So I missed a bit there because, halfway through the Drake Passage northbound, I stopped taking my seasickness meds. Yes, it was a stupid thing to do, but don’t tell me you’re surprised: since when has “it was a stupid thing to do” ever been an impediment for me? I was feeling bulletproof, and besides, when I woke up tomorrow morning we’d be through the rough stuff, wouldn’t we? (Spoiler: no.) So I lost a bit of time there that I’d been meaning to use to tell y’all how I spent my birthday.
Yes, I had a birthday – big one, too: six-zero, sixty. Geez, how did I get so suddenly from 24 to sixty? But here I am. But I’ll tell you, if I could have had pretty much anywhere on earth to spend my sixtieth birthday, I think I wouldn’t have chosen anywhere else.
So, rewind about nine years, when I’m working on the NBP – the Antarctic Program’s icebreaker – for the first time. The mission is the Antarctic Marine Living Resources project, which, for the purposes of the cruise, means riding the boat around a grid in the Bransfield Strait, taking water samples at depth every dozen miles or so. And up in the northwest corner of the strait there’s a funny-looking blob on the nautical charts. Looks like a perfect ring, with a little slot cut into it. Chart says it’s Deception Island. Wikipedia also says it’s Deception Island, but goes on to explain how it’s a collapsed, but still active volcano. How sealers in the 19th century learned to steer their ships past the submerged rocks in the narrow gap of “Neptune’s Bellows” to the curiously warm harbor within. Whalers followed in the early 20th century, as did various navies during wartime, but the island has been abandoned again and again, and is now largely protected by ASPA provisions in the Antarctic Treaty. The fact that that curiously warm harbor has boiled over more than once without warning probably discourages longer term stays.
Obviously, the moment that I knew that such a thing as Deception Island existed kind of put it right at the top of my bucket list. I mean, it’s only boiled over a couple of times in the last 100 years, right? But working the icebreaker, there never was a chance to get any closer than “That’s it over there, about 10 miles to the north.” But tourist cruises – I knew that tourist cruises occasionally got to motor inside the caldera and, even more tantalizingly, sometimes even went ashore. So the moment Anthony Sandberg invited us, three years ago, to join him on a cruise to Antarctica, you know my “Deception Island neuron” was firing as fast and hard as it could.
Problem is that tours in Antarctica are all about maybes. You never know what the weather’s going to let you do, nor whether someone else is already going to be doing it in your place. Permits are required for everything, and the Antarctic Treaty doesn’t let more than one boat be in the same place at the same time. So the cruise directors are on the phone/radio with each other constantly, swapping permits in realtime like they’re baseball cards: “We’ve got Neko Bay tomorrow morning; can you trade us for Port Lockroy?” The nice young lady who answers the phone for Polar Latitudes admitted that yes, they have had trips go ashore at Deception, but it would be…deceptive to make any promises.
Fast forward a couple of years. We’re down in Paradise Bay, with three days left before we need to be back in Ushuaia. The Drake’s going to take two of those, maybe a little more because of the improbably pissy weather that’s lingering there. Again. Steaming north overnight would put us right at the western edge of the South Shetlands, right about where…Deception Island lies. I think our cruise director was worried that my eyes would pop out of my skull as he was explaining this. But, he went on, since the winds were from the northwest, and the gap, Neptune’s Bellows, was on the southeast, there was a chance we could have a peek inside. And go ashore. And if conditions were particularly auspicious, we might even be able to get a bit of kayaking in.
In short, all of that happened, and yes, on my birthday. I think from here on, it’s just pictures.
[I apologize to folks who are having trouble zooming in on the small pics – because of the tiny bandwidth, I’m uploading posts via third party software. I promise I’ll post a link to a full-sized album of everything once I’m back in the land of friendly broadband.]