Antarctic Neighbours

by Michael Warr


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon



Half black from volcanic ash and half white from glaciers and snow, Deception Island in the South Shetlands Islands lies 60 miles off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Approaching its black beaches and cliffs topped by white on the hillsides, we suddenly veered in towards the island just as Nathaniel Palmer, an American sealer, did over 140 years ago. We too went between black volcanic tuff crags. Deception Island, an eight-mile wide island, had within it a six by four mile harbour, Port Foster. The entrance, Neptunes Bellows, was a mere 500 yards wide. Two hills between 1,700 and 1,500 feet high were on the rim; the rest of the edge went down as low as to 250 feet. Deception Island was the remains of a supposedly extinct mouth of a large sunken volcano. There were still hot spots along its inner beaches.

The possession of this strategic Antarctic harbour was disputed by Britain and Argentina in the 1940s and 1950s. When I arrived in 1963 a British base, 'base B', an Argentinean navel base, Decepcion, and a Chilean air force base, Pedro Aguirre Cedro (PAC) lay dotted around the harbour. All the personnel studiously worked on scientific activities. Political possession never came up in our conversations. The times of diplomatic protest notes were replaced by exchanges of food and drink. The South Americans liked our Scotch whisky, and we enjoyed their mutton, red wine and fresh chicken eggs.

I had joined the British Antarctic Survey as a meteorologist, and wintered on Deception in 1964. I ran the husky team, the Jesters, and with nine others (half of whom were the wintering aircraft crew) looked after the base. Our building was an old whaling factory hut made of creosoted wood.

Our interactions with the Chileans and Argentineans were three times more frequent than their visits to us. Mind you, we did feel that their centrally heated bases were a little too warm; they in turn politely remarked on the coolness of our coal-stove heated hut.

Were language difficulties why they visited less? Their officers did have a firm command of English while we tended to stumble with our limited Spanish. Jim Wilson, our diesel mechanic and four-time winterer in the Antarctic, mentioned a British base member trying his halting Spanish on a Chilean naval officer. The officer finally asked: 'Why don't you speak English, my good man?'

Many of the South American military personnel considered their one-year stay at Deception Island akin to purgatory. For us, our time in the Antarctic was a great opportunity. From the British base human and dog prints radiated in the snow in all directions. Outside the Chilean and Argentinean bases there were only a few tracks. We regularly walked to the Chilean base some three miles away; the trek included crossing a mile-wide glacier. The Argentinean base was just another six miles around Port Foster.

So when the Argentineans celebrated on 25 May (the call for independence in 1810), most of the British turned up to join in the festivities. We had no national day of celebration. Jim and I walked over the glacier two days before, stayed the night at the Chilean base, and next day set off early along the warm ash beaches to Decepcion. Juan Carlos Canape, the Argentinean commanding officer, greeted us. There were 15 personnel on the base, including four radio operators, and only one met man compared to our three meteorologists. We enjoyed ravioli and wine for lunch. Andres, the Chilean CO, and two other Chileans arrived, as did Len, our base leader, and Ted, one of our pilots.

Unfortunately the British overslept on the Independence Day, and missed the flag raising ceremony. It was not done deliberately; perhaps it was the surrounding warmth of the building. In the table tennis championship that morning I reached the finals before going down to Carlos Atkinson, another Chilean guest. Lunch was filled with both Spanish and English speeches. Len was able to end his speech with a Spanish quote to a round of applause. Bill, our other pilot, arrived just before Mac, an aircraft fitter, and Don, our radio operator, boated over.

That evening was resplendent with food, wine and more speeches, including a mention of the republic of Great Britain. More wine followed, plus RAF mess tricks frequently involving beer cans. With my long legs wrapped around a chair I did well in the 'pick up a piece of cardboard with your mouth'. We all got slowly inebriated. The Argentineans showed an old British film, Sanders of the River. The photography was fine; the outdated colonial views less so. On this Independence Day there was not a cloud in the sky, unusual for Deception Island's more common cloud, wind and mist. Over 15 miles away the tops of Livingstone Island's mountains were visible over the edge of our Mt Pond. The sunset was vivid, and that night a full moon shone clear down on the island. We were abed by 2.30 in the morning.

