Bowermaster’s Adventures: Deception Island, Antarctica

Deception Island, Antarctica — The black volcanic sand beach carries a heavy history, of an efficient if somewhat desperate past, in evidence from the cemetery where British whalers are buried to the abandoned and rusted pumps and storage tanks that line the shore, once filled with the oil of thousands of whales killed here each during a 25 year run.

From 1904 to 1931 this bay was home to one of the Southern Ocean’s boomtowns. As many as 15 big processing boats and another 35 “catcher” boats worked this beach at one time, most from Norway and the U.K.

With a sun rare for this island south of the South Shetlands lighting up the beach we moved up and down it, not with giant tools for skinning whales but giant cameras for documenting the falling down boomtown. Rusting tanks that once held whale oil, collapsed dormitories that once housed men and wooden whaleboats buried up to their gunnels by blown sand are the subject. It is rare today that a whale ventures into the caldera, but just before entering through Neptune’s Bellows a trio of humpbacks had blown in the near-distance.

One thing we know for certain is that the sun won’t last. My hope is to make a landing the next day on the exterior of the island, at a beach known as Baily Head. Though it is just around the corner from the interior of the caldera, and we could hike to it in two hours, the preference would be to land by Zodiac on its steep beach.

How steep? It typically shuts out three of four attempts … and those are in big robust, hard-bottomed Zodiacs, not the more pliable nine-footer we will use.

Dump the Zodiac as we land here, and there goes the film, on Day 2.It’s the confidence of my Kiwi compatriot Graham Charles, who knows the coastline of the Peninsula as well as anyone, that is our ace in the hole. Sent to scout the beach just after 7 a.m. he returned with a thumbs up — or maybe it was a shrug of the shoulders, it’s hard to tell when we’re all dressed in six layers — but his message was that right now, it was calm enough to land. The worst case was that we could land by shore and have to hike ourselves and gear to the other side to get off the island.

One, then two and three runs were made with success and during the next two hours as we assembled the 3D camera in a growing wind on the cusp of the beach, observed by several thousand chinstrap penguins, the seas rose quickly and were soon crashing onto the shore. If we’d arrived an hour later, we’d have never been able to land.

The reason to make the effort to reach Baily Head are those thousands of chinstraps that trudge up and down in a continuous file ten to twenty abreast from high in the amphitheater behind to plunge into the cold Southern Ocean for a day of feeding. They line up on the beach, assess the surf, count the sets and then — often hesitantly, sometimes with a stutter step — dive or are swept in.

Landing for them can be even trickier; from a distance you can see them coming — 40 to 100 at a time, porpoising out of the sea, headed for the beach — and then surfing, or being slammed, onto the black sand.

Leaning into the sensitive camera to keep it upright, wrapping it in space blankets and plastic sheeting to protect it from the wet, we watch the scene for several hours in the admittedly freezing wet and cold — 32 degrees with a wet blowing wind and cold spray off the ocean.

The hike with gear to the top of the 500-foot ridge in the now-grassy and muddy bowl that is home to nearly 200,000 birds was easier than we expected and after shooting atop the beautiful ridge for several more hours, by five p.m. we were clambering down the backside towards a small black sand beach.

As we hiked down, a single file line of dutiful penguins, their bellies stuffed with fish and krill, headed back to their nests, most now featuring two fuzzy gray chicks.