Deception Island is Antarctica's most confusing vacation destination

For a Confusing Vacation, Visit Deception Island in Antarctica

For a Confusing Vacation, Visit Deception Island in Antarctica

Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders
Dec. 23 2013 12:06 PM

Deception Island: Antarctica's Most Confusing Vacation Destination

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

True to its name, Deception Island is not what it seems. With its protected interior port, the horseshoe-shaped land mass — located in the South Shetland Islands above the Antarctic Peninsula — has long provided a safe harbor for sailors being tossed about in stormy seas. But Deception Island's past is full of conflict and destruction. 

In 1906, whalers established a base on the island. A fleet of factory ships, built to process blubber, crowded the bay. On shore, workers jammed whale carcasses into huge iron boilers to extract oil. These operations continued until 1931, when a slump in whale oil prices caused the station to be abandoned. The hulking great rust-colored tanks and boilers still stand on Deception Island, alongside gutted wooden buildings, rotting boats, and a cemetery honoring 45 whalers who perished along the way.


During the 1940s and '50s, Argentina, Chile, and Britain squabbled for sovereignty of Deception Island. Fearing a German incursion of Antarctica, and wary of Argentina's sympathies toward Germany, the British took over the old whaling station in 1944, dumped the Argentine flags they found there, and hoisted the Union Jack. The Germans never came, but the British takeover of the whaling site did provoke Argentina and Chile to establish bases nearby.

Volcanic eruptions forced the abandonment of the British base in 1969. (A detail worth noting: Deception Island is an active volcano.)

Today the island is a tourist destination and the location for summertime scientific research by Spain and Argentina. (The Antarctic Treaty System keeps things nice and civil between nations.) Visit and you can see tens of thousands of chinstrap penguins, as well as rusting relics of the whaling era. You'll also be able to experience one of life's stranger sensations: a thermal bath on an Antarctic beach. Due to its volcanic status, Deception Island has heat hidden in its black sand beaches. Dig a hole and you can sit in steam while your toes freeze.


Lonely islands:

View Deception Island in a larger map

Ella Morton is a writer working on The Atlas Obscura, a book about global wonders, curiosities, and esoterica adapted from Atlas Obscura. Follow her on Twitter.