strait & Deception Island, Antarctica
Stayed at: On board the G Expedition