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
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
“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
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
# # #
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.
Email: email@example.com (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.
about this writer.)