Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Deception island: a southern Ultima Thule and last port for the Nautilus

In Antarctica, there is an island so surprising and thrilling that Jules Verne, in his "20 000 leagues under the sea", might have made it the mysterious secret base of the Nautilus - a hidden volcano's caldera.

That's Deception Island, Antarctica, one of the South Shetland Islands.

In fact, its unique landscape comprises barren lava slopes, ash-layered glaciers and steaming beaches! At Whalers Bay, a tranquil area of warm water, still remain the ruins of an old whaling station.

Fuming waters at Whalers Bay.

Deception Island (coordinates 62° 55-57' S, 60° 37-38' W) is one of the most incredible islands on the planet.

This old volcanic crater flooded by sea is just 120 km North of the Antarctic Peninsula, and less than 500 km north of the South Polar (Antarctic) Circle, and is the south limit of the (in)famous Drake Passage.

The center of Deception Island has a distinctive horse-shoe shape around the large flooded caldera, with 9 km in diameter - called Port Foster, a wide basin-like harbour.

Port Foster
has just one narrow entrance by sea into the internal warm water lagoon, through a narrow channel called Neptunes Bellows.

Neptune Bellows are just 230 m wide, at the south-east side of the island ring.

The interior lagoon allowed seal and whale hunting ships to enter and find shelter since the 19th century. In 1914, 13 ships were docked at the whaling station; they were equipped to extract the oil from whale fat.

Two hills around 500 m high are the only elevations; the rest of the edge is lower than 100 m.

This is one of the safest natural harbours in the world, and the only place where vessels can sail directly into the center of a restless volcano. So it's a top destination for antarctic tourist cruises.

B&W: black from volcanic ash and white from glaciers and snow.

Black beaches and cliffs topped by white on the hillsides.


Bailey Head
, at the east side, is the southern extremity of a long straight black beach:

The east cost, some miles of volcano ash straight seaside, is mainly visited by large colonies of penguins.

The main feature in the east coast is the "Sewing-machine Needles", curious name for these rock formations near the beach:

Bailey Head and the Sewing-machine Needles.


Gabriel de Castilla , the spanish research base

The first whaling station was abandonned in 1931, and in 1969 a volcanic eruption covered all the bases with ashes. Presently, there is mainly one scientific base, spanish station Gabriel de Castilla.

Built by 1990 as a small army station, Gabriel de Castilla base supports the work of investigators in nature sciences and topographic studies.

Gabriel de Castilla was a spanish navy Admiral who sailed around 1603 by these antarctic waters, and reached 60º South.

The base is presently composed of several modules. A residence module (the larger grey building), a scientific module, 3 igloos (a gym, a lab and more rooms for visitors), a nursery, a workshop, and survival modules (energy, supplies)

Winds over 300 km/h, temperatures down to -90 ºC (averages -40 to -60 º C) and less rainfall than in the Sahara... consequently no insects, no viruses, no bacterias, therefore almost no deseases among humans. Just home sickness...

The base is also equipped with 2 snowmobiles, 4 mini-cars, 1 crane and 3 zodiacs. And the research ship “Las Palmas” is a frequent visitor.

The "Las Palmas" leaves