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Deception Island, Aitcho Island
During the early morning hours, the swell in the Bransfield Strait subsided as the Prince Albert II entered the lee of the South Shetland Islands. Expedition Leader Kim Crosbie announced over the PA system that we were starting our passage through Neptune’s Bellows, the entrance to the hidden central harbor of Deception Island.
Deception Island is so-named because even though it appears at first glance to be just like any other island, it is anything but straightforward. A flooded volcano, approximately eight miles in diameter, Deception Island is shaped like a doughnut with a bite out of its side. Our intention was to sail right into the middle of the volcanic caldera! The volcano is still active, with the most recent eruptions having occurred between 1967 and 1970.
We anchored in Whaler’s Bay, the site of the shore-based Hektor Whaling Station between 1910 and 1931. We strolled the cinder beach and the ruins of the whaling station on our way up to Ronald Hill. From the top, we could look out across the bay all the way to the other side of the caldera. We could also see the aftermath of the mud and debris flow which swept down the mountainside in 1968 burying and destroying most of the human made structures. Beyond the whaling station, we could also see Neptune’s Window, an opening in the caldera wall that affords views out over the Bransfield Strait and, on a clear day, all the way to the Antarctic Peninsula. This was the exact location where the American sealer Nathaniel Palmer first spotted the Antarctic Peninsula in 1821.
After soaking up the volcanic scenery, we made our way back to the landing to watch or participate in (or both) the Antarctic swim. A few confused chinstrap penguins looked on as one after another of us took the plunge into the icy waters. Warmly bundled onlookers enjoyed the scene and handed out towels to the brave returning from the drink. Shrieking voices, full sprints back up the beach, and clothes scattered in messy piles atop the volcanic black sand summarized this ultimate Antarctic experience.
Back on the ship, the hot water was flowing freely in many a shower as we attempted to warm ourselves back up after participating in the Whaler’s Bay Hot Tub Club. Cruise Director Nadia Eckhardt and Boutique Manager Cheryl Reilly then hosted the Prince Albert II Boutique Fashion Show in the Panorama Lounge. Models the likes of which we’ve never seen before strutted their stuff on the runway, showing off the latest Antarctic fashions available on the Prince Albert II. Lunch followed soon after and by mid-afternoon we had arrived at the Aitcho Islands, our final stop in Antarctica.
Before we knew it we were bundled up in the zodiacs and heading towards a landing beach crowded with gentoo and chinstrap penguins. Chinstraps are the second most abundant penguin species in the world, and our location in the South Shetland Islands was at the heart of their range. We were thrilled to get such up close and personal looks at them.
Many of us also had close encounters with gentoo chicks, which tried to peck at our boots and gloves. There were also some hilarious feeding chases, with chubby young penguins in hot pursuit of their often shabbier and skinnier parents. Snowy sheathbills lurked around begging chicks, waiting for just the right moment to run in and hit the chicks, getting them to spill the meal of krill they spent so much time begging their parents for. Several penguin carcasses were scattered around the island, perhaps the result of the many brown skuas and southern giant-petrels seen patrolling the penguin colony from the sky.
Back on the ship, we gathered for Recap with the Expedition Team, where Deborah Mars and Naturalist Andrew Marshall presented the judges’ decisions from last night’s talent show. As the Prince Albert II made its way north towards the Drake Passage, we secured our cabins and belongings in case the sea threw any motion at us during the night, drifting off to sleep with penguins fresh in our minds and the knowledge that tomorrow we would awaken in the realm of the albatrosses.
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