Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Making Landfall - Deception Island

Brian Skerry, Antarctica Expedition

When I awoke on the morning of the 11th, we were officially in Antarctic waters, having crossed the Antarctic Circle during the night. Night is a relative term here however, in that it never gets completely dark, and even in the wee hours of the morning it is quite bright outside.

Our course was set to Deception Island, a volcanic island that last erupted in 1969. The caldera has filled with seawater and can be entered by boats. As we sailed towards Deception, we passed huge tabular icebergs, some reaching several stories high. The air temperature hovered around freezing, but the winds made it feel much colder standing on deck. We steamed past several icebergs on which we could see small groups of Adelie, chinstrap and gentoo penguins.

Chinstrap penguins (Photo: Brian Skerry)

In the early afternoon we reached Deception Island and slowly entered Whalers Bay through Neptune's Bellows. Once anchored in the bay, we deployed the Zodiacs for a quick ride to the beach. The beach at Whaler's Bay is about two miles long and the sand is warm from geothermal activity. On some days, a heavy bank of fog sits over the beach caused by the icy waters and hot sand. I hiked along the beach enjoying the solitude and quite of this remote place and soaking up the beauty of the surrounding sights. The mountains were streaked with snow and the sky was vivid blue in the unusually sunny conditions.

Whalers Bay (Photo:Brian Skerry)

Continuing my trek, I came across abandoned, wooden whaleboats; dories left here in the early 1900's by whalers. Plenty of remnants of this era can be found here, from the old, sagging, wooden whaling station itself to iron boilers and whale bones on the beach. Two crosses mark gravesites near the station.

Abandoned whaleboat (Photo: Brian Skerry)

Half a dozen or so penguins accompanied me on my beach walk, occasionally waddling into the water for a swim, then coming back out to dry off in the sunshine. The crew of the NG Explorer announced that a "Polar Plunge" would be arranged for any adventurous soles. They claimed that the water was warmer here than any other place in Antarctica, due to the volcanic sand on the beach. I tested the water with my hand - it was cold, ... damned cold. Still I decided to make the plunge.

So after a quick trip back to the boat to grab my swimsuit, I was standing on the beach ready to go "swimming." Along with a few other penguin want-to-be's, I ran into the 30-degree water and dived head first and was instantly embraced by that icy cold. I ran back out, drank a cup of hot chocolate they had waiting for me, posed for a few pictures and dressed back into my fleece. As in the past, the next time I enter such water I'll be wearing my drysuit!

Later that evening, from the warm comfort of the ship's dining room, I ate dinner watching magnificent icebergs pass by in changing light, as the Explorer sailed south towards the Weddell Sea. Not a bad first day in Antarctica.

- Brian

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