Sunday 29th November 2015
An early arrival at Deception Island today, an island separated from the Antarctic Peninsula by the Bransfield Strait. Nobody seems quite sure why it’s called Deception Island. It is in fact a collapsed volcanic cone – almost a perfect caldera but for a small broken section called Neptune’s Bellows, through which we sailed, high dark cliffs on either side. Perhaps ‘Deception’ because, but for this gap in the caldera, it looks like a solid mass from the open sea, rather than a doughnut with a bite taken out of it. Or perhaps, as our historian Victoria suggested, because although you would expect the waters within the caldera to be protected from the wind, they are not.
Despite this, it provides one of the safest natural harbours in the world – as long as you don’t mind the risk of the odd eruption.
On the black volcanic ash beach are the remains of what was a thriving whaling station in the early years of the 20th century. Looking out at grey seas under grey skies, and hearing tales of the vast number of whales slaughtered, and the manner in which they saw their end, I was thankful, as I was in South Georgia, that this gruesome industry has had its day. Sure, men could come to these shores and make money enough to buy a farm, or business, at home – but I would have preferred to scrub dishes all my life. For me, this was not a vocation missed.
I learned one interesting thing about Deception Island, though, again thanks to our onboard historian Victoria – and really quite by chance.
We know Shackleton and his men made it to Elephant Island after 15 months floating on the frozen Weddell Sea, and we know Shackleton and five of his crew made the extraordinary sail across 800 miles of Southern Ocean to South Georgia, and promised, if able, to return to Elephant Island to rescue the 22 men who remained there. Under the command of Frank Wild, Shackleton’s second-in-command, the men spinned out their days with ‘hope in their hearts’ that Shackleton would return.
But what if he didn’t? Living under two overturned boats on a narrow strip of desolate beach with little but penguins and seals to eat, would they watch one friend die and then another. Or was their a contingency plan?
There was a contingency plan, and as unlikely as it was to succeed, that plan was to shore up the boats and sail south and west, against the prevailing wind and current, to Deception Island. On Deception Island there was a whaling station and life, but one wonders, did anyone really believe they would succeed in reaching it?