For most people, the South Shetland Islands are their first sight of Antarctica. Lying 960 km (600 mi) south of Tierra del Fuego, the tip of South America, and 160 km (100 mi) north of the Antarctic Peninsula, the string of volcanic islands is a colourful break in the usual Antarctic monochrome of white, grey and blue.
Deception Island lies in the middle of the chain. It’s circular, a collapsed volcanic cone reduced to a ring of hills rising to 539 m (1,700 ft) around the 4 flooded caldera, with a narrow – 230 m (754 ft) – entrance called Neptune’s Bellows. It looks like one of the world’s safest, natural harbours – but the volcano is still very much active.
It’s been a refuge throughout Antarctic history, for explorers, naval patrols, and hunters of seals and whales. You can still see the detritus and relics of some of the 13 whaling factories operating here in 1914-15: the last of them disappeared after the 1920-21 whaling season, when the water boiled, stripping the paint off the ships.
In 1963, intense fumarole activity caused a US Coast Guard icebreaker to actually run aground inside a live volcano; and a full eruption in 1969 destroyed two Chilean scientific stations and a British base. But most of the time, the thermal oddities of Deception provide a lot of fun for visitors, and sanctuary to a host of unexpected wildlife.
Half the island belongs to permanent glaciers, and in the moonscape of black volcanic sand and rocks elsewhere, you don’t expect to find the world’s biggest colony of chinstrap penguins, hundreds of thousands of them, crammed onto Baily Head.
Eighteen species of moss or lichen grow here and nowhere else in Antarctica, and Kroner Lake is Antarctica’s only geothermal lagoon.
In fact Deception is one of Antarctica’s greatest wonders.
Population: Uninhabited (but there are 20 to 30 summer season staff at the seasonal Argentine and Spanish scientific stations on the southwest shore of the caldera, Port Foster).
When to go: January to March
How to get there: By cruise ship from Punta Arenas, Chile, or Ushuaia, Argentina.
Highlights: The chinstrap penguins at Baily Head.
Working out your own strategy for maintaining the perfect temperature of your sand bath on the beach at Whalers’ Bay. (Tip: you get the best results with at least three people working together). Diving on Hephaestus’ Wall, a 32 m (105 ft) vertical and cinder slope covered in thousands of brittle stars, sponges, ascidians and echinoderms below the kelp – located just by Neptune’s Bellows, it’s one of the Antarctic Peninsula’s richest underwater sites.
Studying the historic graffiti of whalers, sailors and scientists who once lived on the island, scrawled on the desolate planks, rusting boilers and crushed huts left behind. Each name is the ghost of a bygone adventure.
You should know: Please study the code of conduct drawn up by signatories to the Antarctic Treaty and Management Plan for Protected Areas, and agreed by all tour operators. The details of where to walk, and how close to approach a penguin, etc., are really important.