What do you get when volcanic eruptions almost completely decimate one of the most exposed outposts on the planet? The answer can be found on Deception Island, which brings a whole new meaning to the term “winter wonderland”.
Deception Island lies amongst the South Shetland Islands off the Antarctic Peninsula. It has one of the safest harbours in Antarctica, serving as a welcome refuge from the storms and icebergs of the region since the early 19th century. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called it “the land of mist and snow” in his epic poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. But little did he know about the volcano that would one day destroy the British military base and Norwegian-Chilean whaling operation.
The island was originally used by sealers during the 19th century, whose dilapidated huts still cling to life there today. The Norwegian-Chilean Whaling Company began using Whalers Bay as a base for factory ships and by 1914 had 13 vessels based there. The blubber was processed on the ships, while the whale carcasses were boiled down using large iron boilers. The precious oil extracted was then stored in iron tanks.
Today these tanks and boilers (see images) can be found largely intact and almost untouched in this isolated corner of the world. Their ornate iron casting immediately dates them to a previous era, but in a strange way their seemingly out of place appearance amid this icy landscape almost make them look like the shattered remnants of a post-apocalyptic world.
The bottom fell out of the whale oil market during the Great Depression and by 1931 the site was abandoned. Advances in the technology onboard factory ships rendered shore stations surplus to requirements and the station was never reoccupied once the economy recovered.
An abandoned British base lies nearby on Whalers Bay and includes a derelict aircraft hangar. Until 2004, a stripped-out old aircraft (pictured) stood forlornly outside the hangar, it’s RAF roundels still visible after 40 years of dereliction. The plane, a De Havilland Canada Otter, registration VP-FAK, is now in Grimsby, UK, and will soon become the centre-piece of an exhibition celebrating the world-class scientific achievements of the British Antarctic Survey. Close by, the British scientific station building – Biscoe House (pictured) – stands silently, severely damaged by mudflows following the eruptions of 1967 and 1969, after which the site was given over to the elements one last time.
The violent volcanic eruption of 1969 completely demolished the Chilean stations Pedro Aguirre Cerda and Gutierrez Vargas, the former originally inaugerated in 1955. Since then, the volcano has also put pay to other attempts to maintain permanent facilities on Deception Island. As of 2000, the only two scientific stations still in use (summer only) belonged to Spain and Argentina.
It is as if the island is trying to warn scientists and explorers that they are not welcome here. At least two centuries after humans began coming to this remote corner of the planet, it seems Deception Island’s name has finally come of age! The only known humans still permanently located here are the 45 residents of the Norwegian-Chilean station’s cemetery, which was buried in the eruption of 1969 (pictured here before the event). Today, the only signs pointing the way to their nearby graves are the rusting tanks and boilers the survivors left behind.