Telefon Bay, Deception Island, and a Zodiac glacier tour

November 23, 2019 • 10:00 am

Here’s where the Roald Amundsen is (circled) this morning according to the ship’s map. We’re about halfway between the South Shetland Islands and the Falklands, and should arrive at the latter by night. I’ve even signed up for an optional, for-fee excursion to see King penguins, as they are not on the regular itinerary. This will be my only chance to see the closest species to an Emperor penguin. (Kings don’t live in Antarctica, and Emperors, found only in Antarctica, are usually inaccessible to travelers.) Kings are colored like Emperors, and are the second largest species of penguin in the world.

[Crowdsourced request to readers: I’m spending one night—the 28th of November—at Punta Arenas at the end of the voyage, as my flight leaves the afternoon of the 29th. Does anybody know a decent but inexpensive place to stay in that town?]

Its lovely and sunny this morning, and although we’re not formally in the Drake Passage, the waters are still unusually calm. Here’s the view at 8:00 a.m. from the ship’s Panomax cam (the sun is well up, so it was probably taken a while ago):

On to the report of Thursday’s activities. Tired from Thursday’s frigid but exhilarating excursion to the gentoo rookeries on Cuverville Island, I went to bed early that night—about 9:30 p.m. When I went to close the curtains (it’s still light at that time), I was unable to tear myself away from the view of icebergs passing by my window, all against a landscape of iceberg-colored sky and mountainous, snow-clad islands.

Our visit Thursday was to Deception Island, a popular tourist destination in the Antarctic, as it’s conveniently located in the north of the South Shetland Islands, has great views, and, most important, has a fully protected harbor and a convenient landing spot in Telefon Bay (below). It’s also an island formed by the caldera of a still-active volcano.

The British Antarctic Survey, which provided the picture below, says “it is one of the most visited places in Antarctica.” The entrance to the “donut hole” bay is through a strait called Neptune’s Bellows, which you can see in the map above and in the foreground below. That name comes from the strong gusts of wind funneled through the narrow channel.

There are penguins on the island, but the chinstrap colony is off limits. I did see a few desultory gentoo penguins hanging out near the landing site. One goes to Deception not for the penguins, but for the spectacular beauty.

Aerial view of Deception Island with Neptune’s Bellows in the foreground.

A bit about the island from Wikipedia:

Deception Island is an island in the South Shetland Islands archipelago, with one of the safest harbours in Antarctica. This island is the caldera of an active volcano, which seriously damaged local scientific stations in 1967 and 1969. The island previously held a whaling station; it is now a tourist destination and scientific outpost, with Argentine and Spanish research bases. While various countries have asserted sovereignty, it is still administered under the Antarctic Treaty System.

The island is roughly circular with a diameter around 12 km (7.5 mi). A peak on the east side of the island, Mount Pond, has an elevation of 542 m (1,778 ft), and over half the island is covered by glaciers. The centre of the island is a caldera formed in a huge (VEI-6) eruption, which has been flooded by the sea to form a large bay, now called Port Foster, about 9 km (5.6 mi) long and 6 km (3.7 mi) wide. The bay has a narrow entrance, just 230 m (755 ft) wide, called Neptune’s Bellows. Adding to the hazard is Raven’s Rock, which lies 2.5 m (8.2 ft) below the water in the middle of the channel. Just inside Neptune’s Bellows lies the cove Whalers Bay, which is bordered by a large black sand beach.

. . . it was first visited and explored by the American sealer Nathaniel Palmer on the sloop Hero the following summer, on 15 November 1820. He remained for two days, exploring the central bay.

Palmer named it “Deception Island” on account of its outward deceptive appearance as a normal island, when the narrow entrance of Neptune’s Bellows revealed it rather to be a ring around a flooded caldera.

The Wikipedia article gives the history of the island, which started with extensive sealing and whaling  in the early 19th century based in the safe inner harbor where “processing stations” were erected. After factory ships were invented, allowing whales to be “rendered” anywhere, the harbor still became a convenient and quiet refuge for those ships, and for sealing ships as well.

After the fur seals were nearly driven to extinction and the last whaling operation went belly-up in 1931, the island was abandoned until the British and Chileans set up scientific stations. Those, however, were destroyed when the volcano erupted in 1967 and 1969, followed by an ashfall in 1970. There was even an airstrip, which we were told had a bend in it because of the island’s topography.

Deception now harbors two active research stations managed by Argentina and Spain.

Below: the landing at Telefon Bay. The expedition team leaves nothing to chance, going ashore an our before we land to map out paths and land some equipment. You can see all the stuff hauled ashore before us: tents, sleeping bags, water, and food (in case ice forms and we’re marooned), as well as orange cones and flags to mark out permitted areas and hundreds of ski poles when there’s a climb.  There are no toilet facilities, for you’re not allowed to urinate or defecate on Antarctic land. It’s judicious to empty your bowels and bladder before you go ashore!

