The South Shetland Islands lay off the tip of the Antarctica Peninsula, south of Argentina. The peninsula is the northernmost point of the continent of Antarctica. Flora (lichen, liverwort, and moss) and fauna (penguins and seals) can be found in the region. In 1820, sealers discovered an island which concealed a surprise. On the southeast side of the island they discovered an inlet, a narrow harbor entrance into a vast bay hidden by the outer walls of the island. They named it Deception Island, and the natural harbor became known as Port Foster.
Commercial sealing of the South Shetlands was short-lived, as the seal population was small to begin with. The industry’s success in the 1820-1821 season was never repeated, and they gave up on the area completely by 1825.
A volcanic eruption was first observed in 1842. Subsequently it was determined that Deception Island is the caldera of a mostly submerged, but very active volcano. Still, it was (and still is) the best harbor in the Antarctic, for all the same reasons that Rabaul and Simpson Harbour make one of the best ports in the South Pacific.
Deception Island remained deserted until 1904, when whalers found that the harbor made an ideal base of operations. The first semi-permanent, seasonal settlements were established during this time, but were permanently abandoned by 1931 when the market for whale oil collapsed, never to return.
The first scientific expedition visited Deception in 1928. Humans didn’t visit the island again until 1941, when a British warship came to destroy whatever surviving infrastructure (particularly the oil tanks) that might be useful to the German navy, thus preventing its use as a base during WWII.
For two decades, from 1942 on, Argentina unsuccessfully attempted to lay claim to the island but ultimately failed due to Great Britian’s earlier claim dating back to 1908. Several countries did establish permanent research stations however, including the UK, Argentina, and Chile. However, massive volcanic eruptions in 1967 and 1969 destroyed the British and Chilean bases. The Argentina station has since only been used in summer. Spain built a research station there in 1990 which may be staffed year-round.
Cruise ships began visiting the island in 1966, bringing thousands of tourists to Deception over the decades since. The main attractions are birds, particularly chinstrap penguins. Another perk is the chance to soak in a hot spring bath dug out of the volcanic ash on the beach.
Question of the Night: Does a tour of Antarctica appeal to you?