Sailing inside an active volcanic caldera in Antarctica................Ramdas Iyer
16.12.2011 - 17.12.2011 31 °F
I have come a long way
to a distant place far far away
from where i used to live
and from what i used to do
it’s just a state of mind,
i tell myself
hoping to erase these thoughts
of fear that hinges on the edge of my happiness
Adapted from Praveen ( Poetry of Life.com)
Exhausted by an exhilarating and action packed 12 days of sailing and exploring the Antarctic Peninsula we were mentally preparing for our return to South America through the rough seas of the Drake Passage. Our expedition leader…. had one more surprise. An announcement made on the PA system of our sleek Finnish built Russian Arctic explorer Akademik Sergei Vavilov called everyone to the various decks to see the walls of rock rise on both sides of our vessel through sea mist. It was a surreal moment. We were sailing into the active volcano, Deception Island
Deception Island (62°57'S, 60°38'W) is one of the most incredible islands on the planet. Deception Island has fire and ice in its history, and in the present day. Mountainous, half covered by glaciers and mostly covered with black volcanic ash, Deception is an active volcano. The island is a “submerged caldera,” a circle of craggy hills around an almost-enclosed seawater lagoon its horseshoe shape formed when a volcanic eruption 10,000 years ago that blew off the top of the mountain and allowed seawater to flood the center, or caldera.
This volcano is quiet, but not dead. The island is classified as a “restless caldera with significant volcanic risk,” that could erupt at any time. Eruptions in 1968 and 1970 forced a British scientific research station to close, sending mud and ash through it and the nearby abandoned whaling station. Geologists continuously monitor the island for seismic activity.
Deception Island is now managed as part of the Antarctic treaty, making it a protected area with restricted human visits and impacts. But its history also records some of the human over-use of the Antarctic. Human activity there began in about 1820, with sealing. But in the early 1900s, when seals were nearly hunted to extinction, Antarctic seafarers turned to whaling.
A little whaling history is essential to understand Deception Island. With the advent of Industrial revolution in Europe in the 18th century, need for lighting, to increase the working hours of people who woke up at dawn and retired at sunset, changed. It was first seal oil and later whale oil that was the energizer of the industrial revolution. Animal fat from pigs lubricated the machinery while wholesale slaughter of seals and whales provided candle and oil lighting. Norwegians were the pioneers of European sealing as they had access to the riches of the Arctic Ocean. Ironically what made them rich in the 18th century has sustained their wealth through North Sea oil in the 20th century. Good karma I suppose.
The rise of Industrial America increased whaling in the Atlantic waters further diminishing supplies to the growing economies. In 1906, Norwegian whaling magnate Christen Christensen sent the first factory ship to the South Shetlands of the Atlantic Peninsula. These islands were discovered by sailors who were blown off course while trying to navigate Cape Horn in 1821.Soon other shore stations had been set up, including one at Deception Island. By 1912, there were six shore stations, 21 factory ships, and 62 catchers in Antarctica. That year 10,760 whales were killed. In 1926, a new kind of factory ship entered Antarctic waters, one equipped with a chute for hauling whole whales on board. With this, Antarctic whaling entered a new phase.
Around 1500 barrels of oil was obtained from killing 155 Right whales according to the records of a Whaler. It is estimated that 200000 Humpbacks were killed in the early 20th century, not to mention the Sperm, Beluga, Grey and Right whales. Nonetheless, during the 1937-1938 season, over 46,000 whales were killed, 9000 of them immature.
Thankfully the discovery of petroleum in the 1859’s and the mass usage of Kerosene which was 5 times cheaper , which did not turn rancid and was less smellier quickly turned the table on whale oil consumption. By the early 1900’s the price of whale oil dropped and by 1938 the industry was deemed unviable, (read “How the oil Industry saved the Whales” http://www.sjvgeology.org/history/whales.html).
Entering the volcanic caldera, a live one, was in itself a great adventure. We could see ice, snow and volcanic ash laden mountains all around us. Beautiful black sand beaches awaited our Zodiac boat landing. While in the other parts of Antarctica we were awed by nature here we were shocked by the extent of human occupation and damage done to a pristine environment. Upon landing we were free to walk about anywhere. As an engineer I was curious to see the riveted storage tanks, the huge boilers that melted the blubber and an abandoned machine shop. At every corner there was a penguin peering at me curiously. Due to its interesting temperature gradient -11C to plus 13 C, it has the largest chinstrap penguin rookery in the area with a population of 65000. (Protected and not approachable)
On my walk along the beach I enjoyed seeing Kestrels lapping in the waves, Giant Skua
birds roosting on their eggs and fur seals in the distance. There was an old airplane hanger where in 1935, Lincoln Ellsworth assembled his aircraft the Polar Star here prior to his pioneering trans-Antarctic flight from Dundee Island, nearby. Deception Island was also the base of an early Aerial Survey Expedition (1955-57).
Stories of men ill equipped to handle the cold suffering from depression and insanity is rampant. Especially to see the graves of some of the Norwegians from a distant land was spooky. The ruins of this station are the most complete remains of whaling history in the Antarctic, and governments have agreed to let the remains stand, undisturbed, to be seen and understood as part of maritime history—and as a witness to the power of volcanic activity. A visit here leaves an equally powerful impression, and Deception Island is the most-visited site in the Antarctic. There is a restriction on the numbers of people allowed to visit, and each ship must plan visits in advance, to lessen their impact on the island and its life
Prior to embarking on our vessel we were given the opportunity to skinny dip in polar waters. Depending on the currents, the geo-thermal waters make it possible to take a quick dip there. We were lucky to have one such day and my pictures will highlight the event.
We said good-bye to Antarctica and alas hit the roughest seas I have ever encountered. While the hull was racked by 50 foot waves half of the 90 passengers disappeared to their cabins dealing with their own waves of nausea. I was one of those lucky ones to experience the notoriety of the Drake Passage. Deception Island is a great story and a great place.
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