||62º 44’ 3 S / 059º 57’ 3 W
During the night we made good progress, crossing the Bransfield Strait, so at 4:45am Lynn woke us to let us know we were just approaching Deception Island.
The island is named because it conceals an inner harbour within a flooded volcanic caldera. The Captain carefully manoeuvred the Plancius though the narrow entrance known as Neptune’s Bellows, with Ravn Rock waiting just below the surface to founder another ship in the middle of the passage. Once safely inside we made our way into Whalers Bay, the site of a former whaling station from the early part of the twentieth century, as well as a British Antarctic research station. From the ship we could see the Norwegian whaling station which operated on shore from 1911 to 1931. During that time, whales were harpooned at sea, floated alongside ships into Whalers Bay, winched up the slipway and flensed. The pressure cookers were used to boil the bones, meat and entrails to extract as much oil as possible, with waste bones crushed down for fertilizer. The sheer scale of the oil tanks added to the eerie atmosphere of the old whaling station, a sobering reminder of such a destructive era of exploitation.
For those that made the effort to drag themselves out of bed they were certainly rewarded with spectacular views of this volcanic island, bathed in beautiful morning light. We could even see and smell the sulphuric steam rising from the dark black beach.
From Deception Island, we continued northwards up to Half Moon Island which was our chosen spot for our morning landing. Half Moon Island lies north of Burgas Peninsula in the South Shetland Islands and is home to the Argentine Cámara Base. Some of the guests had noted that the only thing missing from the trip so far was blue skies, and we were in luck, it was a proper Antarctic summer day here. So much so that some of us stripped down to just a t-shirt!
The island was a hive of activity in terms of wildlife, it was difficult to know where to turn your attention. It is thought that Half Moon is the home to about 2,000 pairs of chinstrap penguins, many of which were already caring for very small chicks, which of course made for wonderful photos.
The island is also identified as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife International because it supports a breeding colony of about 100 pairs of south polar skuas along with an abundance of Antarctic terns, kelp gulls, Wilson's and black-bellied storm petrels, Cape petrels, brown skuas and snowy sheathbills, all of which were present today. For those wanting to stretch their legs, Katja and Dan led a walk to the other end of the island towards the base. The walking group saw several elephant seals and Weddell seals on route. However, what probably caused the most excitement was Lynn spotting the resident macaroni penguin, which has been observed here for the past few years. Unfortunately, it was well camouflaged amongst a colony of chinstraps, but with a bit of patience most of the guests managed to get a look, if only brief, at our fourth type of penguin species. As always with landings like this, time was our greatest enemy and before we knew it, it was time to head back to the ship, but what a morning it had been!
Whilst lunch was being served we cruised further north to Barrientos Island which was to be our last landing for the voyage. Barrientos Island is an ice-free island in the Aitcho group on the west side of English Strait, from there you have a direct line of sight out into the Drake Passage. As we approached the island by zodiac, the first thing we noticed was how different in appearance this island was to anything else we had come across in the past few days, it was green!!!
Much of the island was covered in moss, in fact this was the first real vegetation we had seen since leaving Ushuaia. In a similar manor to Half Moon, the islands’ wildlife was flourishing with an abundance of both chinstraps and Gentoo penguins with new born chicks, in fact a few lucky passengers even witnessed some eggs hatching. However, the circle of life can be somewhat brutal at times and for every chick that seemed to be born another was devoured by the hungry skuas that lurked all around, we witnessed them snatch both eggs and tiny chicks with no mercy. In fact, the interaction between the two types of penguins and the predatory birds was some of the best we had experienced on the entire voyage, everyone was certainly getting very trigger happy with their cameras.
The afternoon came to an end far too soon and it was time for us to be shuttled back to the Plancius one last time. However, Antarctica had one last treat in store for us, a curious leopard seal that was intent on taking a closer look at each of the zodiacs as they approached the gangway.
Back on board, Zsuzsanna and her team were waiting to great us with homemade hot chocolate (of course with an obligatory dash of rum in it), which really was the perfect way to end a very memorable day.
Just before dinner, the Expedition Team invited us to the daily recap. The plans for the following day were quite simple: we would be sailing the Drake. Katja spoke about the formation and history of Deception Island and Sara explained some of the most common seafaring superstitions which left us hoping good fortune might be on our side and we would get a calm and safe crossing back to Ushuaia.
As we approached Half Moon Island the wind in the Bransfield Strait was still quite strong but the closer we got the more it eased off. By the time we put the anchor down, the wind dropped below 10 knots and we were all ready to go on the back deck. We took the kayaks and paddlers round the corner and launched on the east side of the island then headed away from the main beach area for some solitude. There was plenty of wildlife and our first sightings of elephant seals on the beach, 3 adults and two wieners. There were also seals in the water around the kayakers coming up for a curious look at these strange imposters. The sun shone and the water was calm though with a slight swell off the south side, and everybody was paddling well having mastered the skills of paddling a double kayak. We had a leisurely cruise back to the ship too as Nico took the kayaks back to be lifted straight to the Zodiac deck where they would be tied down and readied for the journey back to Ushuaia. So we were able to relax a bit and go in close to the shore. I think we were all slightly relieved in retrospect that the curious leopard seal that circled the disembarking Zodiacs hadn’t found us earlier!