Deception Island

By Stewart_Campbell / 13 December 2023

Deception Island

Conclusion of a series from the owner and manager of Expeditions Online, who travelled on our Small Ship Expedition earlier in 2023. In this blog Stewart documents the visit to one of Antarctica’s most famous places: Deception Island, its whaling history, changing attitudes and science, with final reflections on the advantages of small ship travel.

A Voyage to Antarctica Part 4: Deception Island!

After the excitement of the last few days along the Antarctic Peninsula mainland, our plucky small ship Ocean Nova has taken us overnight back north across the Bransfield Strait to the South Shetland Islands and one of the most intriguing and legendary places in Antarctica, Deception Island, one of the few places in the world where you can sail directly into the middle of a restless volcano! It was named "Deception" by early sealers on account of its outward deceptive appearance as a normal island, with an almost hidden opening to its interior.

Landscape view of Mountains on Deception Island, Antarctica

Aerial view of Mountains on Deception Island

Enter the Volcano!

The island’s rather forbidding landscape of ash-layered glaciers, steaming beaches, and barren slopes are the result of its tumultuous geological history. Deception Island is the flooded caldera of an active volcano, which last erupted in 1970. The volcanic activity has created a hot spot on the island, where geothermal springs bubble up from beneath the surface and create pockets of warmth that allow life to thrive. This warmth also keeps the harbor ice-free, making it a Deception Island one of the safest and most sheltered natural harbours in Antarctica. Due to the incredible geology and phenomenal landscape of this cauldron-like island, it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Antarctica. It is also a base for two scientific research stations, which focus on volcanic monitoring, geothermal activity, benthic studies, and the general ecosystem of the area. 

Rising 539 metres above sea level, with a diameter of 15km, more than half of the island is 
covered by glaciers. Formed in a distinctive horseshoe shape, with the huge flooded volcanic crater (caldera) in the centre, perhaps the most striking aspect is the entrance through the narrow passage of Neptune’s Bellows, which opens out to the sea on the southeast side of the island. Inside the caldera, the waters are generally calm and protected, lined by black volcanic sandy beaches. Even though we are in polar waters, these volcanic sands do heat up the waters somewhat.  The steam rising off the beach especially with a falling tide bears testament to the heat not far under the surface. If you’re feeling brave enough, this has been a traditional spot to enjoy a ‘soothing’ thermal bath amidst black sand beaches and ice-laden mountains—an odd but fantastic experience!  


Dark Days of Whaling 

There are a couple of noted landing sites inside the island, including an abandoned whaling station called Whaler’s Bay, with a history steeped in the early 20th-century whaling industry.  This place dramatically illustrates Deception Island’s darker past. This site was once a major hub for the slaughter of thousands of Antarctic whales, where the island's sheltered harbour was used as a base for processing whale oil and blubber. The remnants of this industry can still be vividly seen, in the form of huge, rusting boiler tanks, abandoned buildings, and whale bones scattered amongst the volcanic ash, offering a haunting glimpse into the past.  

The buildings at Whaler’s Bay include the remains of a Norwegian whaling station from 1906 which at its peak hosted several hundred men during Antarctic summers and as many as 13 ships operating. The surrounding cemetery is by far the largest in Antarctica, with graves for 35 men, now partially covered over by volcanic mud slides. The site also has remains of a British Antarctic Survey base, which was evacuated in 1967 during a volcanic eruption.  The harsh Antarctic weather is now really taking its toll on all the remaining buildings and structures, with many of them collapsing completely now and none of them safe anymore to visit inside. A hike along the beach brings you to spectacular lookout known as Neptune’s Window, a narrow gap between two rock pillars, dramatically showcasing the volcanic rim of the volcanic caldera.


In other notable events, Deception featured as the base from which legendary Australian explorer and pilot Hubert Wilkins made the first ever Antarctic flight from a Whalers Bay ash runway in 1928. With its sheltered harbor, geothermal hot springs, Deception has a unique ecosystem that thrives despite the inhospitable conditions. It is a place of contradictions, where the icy waters of the Southern Ocean meet the warmth of the Earth's interior, and where penguins and seals frolic alongside steaming vents and black volcanic sand.

Chinstrap Penguins on Deception Island, Antarctic

Chinstrap penguins on Deception Island

Nature and Wildlife 

Today, Deception Island is a protected area, primarily for botanic and ecological values, because the island has the greatest number of rare plant species of any place in the Antarctic. This is largely due to frequent volcanic activity creating new opportunities for plant colonisation. The island is also home to several species of penguin, including chinstrap, gentoo, and Adélie, as well as seals, whales, and a variety of seabirds. Baily Head, a prominent headland on the outside of the island, supports a truly enormous breeding colony of chinstrap penguins (about 100,000 pairs). 

Very many of our Expedition Cruises to Antarctica do include a visit to Deception. Visits are strictly regulated to ensure that the fragile ecosystem is not disturbed. However, it is worth noting that all ships must participate in a ship scheduler in advance of the season – a kind of lottery – just like all landing sites, there are a strictly limited number of visits allowed and vessels cannot be at the same site simultaneously. Therefore, it is not possible to guarantee in advance whether you will visit any given site. 


Heading Home and Reflections on Antarctica 

On this voyage, Deception Island was our final landing (however it can often be the first) and now the Drake Passage awaited us. These last few days are some of my favourites on any voyage – allowing for some reflection on the voyage and the incredible places we’ve seen. 

The stark impressions of Deception’s rusty whaling station make one very thankful how much attitudes have changed since the dark days of massive exploitation of Antarctica’s marine wildlife. There are many other ongoing changes in Antarctica – and a great deal of anxiety about what changes global warming are bringing in terms of ice cover reduction and possible effects on ecosystems. Time will of course tell. After countless visits to Antarctica since the 1990s, other very tangible changes I can see is the big growth in the Antarctic cruise industry - including a big increase in the size of the ships. Expedition vessels that were all once under 100 passengers are mostly now double that size, presenting logistical challenges to how operations are made to maximise visitor experience, given the still-strict limit of 100 people ashore at a time. However, this has not been all bad news, since there has simultaneously been constant improvements over the decades in terms of staff professionalism and operations. The Antarctic cruise industry remains one of the most exemplary areas of safe and environmentally responsible travel, with no more than a minor or transitory impact on the environment, fostering amazing experiences, environmental education, scientific research and cooperation. Antarctica is unique, and one of the most perfectly preserved regions on the planet – and we all aim to keep it that way!

Regardless, it makes me thankful for having sailed on one of the very few remaining small ships, since our experiences ashore have been relaxed, unrushed and uncrowded – truly the ideal way to experience Antarctica!


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