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Return to Deception Island
Tom Koppel - Click to Enlarge
Tom Koppel

Jack Hill, an elvish man with white hair and beard, leads our shore party to a derelict seaside dwelling, its roof beams sagging with age.  Not far away, across a swath of black mud and gravel, stand dozens of red rusting tanks, each as tall as a house.  Decades ago these held rendered oil from the thousands of whales that were killed and processed here each year.  Along the shore in the opposite direction is a lone grave marker and beyond it the stripped fuselage of an airplane that will never fly again.  The beach, which is littered with bleached-out whale vertebrae, seethes with geothermal steam.  And looming above, the icy slopes of a flooded volcanic caldera fully thirteen kilometers across.

Welcome to Whaler’s Bay on Deception Island, Antarctica, surely one of the strangest and most haunted places on earth.  It is hard to imagine spending months of aching cold and perpetual winter darkness in such a grim spot.  But that’s just what Jack, our guide, did in his youth, some forty-three years ago.  Now, half a lifetime later, he has returned for a few fleeting hours.   “This has got a lot of memories for me,” he says in the accent of northern England.

Like my eighty-odd fellow passengers, I have come on the small Marine Expeditions cruise ship Lyubov Orlova mainly to enjoy the unspoiled scenery and wildlife of the Antarctic Peninsula.  And our days threading the islands and straits of that region, which points like a long, bony finger at South America 1000 kilometers away, are blessed with sunny weather and calm seas.  We sit in quiet wonder among thousands of nesting penguins and cormorants, walk gingerly past huge Weddell and elephant seals, and gape at opalescent blue cathedrals of floating ice.  Yet it is our glimpse into the human history of the seventh continent, at Deception Island, that proves to be especially poignant.

The island’s deep and sheltered harbor was a magnet for early sailing vessels.  On a clear day in 1820 the young American sealer Nathaniel Palmer hiked up to a notch in the high wall of the caldera.  Spying the shimmer of white peaks 100 kilometers away, he became the first person to set eyes on the Antarctic mainland.

In 1911 a Norwegian company established a whaling station.  For twenty years, until whale oil prices plummeted in the Depression, this was the hub of activity in Antarctica, home to two hundred people and about ten whaling ships.  So many of the great cetaceans were taken that their bloated floating carcasses clogged the bay.  One captain had to push them aside to make room to anchor.

In 1944 Britain, which claimed the entire region, took over.  When Jack Hill arrived in 1956, Whaler’s Bay was a year-round British weather station and summertime base for aerial surveys.  Jack had been a radio operator with the RAF and Royal Navy.  A bachelor, he had volunteered for a long dose of isolation.  Four meteorologists shared the low clapboard building with him, plus a diesel mechanic to keep the generator running.

The moment of truth came, he recalls gazing out over the bleak anchorage, when the supply ship that had dropped him off blew its horn and steamed away, not to return until the following year.  “And I asked myself, ‘What have I done?’”

Winter brought dangerous whiteouts and gale force winds that pinned them down for days at a time.  Sheets of corrugated iron blowing off the abandoned Norwegian buildings could decapitate a man.  But there were lots of books to read.  And they had a cat to keep them company, named Squeaky Bum for the rude noises she emitted from her hind quarters.  “She used to get fed on tinned crab,” says Jack, “because none of us liked crab.  A very well-fed cat.”  Sadly, a year or two after Jack’s stint at Deception, Squeaky Bum wandered out and got stuck among the buildings, only to be found dead a few days later.

Jack’s job four times daily was to send the weather reports, in Morse code, to British headquarters in the Falkland Islands.  His group’s only personal contact with the outside world also depended on Jack’s nimble fingers.  So what would his comrades have done if he had fallen sick and died?  “We often talked about this,” he chuckles, “and the other guys said they would have held the code book in one hand and tapped out ‘di dah dah dah’--that’s ‘J’--’di dah’--that’s ‘A’,” and he carries on, running fluently through Morse for ‘JACK IS DEAD.’  After all these years, the code remains firmly imprinted in his mind.

