From the National Geographic Explorer in Antarctica
Dec 1, 2010 - National Geographic Explorer
Landfall. Deceptively Antarctic landfall. After a day and a half steaming south and a mornings worth of fog we emerged to our first sight of land since South America. Antarctica!? Well, the land sure looks Antarctic in nature with a rugged, wave battered coastline and ice penetrating the landmass as far as the eye can see. Even penguins dot the shore. But are we far enough south?
The GPS on the bridge reads 62 degrees 59 minutes south latitude. This is slightly north and well west of the tip of the Trinity Peninsula—the true body of the Antarctic Continent proper. Everything suggests Antarctica but the name. As we approach Deception Island we learn from our field staff that this particular chunk of land is named not to imply confusion that this may be Antarctica proper but that it does not have the ice core that it seems. Though rimmed with glaciers the ice looks dark and sooty due to extensive volcanic activity in the islands interior—so much volcanism actually that it was soon realized by early explorers that the island is nothing more than the flooded remains of a volcanic caldera. Shaped like a doughnut with a bite taken out of the southeast edge Deception Island, though considered part of Antarctica, it lies 40 nautical miles northwest of the peninsula proper and is actually one of the westernmost islands in the South Shetland Island group.
Whether one can even see the peninsula from here is a matter of debate as claims for its initial sighting were set forth from the very vantage point we ascended today. In a prominent notch in the calderas SE corner Nathaniel B. Palmer, an American sealing captain claimed to be the first to sight the continent in the 1820’s. While he could not have made that claim on a cloudy day such as this the validity is still under question as what is seen in that direction on a clear day by modern, less motivated explorers seems to be a mirage. None the less the inner bay proved to be one of the most important whaling locations in the Antarctic. Taking advantage of the calderas accessibility by ship and geothermally active shoreline, Norwegian whalers were the first to set up operations in what is today called Whalers Bay and our first landfall.
Greeted by beautiful, heavy snowfall we stormed the geothermally “in”active beach (water in the shallows can sometimes be warmed by volcanic vents but not today) and set off to explore the remains of the whaling station. Made all the more poignant by the blustery weather, the station remains have an austere, lonely look to them that only an abandoned, isolated location with such a bloody history could.
Those not interested in the station set off to the aforementioned notch in the caldera known as Neptune’s Window. Others still braved the wind and snow to explore the coast by Zodiac and were rewarded with a very close encounter with a leopard seal, nesting Cape petrels, Antarctic Shags and the occasional Kelp Gull. Finally, the most insane of the group decided to take advantage of the fact that the water can sometimes be warm, though of course not today, and plunged into bay. There was no lack of attention as onlookers from the ship and shore hurled gestures of motivation and insanity from all directions.
These incredible acts of “extreme courage and undoubted foolishness” capped the day’s events and leave us with high hopes for adventures to come.