Below: the intrepid head of the expedition team on this trip: Steffen Biersack, who has extensive experience in the Antarctic (he used to be a policeman in Germany). Here’s Steffen directing boat traffic at the landing. Pulling the Zodiacs up to shore so we can disembark is one of the most onerous tasks of the expedition team, whose members sometimes have to go in and out of frigid, waist-deep water over a period of several hours. (They are well clad in thermal clothes and waders, but still . . . )

We immediately started climbing Telefon Ridge. Here’s a panoramic view from partway up the ridge, which rises above Telefon Bay to Goddard Hill (332m). Why the name? Wikipedia explains:

The name appears on the chart of the French Antarctic Expedition under Charcot, 1908–10, and derives from the ship SS Telefon, which sat here awaiting repairs.

The view during the hourlong climb is splendid, with volcanic cliffs, rocks, and tuff, topped at high altitudes with a snowy frosting. Inland there was a partly frozen light-green freshwater lake, once a source of water for whalers and sealers.

Our route went from the landing up to this ride near the peak. You can see the end of the road as very small specks on the ridge just to the right of the photo’s center. Those are people gathered at the terminus, taking photos.

Climbing. The footing on the rocky volcanic soil was treacherous, as was the snow we crossed by climbing cut steps (another job of the expedition team). And the path goes along sheer cliffs to the left when ascending, as you can see here. Being a worrier, I did imaging the consequences of toppling into the sea far below.

But you’re rewarded by splendid views along the way, like this:

And, at the top, you see the ship moored peacefully in the bay below:

A panorama from the highest point we were allowed to attain:

My second “here I am!” photo on the trip (in my defense, the guide at the top offered to take it). The ship gives us our windbreakers to keep, my waterproof pants come as I’m a de facto member of the expedition team, and all passengers are required to wear rubber boots, which are disinfected by a small car-wash like brush as we re-board the ship. (I’m not sure why they’re not disinfected before we go ashore, too, as the object is to avoid introducing foreign organisms to Antarctica.)

But this shot was my idea. Seeing the reflections in the guide’s goggles, I asked if I could take a selfie reflected in them. She said “sure,” and here’s the result (I’m in the center). I love the reflections of the mountains.

Two views of a South Polar skua (Stercorarius maccormicki) that plopped itself down right beside the trail. The guides quickly put “do not approach” flags around it so that it would remain undisturbed. This concern for the local wildlife is heartening.

Nevertheless, the skua still kvetched:

Now onto Neptune’s Bellows, the narrow entrance to the caldera. Here’s what it looked like in the morning when we sailed through the strait. There’s a submerged obstacle, Raven’s Rock, which, according to Wikipedia, “lies 2.5 m (8.2 ft) below the water in the middle of the channel.” I’m not sure how the ship manages to avoid it, though it can surely detect it with its sophisticated sonar.

And a panorama of the harbor, showing Neptune’s Bellows in the middle of the photo. By the time of our exit in late afternoon, the weather had cleared up and become sunny.

Approaching the Bellows:

Closer yet:

And we were out! Here’s a panorama taken shortly after our exit from the harbor:

The view of an island nearby. One must avoid becoming jaded at the constant sight of such splendor!

In the afternoon, the ship arranged for us to cruise to a nearby glacier; we were out for 45 minutes in fast-moving Zodiacs, and got really great views of the parent glacier and calved-off icebergs. (We also got a bit splashed with seawater, inevitable on such a trip. Keep your cameras covered!)

The blue color is fascinating—it also intrigued Darwin when he saw his first glacier in the Beagle Channel.

You can see “fault lines” along which the glacier can fracture as it moves toward the sea, calving bergs big and small.

Recently calved bergs:

Here are huge icebergs floating near the base of the glaciers. Some were monstrous: the size of the one that sank the Titanic:

Look at this whopper!

Finally, a photo of our Zodiac driver. They have to be extensively trained to control these unruly boats, for a slipup endangers the safety of their passengers. I have not seen any of them make a mistake.

And so we sailed away, intending to arrive on Friday at, but not land on, Elephant Island. If you’re a polar-phile, you’ll recognize that site as an important one on the ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917. The expedition aimed to cross the continent on foot, but was ended before it began when commander Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance was trapped in and then crushed by pack ice.

Taking what equipment they could, Shackleton and his 27 men hauled up on Elephant Island after floating dangerously atop the shifting pack ice. And it was from this island that Shackleton and 5 men then took off in a lifeboat, hoping to find rescuers at South Georgia Island, 800 miles away. They were successful, found a rescue tugboat in Punta Arenas, Chile, and all 28 men survived. But more on that tomorrow.

35 thoughts on “Telefon Bay, Deception Island, and a Zodiac glacier tour

  1. Another fascinating post

    I find it impressive that the team sets up all the required equipment to safely and efficiently visit the area. It makes a trip to Everest seem like a bad idea – when you can explore such a vast interesting area like this instead.

    And I mean it when I say trip to Everest- it seems if anyone wants to, they can just pay for it and go.

