20 November, 1995

November 20, 1995

Location: Deception Island, Bransfield Strait


Today marks the last full day of research in Bransfield Strait. It has been a chaotic day as the researchers make final decisions about what areas still need to be mapped, and what locations should be investigated for hydrothermal vents.

All day long I was preoccupied with the weather and the sea. I awoke to a morning that was unusually calm and gray. A thick band of low clouds was suspended barely one hundred feet above the water surface. The wind was calm and the wake of the ship was larger than any of the waves on the sea around us. The ship passed in an out of areas of low fog as we varied our course to do sea floor mapping.

On the aft deck the air felt unusually warm. It was comfortable walking around in just a flannel shirt. The air was wet and heavy, and my glasses blurred by the dampness condensing on the lenses as I stood and watched the sea.

Today, the usually blue sea was a foreboding gray mirror. The water was almost without movement. The few waves that were present were little more than smears on the glassy surface. As the boat moved on its course, the ship's wake sent rippling waves across the surface like when a stone is tossed into a calm lake produces circles that move outward in all directions until they collide with the shore.

In all the time that we had been in Bransfield Strait, we had never seen conditions like this. Some of the crew were mildly concerned that if the temperature fell a few degrees that the water would freeze very quickly forming a thin layer of ice across the entire surface. They call this kind of ice, grease ice, because it looks like someone poured oil on the surface of the water. Grease ice is not a problem for the ship because it is thin and easily broken, but it is often a associated with a change in the weather.

Throughout the day the fog turned to mist and then finally light snow. The wind remained calm as we moved onto station at Deception Island. Deception is a volcanic Island. The last documented eruption was in the early 1970's. We had to slow because as we approached the island for an evening of ZAPS work, a thick fog blanketed the area.

Over a few hours, the fog lifted and Deception became visible. The shoreline was dark and treacherous. All the approaches to the shore seem nearly vertical and inaccessible. Pillars of rock projected out from the water along the shore line. Their shapes were regular, and resembled huge rectangular blocks of stone that are mined in quarries. They were arranged in groups, in a near straight line giving the impression that someone had put them there. It was Antarctica's Stone Hedge.

The island is covered by mountains that surround a large crescent shaped volcanic mountain. The opening to the crescent is where rock was blasted from the slope at the time of one of the earlier eruptions. The crater of the volcano is a lake filled with sea water. The plan for the evening was to take water samples to detect whether the water in this known volcanic area contained the trace minerals associated with hydrothermal vents.

We had to maneuver the ship as close to the opening as possible to start the sampling. The bridge carefully eased the ship toward the crater lake moving at less than 1 knot. Because of the calm seas it was difficult to detect any motion at all. In the watch area we kept track of the water depth on the monitors. Our starting depth was 200 meters, which quickly shallowed to 150 meters, then 100 meters, then 50 meters. At that point, engines were stopped and the ship drifted, moving slowly closer to the island until the water depth was barely 30 meters. It takes about 15 meters of depth for the ship to maneuver. We would start the ZAPS work here, still nearly 800 meters away.

The bridge pirouetted the ship about, bringing the bow around 180 degrees. We would get no closer, not even in the name of science. As we started the ZAPS sampling, the change in weather that we expected arrived. Instead of snow , a light wind brought with it clearing skies. The clouds parted from the island peaks, to let us see Deception for the first time without her cottony blanket. Large bergs were visible along the shore line with huge colonies of penguins. Hundreds of penguins were scampering about the bergs in what was rapidly becoming one of the most glorious sunsets of the cruise.

The sky radiated with yellow and red behind the now clear mountain peaks. An occasional cloud blew onto one of the mountain tops, resting there like a crown until the wind dethroned the volcanic monarch. As I stood on deck witnessing this major Antarctic celebration of nature, I was struck by how much beauty was present in this place that many think of as only desolate and cold. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Few who behold the splendor of this region leave it without having images of this place forever etched in their memories and their perceptions changed forever.

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