December 16, 2013 – Half Moon Island and Deception Island
Posted on December 20th, 2013
What an amazing morning! The sun was shining from a blue sky and there was scarcely a breath of wind as we went ashore on Half Moon Island, a small island nestled within Moon Bay of Livingston Island, all of which are part of the South Shetland Islands.
A short trudge up a compacted path through the snow delivered breathtaking views of the snow-covered mountains and tumbling glaciers of Livingston Island. This was Antarctic scenery at its best! Nearby, we saw a small colony of chinstrap penguins and, upon walking across the snow, discovered a scenic area with more chinstraps, blue-eyed shags, kelp gulls, Antarctic terns and a couple of sleeping Weddell seals (and no one sleeps like a Weddell seal!). There were also some interesting rock formations with lush growths of lichen.
As we sailed out of Moon Bay, some humpback whales were spotted and Captain Garcia brought us close to a mother and her calf that were diving for krill. Larry recommended we take photographs of their flukes as they dived because humpback whales can be identified by the patterns on the underside of their flukes, and a database of photos allows the migrations of these whales to be plotted. The mother whale obliged by showing her flukes several times.
“Indescribable” was a word often uttered. Certainly, it was difficult to find adjectives to describe the splendour of the scene. It’s worth coming to Antarctica if only for a single morning like this.
During lunch, ‘Le Boreal’ repositioned toward Deception Island, aptly named by 19th century sealers precisely because it is deceptive. It appears to be an ordinary, solid island at first glance, but it’s actually a flooded volcanic crater, shaped like a donut with a small bite taken out. Technically, this is a caldera — an enormous crater formed when a normal volcanic cone collapses down into the underlying magma chamber.
Neptune’s Bellows is the bite portion of the island and also the entrance to the caldera, which formed a safe anchorage for early 20th century sealers and served as a center for the whaling industry. Beginning in 1906, Whalers Bay was an anchorage for factory ships which processed whale carcasses into oil. A whaling factory was built on shore in 1911, though seven or more floating factories were also anchored at times in the bay. Whalecatchers brought in the whales which were flensed (stripped of blubber) alongside the factory ships. Whaling anchorages need shelter and fresh water for the ships’ boilers. Water was collected from streams and glacial runoff by water boats, wooden boats with decks and square boxed hatches. Remnants of these boats can be seen on the beach at Deception.
Whaling was abandoned at Deception in 1931, when the old floating factory ships were replaced by pelagic (open water) factories, equipped with slipways in the stern that allowed the whales to be hauled onto the deck. Whaling could now take place on the open seas, away from the shelter of harbors, like Port Lockroy and Deception Island. This consequently put whalers beyond reach of the British authorities who limited the number of factories and catchers in operation and taxed the oil. Had this control continued, it is possible that whale populations would not have been so devastated.
We landed at Whalers Bay, near the ruins of the whaling station, later occupied during and after World War II by the British as a research station. The station was abandoned after volcanic eruptions in 1967 and 1969, the latter of which inundated the whaling station with a huge flow of volcanic ash.
As well as wandering around the ruins and up to the old hangar, there was the opportunity for a brisk hike to Neptune’s Window, a broad gap in the caldera wall that offers spectacular views over the surrounding seas. And for the hardy (and foolhardy!), there was an opportunity for a quick dip in the sea to join the “Antarctic Hot Tub Club.” The expected warming by volcanic heat of the shallow water at the tide’s edge was missing today so dips were extremely brief. Nevertheless, as many as 22 admitted to braving the icy 35-degree (F) water before taking a rapid Zodiac ride to the ship for a warm shower.