Antarctica, Day 9: Whalers Bay

March 11, 2022 • 9:30 am

This morning we spent a lot of time dropping food off at an Antarctic base that didn’t get its regular shipment of food because the supply ship, rife with Covid, had to head back to South America. We were told they were running short of protein, and so the ship’s food administrator put together a food package for the 45 people at the station.

And after lunch we did a landing at a historical site, Whalers Bay, which lies in the calder of Deception Island, an island where we’d landed previously (but at Telfon Harbor)

Whalers Bay is a small bay entered between Fildes Point and Penfold Point at the east side of Port Foster, Deception Island, in the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. The bay was so named by the French Antarctic Expedition, 1908–10, under Charcot, because of its use at that time by whalers.

The site has been designated a Historic Site or Monument (HSM 71), following a proposal by Chile and Norway to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting. It comprises all pre-1970 remains on the shore of the bay. These include artefacts and structural remains from the early whaling period (1906–1912) associated with Captain Adolfus Andresen of the Chilean Sociedad Ballenera de Magallanes, the Norwegian Hektor Whaling Station (1912–1931), the period of British scientific and mapping activity (1944–1969), and a cemetery containing 35 burials and a memorial to ten men lost at sea. It also commemorates and acknowledges the historic value of other events that occurred there.

Note that the height of the whaling period was short, and I didn’t see the cemetery or memorial. But there are plenty of remains of the whaling operation.

The Google map shows Whalers Bay as simply the bay filling the caldera of Deception Island (below). but that isn’t really the case: the bay is a small inlet just as you enter the narrow passageway of Neptune’s Bellows. I’ve added an arrot show you the real Whaler’ Bay:

It still amazes me that wooden ships and small boats could catch and kill huge whales. It became easier after they had exploding harpoon heads, which were in use when the whaling industry came to this island in the early twentieth century. (By then they’d killed off the local fur seals, which were easier to take.) And of course the whales had to be processed for their oil on site, a nasty and time-consuming process.

Here’s a painting captioned “blue whale being flensed [stripped of skin to get at the oil-rich blubber] at Whalers Bay. 1920s painting by Carl Dørnberger”:

Here are three photos from an article in the 2018 UK National Geographic (captions form the magazine):

Following its capture, a whale is hauled to the flensing platform on Deception Island in 1929. PHOTOGRAPH BY INTERNATIONAL NEWSREEL, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Look at this whaling station! Presumably the seabirds have gathered to feast on the leavings after the whale is butchered.

A view of the surface of the water in Deception Island Harbor, covered with birds. PHOTOGRAPH BY INTERNATIONAL NEWSREEL, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

I’m not sure what species of penguins these are, but they don’t seem to be Adelies,  Gentoos, or chinstrap penguins. And of course they don’t want to be held and petted!

Lietenant Carl Eielson (right) and other members of the Wilkins-Hearst South Polar Expedition in 1929 held and petted some of the penguins on the island, but the penguins didn’t seem to enjoy it. PHOTOGRAPH BY INTERNATIONAL NEWSREEL, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Why the whale oil? It had two main uses: as fuel for lightng lamps and as a lubricant for machinery. It was also made into margarine during the early 20th century. Here’s a Wikipedia entry on the substance,

Whale oil was obtained by boiling strips of blubber harvested from whales. The removal is known as flensing and the boiling process was called trying out. The boiling was carried out on land in the case of whales caught close to shore or beached. On longer deep-sea whaling expeditions, the trying-out was done aboard the ship in a furnace known as a trywork and the carcass was then discarded into the water.

Baleen whales were a major source of whale oil. Their oil is exclusively composed of triglycerides, whereas that of toothed whales contains wax esters. The bowhead whale and right whale were considered the ideal whaling targets. They are slow and docile, and they float when killed. They yield plenty of high-quality oil and whalebone, and as a result, they were hunted nearly to extinction.

Below: a bottle of whale oil. The baleen from baleen whales was, in Victorian times, also used as supports for corsets or hoop skirts, as it created a curvy shape.

I had to grab a quick lunch and then rush ashore to return to my lecture this afternoon. Lunch was three courses in the Aune, but I asked to have them served quickly.

Appetizer: “chicken salad, parmesan dressing, green beans”

“Conchiglie, pesto rosso, and scallion.” They forgot to note the pine nuts.

“Panna cotta, strawberry compote”

And when I returned to my cabin, Vlad, who makes it up every other day, had put a penguin towel on my bed!

I had forgotten that during the last two trips, we had a different animal towel every few days. I don’t remember a penguin, though. Here are the constituents of the penguin: a bath towel and a hand towel. I believe all the Filipino staff show each other how to make these. (Emmanuel, my waiter in the Fredheim, can make only swans and not penguins, while Vlad can make only penguins.) The best ones are the elephants, but I guess I won’t get to see one of those.

Neptune’s Bellows seen from the outside, so called because of the wind that rushes through the small opening that furnishes the only entry to the caldera. Without this small opening there would have been no whaling or sealing here.

As I mentioned before it’s narrow, but ever narrower for bit ships, as there’s only about a hundred yards of navigable space in the opening (rocks lie beneath). The Hurtigruten expertly navigates it every time.  I’m not sure if it’s manual navigation or done with GPS and computers. I should add, though, that although the Roald Amundsen has an anchor, it never uses it. It has a complex, computer guided series of jets around the ship that keep it absolutely in place. This is done, they told me, to prevent disturbing the Antarctic sea floor.

