From the National Geographic Explorer in Antarctica
Jan 4, 2013 - National Geographic Explorer
Detaille Island and Crystal Sound
During the night, National Geographic Explorer had continued her journey south and at 0700 Lisa woke us to a bright, beautiful and blustery morning in the northern reaches of Crystal Sound. By the time we finished breakfast we had arrived at the low rocky cluster of islands that was our destination for the morning and the location of the remote and long-abandoned Detaille Base. The Zodiac ride ashore was short but exciting as we bounced over the waves and freezing salt spray burst over the boat. But when we arrived at the landing we found a little shelter from the wind under the steep snowy coast of the small island and quickly made our way up a neat little stairway cut into the snow and ice by the staff. From there it was only a very short walk across the crunchy crystalline snow to the single wooden building of the base.
The British built Detaille Base in 1955 as part of their effort to map the coastline of this region of the Antarctic Peninsula. Unfortunately, the base turned out to be poorly located because the sea ice in this part of the sound was unreliable and the men and their dog teams were often in grave danger as they returned across the ice from their survey work on the mainland. Then, in 1959, the ice reversed its previous pattern and froze so far out that the supply ships were unable to reach the base, even with the help of an American icebreaker. After much effort the ship was able to approach within about 30 miles of the base and the decision was made to have the men abandon the hut and make the journey to the ship in the dog sleds. Because the ship could not linger safely in the area, the men were forced to leave their Antarctic home with only a few hours notice. In the hurry they had time to pack only the most valuable and important gear and a few of their personal possessions; every other detail of their daily lives was left behind and the base was closed.
Today Detaille Base is being restored by the Antarctic Heritage Trust and has been revived as an excellent museum, preserving every aspect of life on an Antarctic station in the 1950s. The hardship the men endured when they had to abandon their home on such short notice has become a stroke of great good luck for the few visitors who are able to make the journey to this remote part of the peninsula. The building itself has remained in reasonably good condition and the men and women of the Heritage Trust have worked hard to secure it against the ravages of Antarctic weather. Walking through the small rooms inside, we were amazed and delighted to discover tins of food on the shelves of the kitchen, skis hanging on the wall by the entrance, notes and charts strewn across the base commander’s desk, headsets and telegraph keys by the radio, books lining the wall of the common room and even a few pictures of pretty girls tacked to the walls as reminders of their distant home. The photographers among us had a wonderful variety of scenes and details to document and everyone enjoyed hearing Rick tell the remarkable story of the base.
After a thorough exploration of the hut we returned to our ship in time for a good hot lunch. We then had time for a brief nap before Lisa called us back out on deck to observe seals and birds on the dense pack ice that filled the southern parts of Crystal Sound. It was a fantastic scene, an icy wilderness stretching to the horizon in all directions, lit by the bright sun and disturbed by only the lightest of breezes. We spent the rest of our afternoon cruising in the ice, calling out as we spotted penguins and a good variety of seals, including leopards, Weddells and many crabeaters. Finally, our day concluded with a screening of James Balog’s new film, Chasing Ice, and a discussion with James that brought home to us, very powerfully, the serious threat that climate change presents to the very icy wonderland where we had spent another delightful day.