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Bus2Antarctica: Deception Island

Andrew Evans may be stuck in Ushuaia, waiting to find his way home, but here on the blog his trip continues, as we’ve only scratched the surface in terms of Antarctic content. In today’s post, Andrew explores the desolate outpost on Deception Island, where he actually went for a swim.

There is a reason that Antarctica is uninhabited. This is a very hard place to live–so wild and unpredictable. Those who have tried to stay are often surprised by what nature throws their way.

Visiting the isolated speck of Deception Island offered me a haunting glimpse of Antarctica’s rare human history. From the outside, the sunken volcanic crown looks like another normal island–yet when ships pass through the rocky narrows of “Neptune’s Bellows,” they enter into a water-filled caldera that reveals the island to be entirely hollowed out from the inside. This initial “deception” gave the island its name, yet a closer look reveals other deceptions: the flint-chipped black mountains are not mountains at all but merely fallen ash on top of melting glaciers. The line of houses on the beach look friendly and inviting until you see them from behind–see their collapsed roofs and broken walls, splintered floorboards and the “Danger! Keep Out!” signs posted in English and Spanish.

Once upon a time, Deception Island was a Norwegian whaling station that later evolved into neighboring research bases for both Great Britain and Chile. At first glance, the black sand beach and smooth ground seem ideal for buildings and living–that is, until you take into account that this whole island is in fact the mouth of a volcano. The last real eruption took place in 1970, causing massive mudflows that buried the buildings on the beach and led to the closing of the stations. Now this beach is a protected historic sight and a frequent stop for travelers in Antarctica. I came ashore with camera and notebook in hand, ready to record another day’s adventures, but the beach offered up a sober mood quite the opposite of adventure. I walked slowly across the scorched ground and noticed the yellow clusters of pyroclastic bombs still scattered across the spots where the volcano had dropped them decades ago. I came upon the first house and then the next–saw the cheerful pink and green paint still clinging hopefully to the timber frames that were imported from the northern hemisphere so long ago. In a kitchen without walls or dishes, a rusted iron stove remained standing alone, like a singular island in a sea of nothingness. Two molting penguins poked about, their fluffy dead feathers still fighting the unstoppable wind that blew down from the volcanic ridge.

This was a ghostly place. I could feel the spooky sense of history among the eerie ruins and desolate landscapes. I watched my fellow passengers and noticed their own reactions. What we saw intrigued us, yes, but it also gave us the creeps. In essence we were witnesses to a failed civilization–not like Roman Pompeii or the jungle-covered temples of ancient times–but a modern attempt at living that had ended abruptly and definitively.

Every year, the wind and ice were tearing away at the remnants on the beach and it was easy to imagine how in the coming decades, this spot of ground would be freed of all signs of humanity.

Adding to the strangeness of the day was the opportunity to participate in the twisted tradition of swimming in the Antarctic waters of Deception Island. Scientific reason declares these waters “warmer” than average since the heat of the volcano (in principle) adds a few extra degrees of natural warmth to the freezing seas that pour in and out of Neptune’s Bellows.

On the day we took our polar plunge, the water temperature was a steady 36° F. That’s much colder than your bathtub and slightly warmer than your freezer. As you can tell from this short video clip, I didn’t stay in for very long. Still, I did it–I went swimming on a beach in Antarctica and lived to blog about it.

It was not warm. Whoever said that was being deceitful.

Andrew Evans traveled 10,000 miles–by bus–from Washington D.C. to Antarctica for National Geographic Traveler and has tweeted about his travels at @Bus2Antarctica. Want more? Follow the map of his journey, bookmark all of his blog posts, watch videos, and get the full story on the project here. Photos and videos, Andrew Evans.

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