Whalers' ghosts, bathing suits and measuring the experience

10 Mar 2011

Deception Island (62°57'S, 60°38'W)

The beach is black. Volcanic gravel and soot have begun to bury the remains of the whaling station on Deception Island. Part of the South Shetland chain, it is the safest harbour in Antarctica. In fact, it is one of the safest harbours in the world – despite the fact that the island is the cone of an active volcano. The caldera collapsed about 10,000 years ago and it left an almost circular harbour surrounded by scorched black walls. 

The entrance is called Neptune’s Bellows. It’s a narrow slice in the volcanic ring that requires careful maneuvering around the large rocks that rise up to just below the surface. From the window of my cabin the façade of Cathedral Crag appears close enough to touch. The Ushuaia’s captain knows what he’s doing.  

Deception Island is a place where the dead are buried twice. The graves from an abandoned whaling station were covered by an eruption in 1969, which also destroyed two nearby Chilean research bases. The station closed in 1931 when the Depression cut the demand for whale oil. 

Built before the advent of factory ships, whales were dragged on shore, cut up, and their blubber was boiled for its valuable oil. The industrial teeth of this enterprise stand out on the black shore. Rusted boilers and massive storage tanks, disintegrating barracks and other buildings are home to the spirits that haunt this place. 

Deception is a restless place, not at peace with itself.  Perhaps it is the fact that you are walking on the surface of an active volcano, and 10 centimetres below you feet the temperature of the soil is too hot to touch. The island is a living thing, more powerful than the humans who have occupied it on and off since the first sealers arrived in 1829. But there is something else here, something you can’t quite put your finger on. 

Old whaling boats lie nearly buried by the water’s edge. Whalebone is scattered on the beach, ignored by the penguins and fur seals that live here. Rusting oil tanks, covered in graffiti, stand out against the black background. This island is a testimony to human greed and the relentlessness of geological processes. The same forces that tore Australia from Antarctica millions of years ago are still at work. Humans came and nearly annihilated the whales, seals and other creatures. Now we’re working on the krill and the fish. And we are doing this as we alter the chemical composition of the atmosphere and the oceans which are acidifying due to the vast amount of carbon dioxide they are trying to absorb. It’s not a pretty picture, and the starkly beautiful wreckage of Deception Island lends itself to morose thinking.

Suddenly, the ghosts are chased away by the shrieks of bathing suit-clad Antarctic swimmers heading into the choppy brown water. Flags are unfurled. Sweden and Norway are here. These students seem unfazed by the water temperature which is around 1 degree Celsius. 

My feet feel the cold even before I get to the water’s edge. It takes forever to peel off the layers needed here to protect one from the wind. The volcanic gravel is like black ice cubes beneath my feet. Dash to the water. Leap into the waves. Dive. 

Heart, are you beating? 

The cold sucks the air from my lungs as I break the surface. Okay, good. I’m now a member of the Arctic and Antarctic Swim Teams. Just to be sure, I get Hans to video me coming out – again. By this point I’m pretty sure that the Antarctic is much colder than the Arctic, but it’s hard to tell. I’m comfortably numb.

The promised thermal bath has been drowned by the tide. There are times where you can lie in a pool on this beach and wallow in 70 degree C water inhaling sulfur fumes that rise from the bowels of the earth. But not today. Today, it’s just cold. We all dress as quickly as possible and head to the zodiacs, which are pitching around in the surf, each held fast by its driver standing knee-deep. 

Then, I feel it. A sense of elation out of proportion with the event. It’s not just the swim, but perhaps the water was the trigger. It’s the realization that I’m in a place that few people will ever see. I am enthralled by Antarctica. We all are. 

We keep muttering that there are no words, and indeed there are not. Sailing through the magnificent Lemaire Channel (aka “Kodak Gap”) where the mountains and glaciers rise out of the crystalline blue sea and the sun sets into the mist above the peaks, we hang on to the gunwales of the Ushuaia. It can’t be this magnificent.

“Antarctica has changed my life.” I heard this statement many times in the final days of the expedition.

What will this experience do for the students? How will it affect their lives? What choices will they make? How will the experience of Antarctica influence their decisions? Will they stay connected? Will the rest of us? 

I’ve been back just over week now and find part of me is still below 60oS. Reading the Facebook postings and emails of the students, I see this is a pretty common reaction. In the end, we can’t really know how this kind of experience will change us. We can only see the major influences in our lives at a distance, through the rearview mirror. 

Let me try an experiment (Photo credit: John Crump)


Jakop S. - 24 May 2011
Everyone should go there and see for them selves. That would benefit the planet for sure.
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