The return the next day by boat was more typical. It was wet, windy, and the waters were rough. We nervously beached the boat near the glacier's snout, and walked the mile back to our base.

On 18 September Len, Jim and Charles, our chief met man, attended the Chilean National Independence Day festival at PAC. A good time was had by all. And later in September Len and I traipsed through soft snow to Decepcion for the birthday of Juan Carlos, the Argentinean CO. We dressed up, had roast duck, champagne and birthday cake. Andres, the Chilean CO, Silvio, the Argentinean second-in-command, Dr Gonzales, the base doctor, and Len gave speeches. Salutations followed every speech. When Len, with some help from me, sang Flanders and Swans's 'The Hippopotamus Song' (Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud!) he brought the house down. There was much flashing of cameras, the singing of Argentinean tango songs, and the dancing of the malamba. An Italian film Spartacus was shown, and Juan Carlos pushed the rudiments of trucco, a card game, into us. Most were in bed by 3.30 a.m.; some danced the twist until 6.00 in the morning.

Since all British personnel were considered to be officers, Len and I ate with them; a waiter served us. From an undisclosed source we heard of future increased Argentinean political and military activity in the Antarctic. All this Len radioed back in his reports. Whilst at the base we saw an Argentinean plane drop a load of mail from 3,000 feet. There was great excitement, especially when it landed on 'our' glacier. The two Brits looked coolly on. We were not getting any mail for another three months, so we did not get excited. There might have been differences in the nationalities, but we all got on well together.

This continued on Deception Island through to 1967. Earthquake tremors in April led to stronger ones in November, and in December hot gases and ash rose thousands of feet near the Chilean base. Ash dropped all over the island. The Chileans rushed through the ash-darkened night to the British base. Chilean helicopters evacuated everyone off the island the next day. The Argentinean base remained unscathed, though their personnel were also taken off.

The British returned to have another winter in 1968. There probably would not be another major eruption. Fourteen months later more earth tremors, large columns of smoke, and showering volcanic rocks heralded the volcano's return. Whilst the British left the base to be rescued, mud and water poured through their building leaving a 20-foot gaping hole. Much of the nearby disused whaling factory and graveyard disappeared under ash. Again Chilean helicopter pilots took the British off the island in appalling conditions by flying though swirling ash and smoke.

Today on Deception Island there is only an Argentinean and Spanish summer base. Nature is slowly breaking down the remnants of my British hut, and the remains of the old Norwegian whaling factory.

Yet Deception Island is very active in the summer, with the highest tourist rate in the Antarctic. Where else can you sail into a maybe extinct volcanic caldera, visit a dilapidated Antarctic base and whaling factory, and 'swim' in a thermally heated beach pool as a brisk cool wind blows? Now instead of having three nationalities living here, many nationalities visit Deception Island, still the most active volcanic place off the Antarctic Peninsula.


© Michael Warr 2005 (text and photographs). Mike spent over two years living in the Antarctic in the 1960s. He worked as a meteorologist for the British Antarctic Survey, and drove husky teams. Like the other men on base, he heated stoves with coal and melted snow for water. The bases were isolated for eight months. There was no way to leave until the relief ship arrived.

Mike has lived in Canada since 1966, and got married there. He taught secondary school for 26 years in central British Columbia. Most of his physcial activities revolve around getting ready for, and runnning, marathons. Mike is writing a book on his Antarctic experiences titled "South of Sixty". The last four chapters are on his trip as an Antarctic tourist in 2005. With other ex-Antarctic hands he visited old bases along the Antarctic Peninsula and noted the Antarctic changes, especially in the increased number of whale sightings and the large crowds of fur seals.



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