  2. I have this notion (please correct me if I’m wrong) that the Antarctic icebergs are kind of tabletop/cubic in shape, contrary to the more irregular shape of Arctic icebergs, which may have quite some ‘horizontal’ extensions under the surface.
    Would the Titanic have been sunk by an Antarctic iceberg? (assuming the above is correct)

    1. I think the difference in shape of Northern & Southern bergs is a matter of scale – the Southern ones can be absolutely huge in terms of sea coverage – the famous B-15 iceberg split from the southern Ross Ice Shelf & it was 295km long at that stage!!!!! Naturally it has to be a tabletop-style berg as are all large bergs – it is small bergs that are more like Gothic cathedrals. You will notice that icebergs have sedimentary layers due to the seasons of snowfall etc & thus as the bergs break up a large piece might lose its centre of gravity & swivel such that the strata are vertical & you’re on the way to spikier berg shapes. [A lot of the above is my speculation, I’ve never seen an iceberg].

      Extreme berg drifts in an equatorial direction can get to as low as 35° latitudes i.e. Arctic bergs can get down to around Portugal/Spain while Antarctic ones can get up to around Cape Town, South Africa or New Zealand. There is absolutely no possibility of a Southern berg making it to near the equator or further north than that. Even that monster B-15 I mentioned above only got as far north as approx the Falklands [there’s daftness on the web about it reaching close to the Equator – ignore vigorously!].

      This is a nice read: LONG ARTICLE WITH PICS on icebergs

    2. ICEBERG WIKI interesting bit:

      “An iceberg will flip in the water as it melts and breaks apart because gravity continually pulls the heavier side downward. Most flipping occurs when the iceberg is young and establishing balance. Flipping can occur anytime and without warning. Large icebergs that flip can give off as much energy as an atomic bomb and produce earthquakes”

  3. “Iceberg Transport International company was established by Prince Mohammed al Faisal. and it was considering a plan to tow a 100 million-ton iceberg off Antarctica using powerful tugboats to the red sea, where it would supply enormous quantities of drinking water. The journey was estimated to take about eight months and the project would cost around $100 million, according to estimates.”
    Looks like they are still studying the idea.

      1. I think [1] Max Perutz has something to do with pykrete, and [2] the military wanted to make aircraft runways in the ocean out of pykrete – I’d have to read if that notion was simply stupid or was counterintuitive.

          1. “Aerodrome” to me – that is, without looking up and reading a definition- means “airport”. I know this because I have went through “aerodromes”.

            But perhaps it’s just because Brits use the term “aerodrome” and I don’t?

            1. Aerodrome is an airfield – more than just a runway. The Pykrete mid-Atlantic aircraft carrier concept was more than a runway – it needed to accommodate personnel & their needs for food, water & shelter, fuel, weapons, airplanes, hangers, mechanical plant, radar, maintenance, spares, trucks – a full range of aerodrome equipment & functions.

        1. Yep, Perutz was part of the committee that studied Pykrete in WWII, and he wrote about it in his memoirs. IIRC, at the end of the war the plans for the Pykrete ship/floating island had grown to something 4x larger than any ship that had ever been constructed at the time.

  4. … in the early 19th century based in the safe inner harbor where “processing stations” were erected. After factory ships were invented, allowing whales to be “rendered” anywhere, the harbor still became a convenient and quiet refuge for those ships …

    Where the blubber meets the road, so to speak.

    IIRC, there’s a graphic description of the process in the book Heart of the Sea (the true story of the last voyage of the whaleship Essex, on which Melville based the Pequod of Moby-Dick fame). It makes plain the vast difference between hunting sea mammals and any other manner of commercial fishing.

  5. Beautiful photos to match your other beautiful photos. Never gets tiring, seeing these vast and rugged landscapes…and the wildlife, of course.

    Cool selfie. 😎

  6. How is Telefon pronounced? I keep reading “Teflon” for some reason.

    Also, did you need to get any vaccinations for this trip?

      1. Thanks for the info.
        Telefon is pronounced pretty much like telephone from google translate…translation says its Turkish, but it was named by a French expedition so dunno. Oh well, just a curiosity.

  7. Thank you for sharing your exciting adventure, all the photos and accompanying information. Much as I’d love to do this, if I went, I’d have to stay on the ship; too many complications of age and physical disabilities. (Not to mention fear of water and heights! Such a chicken.) So, again, many thanks.

  8. Really great pics, particularly cleave lines in glaciers and close approach to bellows where i can feel ravens rock lurking just eight feet below the surface with no range or channel markers. Tnx so much for taking the time to share this great adventure with us.

  9. Have you bumped into Opus? In the Bloom County reruns just now, Opus and Mrs. Limekiller are with a Greenpeace anti-whaling expedition, and they’ve just informed some “Antarcticans” that James Watt is no longer the Interior boss. Takes me back to what now almost look like the good ole days….

  10. Wow! I would say this falls under ‘living your best life’, but that sounds like one of those faddish phrases that annoy you, ha ha, so instead I’ll just say this looks like an amazing trip!

  11. Deception island is fascinating. Sort of a Crater Lake in the Antarctic ocean. I would love to walk around the rim. (Not that I could.) And trying the warm sand bath. (Too bad you couldn’t.)

    Again, thank you for sharing your amazing trip with us. Hurtigruten should be paying you for advertising this stupendous cruise/expedition.

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