Deception Island quickly revealed itself to be something of a time capsule of Antarctica’s two centuries of human history, containing stories of explorers and whalers, scientists and dreamers. Like a polar Pompeii, it was virtually abandoned overnight with buildings now frozen in a bygone era. Other relics bear witness to its days as a processing center for Antarctic wildlife. But in one of the biggest disappointments of all, this island once known for plundering animals was now, in 2022, absolutely teeming with them.
Of course, it was exactly like that when humans sailed that way. Nigel Milius, a polar historian with the Antarctica21 expedition cruise line, told me as we toured Whalers Bay together that seal hunters were among the first to map the South Shetland Islands after they were discovered in 1819 by the English Captain William Smith. The sealers were then eclipsed by the whalers, who arrived aboard floating factory ships.
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In 1912 the Norwegians built Antarctica’s only land-based commercial whaling station on Deception Island, which operated here until 1931, when some species, including the blue whale, were hunted almost to extinction. There could have been as many as 500 people living on Deception Island at the height of summer operations, Milius said, although only a small crew could brave the long winters without light.
As we passed the rusting remains of towering ancient digesters used for whale blubber, Milius shared an account of a particularly lively New Year’s Eve celebration in 1928 that seemed to characterize life in Antarctica at the time. Two men – lonely, childish and drunk – climbed atop a dead sperm whale that had ballooned with gas from the heat of the beach.
“One of the whalers thrust his long knife into this veritable whale balloon, which quickly exploded, throwing the two men into the harbour, where they had to be rescued by some of the few sober observers,” Milius said. reading a piece of paper. with a quote from visiting Australian military pilot Hubert Wilkins. “Meanwhile, two other whalers had decided to ignite a barge with explosives which was moored at the beach [which] contained 65 tons of gunpowder and other combustibles.”