January 7: First landing – Deception Island

Wow. That just about sums it up. Wow. I’ve climbed volcanoes before [1], but this is the first time I’ve climbed a volcano that was so new. One the more active volcanoes in Antarctica, Deception Island has spewed ash over the South Shetlands and across the Scotia Sea; some of this ash has even reached the South Pole. The most recent eruption was between 1967 and 1972; that is it started in 1967 and quit in 1972. Because the central caldera is actively deforming, more eruptions are likely. The submerged caldera is 15 km across and rises 539 m above the Antarctic Ocean, providing some 98.5 km2 of living area. Nearly 60% of the island is covered by glaciers; the remainder includes numerous fumeroles and hot springs fed by the volcano, along with the only geothermal lagoon in Antarctica (Kroner lake).

The world's largest Chinstrap colony - 200,000+ penguins!

I just love the way they swim!









All of that heat has created a vibrant biome with 18 known flora species not seen elsewhere in the Antarctic, including the Antarctic Petwort (Colobanthus quitensis; “Far from deep Colombia”), one of only two flowering plants in Antarctica (Antarctic Hairgrass {Deschampsia antarctica; “Hair grass of Antarctica”} is the other). Global warming has been kind to these plants, allowing them to extend their range. In addition, the island is host to the world’s largest chinstrap colony (190,000 breeding pairs!) as well as seven other bird species birds. This abundance is not recent; the first Antarctican plant fossils were found on Mount Flora.

Still used as a moorage for research vessels

The abandoned whaling station









The island has historical interest as well. Though many early sailors missed the narrow Neptune’s Bellow passage in the fogs and mist, once it was discovered it became home to early whalers, who established a base here in 1906. The hidden passage also gave rise to the island’s name due to its deceitful nature. The Great Depression made whaling in the area uneconomic, and the region was abandoned until World War II, when the British began Operation Tabarin which set secret British bases in Antarctica in order to keep the Nazis out of the area. They built Base B here and created the earliest permanent research station. Competing Chilean, Argentinean, and British stations allowed each nation to continue with sovereignty claims. Though the US never claimed the territory, a US Coast Guard research vessel ran aground inside the caldera in 1967. Currently, only Spain and Argentina have research stations.

Entering Neptune's Bellows

The caldera, formed by a massive explosion









Looking back at the Antarctic Ocean as we enter the caldera

Wonderful layers of basalt









Tourists are allowed in four areas: Whaler’s Bay (home to most historical artifacts), Telefon Bay (no fauna but lots of flora), Pendulum Cove (home to the Chilean research station), and Bailey Head (home to chinstraps, and largest stand of Antarctic pearlwort). We passed Bailey Head on the way in, but did not land there due to the high surf [2].

Instead, we stopped at Telefon Bay. Named for the whaling vessel Telefon which moored in the bay for repairs in 1909, Telefon Bay is among the newest features of Deception Island, with some parts being formed as recently as 1967. The region is dominated by a large lagoon, which provides a habitat for numerous species. The “new island” hill was created in 1967 by an eruption and subsequently joined to the main island by ashfall deposits. Though little lives there now, the area is being colonized by mosses, lichens, and other species. In a few thousand years, it may be home to a chinstrap colony as vibrant as the one at Baily Head.

See how the ash shows both the original eruptions and the more recent ones?

Looking into one of the calderas from the 1967-1972 eruptions










Climbing up the slopes of the caldera

"This death takes place in the shadow of new life" (3)









What we found on landing was a nearly lifeless moonscape of black cinders that formed an immense flat plain. Walking up the plain onto the inner side of the caldera, we came across a place where an area as big as the ship had been exploded out of the crater. Looking across it, we could see evidence of layer after layer of ashfall. As we walked along, several of the other passengers began asking me questions; before I knew it, I was giving a full talk on plate tectonics and how the island formed.

You see, the Earth is like a Tootsie Pop. It has a very thin outer layer (crust for the Earth and paper for the Tootsie Pop) that can tear easily. Each piece that tears off is a plate. These plates move around on the hard crunchy mantle (or candy for the Tootsie Pop), which covers a hot, chewy outer core (or chocolate for the Tootsie Pop) which in turn surrounds a hard inner core (or stick on a Tootsie Pop). As the plates move together, one piece slides under another (subducts in geology-speak). And, because the plate carries a little water with it, it makes the mantle around it melt a little. This molten magma then moves up and forms a volcano at the surface.

And that is what happened here. The Pacific plate moved under the Antarctica plate, carrying some old oceanic crust with it. That crust is saturated with water, which gets squeezed out into the mantle and creates the magma that forms volcanoes like Deception Island. All of this sounds interesting [4] in abstract, but is something else to see. The caldera (the central part of the volcano where the magma used to flow before it collapsed following a massive explosion) was large enough to shelter a fleet of ships. And the ash from the past fifty years was tens of feet thick, dwarfing into insignificance any passenger bold enough to say “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” [5]

If I could only chose one place to come back to in Antarctica, this would be it. This, to me, is where the geology, biology, and meteorology combine to provide the ultimate Antarctica experience [6]. And, people being people, some of them had to take the experience that one step beyond.

Taking the "Polar Plunge"









You see, the residual heat from the volcano makes the water inside the caldera just slightly warmer than the water outside. Instead of being 4°C, it is 5°C. So there were any number of folks willing to take the “Polar plunge” by stripping down to their swim suit and jumping into the frigid water. The longest any of them lasted was thirty seconds before they ran back to the beach to dry off [7]. As a reward to the swimmers, we were all treated to hot chocolate laced with rum when we returned to the ship. All in all, a wonderful end to a great experience.


[1] Mauna Loa in Hawai’i, Vesuvius in Italy, Etna in Sicily.

[2] Since it is on the outer rim of the island, it is much more exposed to the elements. But the penguins like it because it is much less exposed to the eruptions, and because all of the nutrient-rich water flows out the passage near Baily Head and into the sea, where it fuels explosive growth of krill. Givent hat they eat krill for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, this is a good thing form their point of view.

[3] Wrathy geek points for the reference!

[4] At least I hope it does.

[5] Poetic geek points for the reference!

[6] The guides politely disagree with my assessment; they refer to Deception Island as “the armpit of Antarctica”.

[7] Much to the amusement of the watching penguins, who seemed to be saying “Are you kidding? That water is too hot!”

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