Deception Island

Hot tubs. Volcanism.  Cruise tourism.  Graffiti. Century-old gravestones.  Not exactly the first things which come to mind when someone says ‘Antarctica’.  But not only can these things be found on the frozen continent, they can be found in one place.


Source: Treehill,  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported licence.

Just off the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula in the South Shetland Islands lies Deception Island, the above-water rim of a steep-walled volcano rising 576 m (1,890 ft) above a flooded volcanic caldera.  The name of the island comes from its deceptive ring shape, which from a distance obscures the small gap in the caldera the lead to the harbour within.  The 230 m (755 ft) wide gap, called Neptunes Bellows, creates a C-shaped circular island; the harbour is a large flooded basin covering the caldera known as Port Foster, formed 10 000 years ago when the volcano collapsed.  The diameter of the island is 12 km (7.5 mi); mean annual temperature is just a few degrees below zero.   While most of the island is covered in ice, for two centuries, the ice-free (yes, ice-free; all thanks to the volcano lurking below) harbour of Deception Island has provided shelter to passing ships, explorers, whalers, scientists, and tourists; all of whom have taken refuge here despite the fact that the volcano remains active.  As with all of the South Shetland Islands, Deception Island is claimed by the United Kingdom, Argentina, and Chile; all of these claims are frozen under the Antarctic Treaty of 1959.  While no country legally owns Deception Island, since 2005 the island has been an Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASMA) thanks to a management plan co-developed by Argentina, Chile, Norway, Spain, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

Known since at least 1820, it was first charted in 1829 but did not see heavy use until 1906, when a Norwegian whaling outfit set up shop in the small bay just to the right of Neptunes Bellows.  Ingeniously named Whalers Bay, this cove became the major centre of Antarctic whaling and sealing activity for the next 30 years.  As many as 200 people at a time lived here at a time.  To this day, abandoned whaler and sealer buildings; the remnants of sheds, workshops, oil tanks, boats, boilers, canned food; and countless numbers of whale bones lay on the shore.

Remnants of the whaling station at Whalers Bay.


An old boat hull, bleached by the sun, lies in stasis at Whalers Bay with the old station in the background.  Source: R. Holliday,  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike licence, version 1.0.


A whaler graveyard on Deception Island.


Biscoe House was originally the barracks for the Hektor whaling station at Whalers Bay.  When the United Kingdom established its research base here in 1944, Biscoe House became its main accommodation building.  It has sat in state since 1969.  Source: The Cryoborg,  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic licence.

The abandoned whaler buildings, full of old, rusting equipment, are a major attraction for the adventurous tourists who make their way down to South Shetland on cruise ships.  Unfortunately, some of them enjoy leaving their mark a little too much.  The major attraction for tourists may not be the old whaling station but the hundreds of thousands of chinstrap penguins who make Deception Island their home, nesting in the rocks on the ice-free portions of the island’s slopes and feeding on ocean krill.  Chinstraps are the most aggressive of all penguins.  Seals (such as this little guy) are also present in large numbers, in the warm, ice-free soil, not only are there 18 different species of lichen, but there are actually flowering plants in the form of pearlwort.  In order not to disturb these communities, no more than 100 tourists are allowed on shore at a time.

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In the past two centuries, there have been at least eight eruptions on Deception Island.  In 1923, the water in Port Foster actually began boiling, stripping the paint off of boats docked in port.  The largest catastrophe occurred as a result of the 1967-69-70 eruptions, which forced the closure of the British research base and destroyed two Chilean bases (Argentina and Spainstill maintain summer bases on the opposite side of the island).  The ruins of the British base, which was established in 1944 and incorporated part of the old whaling stations, remain in place, and are a designated heritage site under the Antarctic Treaty.  The most recent activity was a minor eruption in 1992, but based on history, Deception Island will likely erupt sooner rather than later.  In places, the volcanic soil is hot enough to burn your skin.  While the volcano is a potential hazard, it’s also a source of recreation.  The water in the ocean may be close to freezing, but just a couple metres away it can be 40 °C (104 °F), and temperatures have even made it to 70 °C (158 °F)On the west side of Whalers Bay lies Kroner Lake, a geothermically-heated lagoon.  Visitors aren’t allowed there, but impromptu hot tubs can be made by digging into the volcanically-warmed beaches.  Or you can always head in the opposite direction and try a polar swim in Port Foster.


Source: L. Ivanov,  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

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Further Reading

Deception island Management Group (2005).  Deception Island Antarctic Specially Managed Area.  Available at  Accessed 6 November 2011.

Eime, R. (n.d.).  Steamed Ice and Frozen Lava.  Available at  Accessed 6 November 2011.

Garrison, L. (2005).  Antarctica Cruise Logbook – Hanseatic Cruise from Ushuaia to Antarctic Peninsula. Cruises.  Available at  Accessed 5 November 2011.

Natural Environment Research Council-British Antarctic Survey (2007).  Deception Island Station B — History.  British Antarctic Survey.  Available at  Accessed 6 November 2011.

United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust (n.d.).  Antarctic Treaty Visitor Site Guide: Whalers Bay.  Available at  Accessed 6 November 2011.

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