“That was my bunk, right there,” he says, pointing through a huge rent in the siding.  “And this,” indicating the window behind him, “was my radio room.  There’s the hole in the wall from the kitchen where they passed me my cup of tea.”  Right on the windowsill sits a moldy old piece of radio apparatus.  “It’s some sort of power pack,” he explains, probably one that he actually  used himself.

Chile and Argentina also maintained bases at Deception and had rival claims to the region.  A favored diversion was when Jack’s group received instructions to visit one of the other stations and lodge a diplomatic protest.  They would ceremoniously read out a statement objecting to its presence on the island.  The South Americans would respond by formally rejecting the note and stating their own claim.  Formalities satisfied, they would then break out the booze, drink to each others’ health and wind up potted.  “It was our way of waving the flag,” he says.  “Of course, not literally.  In fact, the flag was usually frozen to the flagpole.”

The Deception Island base remained in use until a series of eruptions between 1967 and 1970.  During one episode, dust and ash blasted high into the atmosphere and a new island arose in the harbour.  Another time, lava, ice and ash swept down on the base.  Mud flows and fire engulfed and destroyed most of the buildings, forcing their evacuation.  Even the old whaler’s cemetery was obliterated.  “The whole topography has changed quite a lot since I was here,” says Jack.  “Some of those tanks used to be enclosed, housed inside buildings.  That’s all disappeared.”

A few years after the first sojourn, Jack overwintered at a different British Antarctic base, and later spent a summer on the glaciers of northern Norway.  Then he married and settled into a career as a noted woodworker, furniture maker, teacher and author of books on fine wood craftsmanship.  But the polar experience had marked him.  He was elected to membership in the Antarctic Club and still attends occasional formal gatherings.   Not that such affairs, which require tuxedos, are exactly his style.  “We all just stand around,” he quips, “looking like penguins.” 

Falling silent, he turns and peers again into his radio room.  The rest of us wander off to snap pictures or hike up the rim of the volcano.  My last glimpse of Jack, before we all head back to the ship, he is poking around in the ground, looking for traces of a skinny young guy in his twenties with a taste for adventure and a deft hand on the telegraph key.

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ACCESS: Marine Expeditions’ Antarctic voyages, sailing from Ushuaia, Argentina from late November through early March, start at US $ 2,645 per person including airfare from Toronto, quad occupancy and a good hotel in Buenos Aires en route south.  Port duties and taxes of US $495 are extra, as are gratuities and some minor airport taxes in Argentina.  Call toll-free at 1-800-263-9147 for information and reservations.

Considering the length of the trip, the time actually spent in Antarctic waters--only three to four days for the shortest cruises--may seem inadequate, but longer trips are available.  Many of the longer cruises also spend several days in the Falkland Islands and/or South Georgia Island, which are well worth seeing.

These are eco-adventures, not luxury tours.  The double occupancy cabins are comfortable, but the quads, with upper and lower bunks, are quite tight.  Ideally there are twice-daily landings in inflatable Zodiacs to visit shore sites, but these depend entirely on the weather.  A pre-voyage brochure will suggest necessary personal gear, including rain suits, high rubber boots and seasickness medication.  The chartered Russian ships are clean and well run and their officers and crew friendly and efficient.  Toronto-based Marine Expeditions employs mainly Canadian cruise leaders and shipboard hotel staff, plus stimulating North American and European lecturers.  They have a positive attitude towards their work and are scrupulous in their concern for the wildlife and environment.

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Email: (TOM KOPPEL) 

Tom Koppel is Canadian freelance writer and author with more than 15 years of travel writing experience, including features in Travel Holiday, Financial Post Magazine, Canadian Living, Historic Traveler, Beautiful B.C., Western Living, Country Inns, Reader's Digest, Georgia Straight, Porthole, Islands etc. Tom is now working on his third book as well. (More about this writer.)


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