We had at last come to our final day on the Antarctic Peninsula and I felt hesitant to began the day, as I didn’t want it to end. Our first destination was Deception Island, a horseshoe-shaped caldera of an active underwater volcano. As we approached Deception Island, the captain and crew cleared the bridge and front deck, as they did whenever there was a narrow passage to navigate. Within Neptunes Bellows, the narrow passage to the interior of Deception Island there is a large submerged rock and special care must be taken by the captain to avoid it.
Sadly, Deception Island was at one time a very profitable whaling base, and though in 1931 the island ceased to be used for whaling, several whaling structures remain decaying on the beach. The structures had an erie post-apocalyptic steam punk look to them and I tried not to think too hard about the purpose they once served. Today many penguins and fur seals wander the steaming black sand beach of the most protected harbor on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Deception Island was to be the location of our long awaited “Polar Plunge”, a run out into the frigid Antarctic waters from the beach (just for the pictures and to be able to say that we had done it). Following a couple of hours of exploring the ruined whaling base, the brave Polar Plunge participants stripped down to the swimsuits they had been wearing under their many layers of warm clothing and one or two at a time ran out into the water, immediately running back out squealing and hyperventilating from the cold. The temperature of the air was +1°C and the water +2°C (So about 38°F). I was determined to spend a little longer in the water than everyone else had been, and I forced myself to actually go for a bit of a swim. After a few minutes I became somewhat acclimated to the cold (it just burned my hands a little but otherwise I was ok). When I came to shore I realized that the reason Deception Island had been chosen for the Polar Plunge was that the sand on the shore was actually quite hot, as it was heated by the volcanic activity below ground. Where the cold water meets the sand the water was warmed to a very pleasant hot tub temperature, and this is why you see steam rising from the beach. If you dig down, the deeper sand was burning hot to touch, and in previous years visitors would dig large holes on the beach that would fill up with water to soak in, but unfortunately this has been banned because too many tourists were interrupting the landscape and habitat by leaving the holes unfilled. The other swimmers weren’t realizing how hot the water was at the shore and probably mistaking the burning hot of the wet sand under their feet with the burning cold of the deeper water. I gave my dry Antarctic skin a scrub using the hot black volcanic sand and after some convincing, recruited a few friends to join me on the hot shore. Alex and I were the last ones to get out of the water, dry off in the thirty something degree air and return to the ship.
After lunch and an adequate warming up, our final destination for the day and final excursion in Antarctica was Yankee Harbor on Greenwich Island. It was a bit of a long and rough zodiac ride to get to the shore from where the ship dropped anchor, the little rubber boats seemed to be traveling twice the distance to shore because of the strong winds and high swells. Once the shore came in to view I saw thousands of penguins marching along the shore and many fur seals and a few elephant seals. This was another wildlife viewing paradise where we needed to watch our step because like Cuverville Island, every other step was where a penguin was waddling or napping.
The wind continued to pick up and the wait was quite long for the zodiacs to make the trip to and from the ship to drop off passengers. When it was finally time to leave and I boarded a zodiac, we were instructed to put away everything in our waterproof bags, because it was going to be a long, bumpy and wet trip back. It certainly was. I had fears that the zodiac was going to be capsized by the enormous swells, the trip felt like a cold, wet rollercoaster ride going nowhere (oh so I have a bit of a fear of rough water, so the 30 minute trip to the boat was not my favorite part of the day).
Back on the ship we removed our soaked heavy coats, pants and rubber boots for the last time. While the others enjoyed a rowdy happy hour in the bar I was on the empty top decks taking in the last of Antarctica as the sun set and we made our way north to the open ocean.