And lo! The fur seals have returned to Whalers Bay. This is one of several species of fur seals found around the world—the Antarctic fur seal, Arctocephalus gazella). The shores of Whalers Bay are full of them, mostly, I’m told, young ones. They were chasing each other and apparently fighting, but I’m told it was really play. That didn’t prevent several of them from having scars, though!

Note, if you see an external ear, as on these animals, it’s either a fur seal or a sea lion. Otherwise it’s a regular seal. This is because fur seals and sea lions, both in the family Otariidae, are actually more closely related to each other than to “true seals,” which are in the family Phocidae.

You’ll see many ways of looking at a fur seal, like this proud one (they do seem proud!):

Battered remains of an old house or shed.

Old boats. Wood deteriorates slowly here because of the cold and lack of wood-eating organisms:

This is the north shore of Whalers Bay; note the black lava sand:

And the south shore of Whalers Bay. The “dip” in the crater edge is where Neptune’s Bellows lies:

A brittle star on the lava sand:

Our ship, with a fur seal in the foreground:

Apparently these big metal barrels were used to store whale oil, the most valuable product from the slaughtered leviathans. But with the advent of electricity in lieu of oil lights, and of petroleum refining, the demand for it dropped, and by the 1930s the Deception Island whale operations were kaput.

Spot the fur seal!

More remains of the whaling station, presumably Norwegian. All of these are monuments and you aren’t allowed to touch or enter them.

A house from the early 1900s, apparently build by Norwegians.

Barracks for the whalemen, or whatever they were called (“whalers” were the whale catchers but there were also those who processed the carcasses and ran the whole operation.

Whale-oil vats:

Napping fur seal:

Aren’t they cute? They remind me of cats, what with the faces and whiskers. Note the external ears:

Unlike true seals, members of this species propel themselves with their front flippers, and can run surprisingly fast. They also swim with their front flippers, while true seals in the Phocidae swim with their rear flippers and also propel themselves on land by repeated forward flopping.

The stuff at the landing site, which is always there. There is food, water, apparently portable toilets (remember, no excreting on Antarctic land), first aid supplies, and, to the left, ski poles for those who’d like a walking aid.

When you’re coming ashore, you have to sanitize your boots by stepping into this machine that scrubs them automatically and sprays them with a disinfectant. This removes Antarctic schmutz that could be transferred to other places on the continent.

After my talk and a shower, it’s time for a pre-dinner brewski:

And a hearty whaleman’s dinner, though I didn’t do any flensing today. The Fredheim’s “Steakhouse” burger, with bacon, swiss cheese, bacon, and aioli to dip your fries in. A side of stents is optional.

And dessert, whose array changes every couple of days (though they always have milkshakes): waffles with cloudberry compote and cream. A hamburger and cloudberry waffles—now that’s an American/Norwegian friendship meal!

But where’s the cream?

15 thoughts on “Antarctica, Day 9: Whalers Bay

  1. A number of those photos are, IMHO and personally, seriously worth investigating as large prints – wow… breathtaking…

    i.e. I’d bring it down somewhere and see if they can print a “poster” of one or two…

  2. And of course the whales had to be processed for their oil on site, a nasty and time-consuming process.

    There’s a good, if graphic, description of processing harpooned whales in the book In the Heart of the Sea, the non-fiction account of the final voyage the whaling ship The Essex, the story that inspired Melville’s Moby-Dick.

  3. All very interesting! The burger looked good. I love that it had bacon twice. I think I know what I’ll have for lunch today.

    By the way, the Panomax camera and its map seem to be stuck for the last day or two. Anyone else having that problem? I’ve tried a couple of the other ship tracking website but no luck.

  4. The fur seals really do seem catlike-my cat gets the same haughty-looking expression when she sleeps in the sun. I wonder how loud they are, especially when they’re chasing after one another and play-fighting, and what they sound like. The whaling history and the old buildings are interesting, but I flinch seeing the dead whales, and so there’s something extra beautiful about seeing the fur seals amongst the whaling ruins.

    That penguin towel sculpture is dynamite. Even the way it is standing looks penguin-like. I so wish we could see the elephant.

  5. “But with the advent of electricity in lieu of oil…”

    This raises a disturbing thought: Had electricity taken longer to be harnessed, we would have driven several baleen whale species to extinction.

    I loved the pictures, as usual. Fur seals are the cutest of all pinnipeds.

    1. I look at it more optimistically than that. The engineers and capitalists knew that we would run out of whales if we tried to use them to bring light to the world. So they harnessed Niagara Falls and built coal-fired steam engines to turn Tesla’s generators. They scaled them up, improved them and made them more efficient, and disseminated them behind huge dams and turbines and windmills until we could finally leave the whales alone because electricity became everywhere cheaper than whale oil.

      It didn’t just happen.

  6. Great photos!! Thanks for the reminder on “eared” vs “non-eareds”. I always forget which is which and have to pull my Peterson off the shelf to check every time. I had forgotten about the front vs rear flipper locomotion.

  7. As for animals with extremely developed brains (whales, killer whales, dolphins, monkeys, elephants), I believe that they should be surrounded by a special law applicable to Non-human person.

    I wonder if the author of the blog had the opportunity to visit the Wieliczka salt mines while in Poland?

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