Deception Island is one of the most remote destinations in the world. Found on the edge of the Antarctic, the island is home to just a few small scientific outposts and hundreds of thousands of penguins.
The island’s rugged, volcanic scenery and natural harbor have made it an increasingly popular tourist stop on Antarctic cruises and it was our first stop on our Quark Expedition cruise to Antarctica.
Visitors can jump off the ship and explore the sparse landscapes, they can bathe in thermal hot springs that seep from the ground, and they can visit the remains of old historical and aircraft that have been left behind by ill-fated expeditions.
It’s a beautiful, captivating and otherworldly place to visit, and to inspire your trip to Antarctica, here’s our guide to Deception Island.
Don’t leave home without: Lonely Planet Antarctica (Travel Guide)
Where is Deception Island?
Table of Contents
Deception Island could well be one of the most remote tourist destinations in the world. This small island is found hidden amongst the South Shetland Islands, an archipelago on the edge of Antarctica, and on the edge of the world.
The islands are around 70 miles to the north of the Antarctic continent itself, and hundreds or more miles to the south of the South American continent.
Deception Island has been claimed by many different nations since its discovery, but as with the rest of the South Shetland Islands, it is currently under the Antarctic Treaty System, meaning that anyone can visit, and any nation can set up scientific operations, as long as they don’t involve any military action.
The only way to travel here as a tourist is to join an Antarctic expedition as we did. You’ll cruise south from the Americas and head into the frigid waters of the Antarctic, and will be able to spend your voyage searching for wildlife, gazing in awe at icebergs, and setting foot on wild and rugged destinations such as Deception Island.
Deception Island Location Facts
- Country: Antarctica
- Coordinates: 62°58′37″S 60°39′00″W
- Population: Uninhabited
- Location: South Shetland Islands Archipelago
- Area in square miles: 28
- Highest elevation: 542m (1,778 ft)
- Highest point: Mount Pond
- Soil Type: Volcanic
Interested in going to Antarctica? We spent 10 days on an expedition ship exploring the Antarctic Peninsula with Quark Expeditions.
The Geology and Weather on Deception Island
Deception Island is a place of dark, brooding peaks and ash-covered beaches. It’s beautifully dramatic, unquestionably rocky, and fascinatingly climatic. This otherworldly scenery is borne from the tremendous forces of nature at work below ground, as Deception Island is, in fact, the caldera of an active volcano.
The island has had a long history of violent eruptions, even within the short time that humans have even known of its existence, and the last eruption occurred as recently as the 1990s.
The unique geology of the island contributes to its unique scenery, and the wide bay that has long been used by sailors as a natural harbor and shelter is actually the crater of the volcano itself.
The volcanic activity has also ensured that there are hot springs across the island, as thermal water collects in natural pools. Eruptions have also ensured that the beaches consist of ash and black sand, while the thermal heat means that large areas of Deception Island remain free of snow and ice for much of the year.
Deception Island though, is a cold, cold place, despite the geothermal energy and you can only access the island from December through to March, when the ocean is mostly free of ice. Even then, an ice breaker will always be useful!
The Human History on Deception Island
The human history on Deception Island is short, but at times dark and even brutal. This is an inhospitable land, and humans haven’t always fared well on the shores of Deception Island. Even the island’s name, Deception, was given by the first sailors to see the landmass, and to be fooled by its terrain.
The first recorded sighting was by British sailors who were searching for seal hunting grounds, in 1820, and when reports of the island’s perfect natural harbor began to make it back from Antarctica, Deception Island quickly became an important whaling and sealing base in the southern ocean.
Unfortunately, the seals were almost instantly hunted to extinction, and then more permanent whaling began to be set up, as the island was used as a summer base by many ships operating in the area. For the next century, whales would be carved upon the shores of Deception Island, and even today you can still find bones littered across the beaches.
The whaling industry was unsustainable, and by the 1930s Deception Island was empty, but the human focus would over the next decades turn to science, as research outposts were set up around the island.
The volcanic fury of Deception Island was fully realized though, in the 1960s, when the volcano erupted and destroyed the research bases on the island. Today, there are just two bases that brave the weather and the volcanic activity, and that operate on the island. Even as a tourist, the risk of eruptions is high when visiting Deception Island, given the active nature of the volcano.
The Wildlife of Deception Island
Despite the activity of the volcano, and the seemingly barren and isolated nature of the land here, Deception Island has a surprising variety and abundance of wildlife. One of the highlights of visiting the island on an Antarctic cruise is the opportunity to see unique species of birds and mammals during a shore excursion.
In the waters of the South Shetland Islands archipelago, as you cruise towards Deception Island, you’re likely to spot the creatures that first brought humans to the area in the 19th century.
Despite bloody, wholesale slaughter on the shores of Deception Island in past years, different species of whale are returning in larger numbers to the water here, as populations have slowly recovered.
On land, as with almost anywhere in the Antarctic, Deception Island is home to enormous populations of penguins from various different species. The most numerous species are Chinstrap Penguins, which are found in large colonies that number in the thousands and total estimates put the population at well over 100,000.
Seeing these penguins marching towards the rough seas to feed is an incredible sight.
The Penguins bring seals to the island, while many of the rocky areas are also known to be important breeding grounds for Antarctic birds such as Skuas and Petrels.
Things to Do on Deception Island
Deception Island is a popular stop for many expedition ships in Antarctica. Due to its horse-show shape, It is one of the only places in the world where expedition ships can sail directly into the center of a restless volcano and anchor.
It’s calm waters in the bay and large amounts of wildlife make for a great location for expedition ships to allow their passengers to go explore.
Deception Island is unlike anywhere else along the Antarctic Peninsula, it has a rich history, amazing wildlife, and epic landscapes. Below are the top things to do on Deception Island.
Interested in going to Antarctica? We spent 10 days on an expedition ship exploring the Antarctic Peninsula with Quark Expeditions.
Neptune’s Bellow’s are one of the most iconic sights to see on Deception Island. This unique landmark is the point where ships can safely enter Port Foster, the area within the flooded volcanic caldera that is known as the safest harbor in the Antarctic.
The rocky entrance is named for the Roman god Neptune, who was the god of the seas. The name of the island, Deception, stems from the fact that this is a hidden entrance, and the harbor inside the Bellow’s is hidden away deceptively from the outside.
Whaler’s Bay is another iconic location on Deception Island and a place that most expeditions will take passengers to during shore excursions. The bay is the most historic on the island, as this is where the many whalers that visited Deception Island set up their camps and operations over the years.
It’s a strangely dark place, as the beaches are still covered in not only whale bones but also in the remains of whaling ships and run-down buildings that have never been removed.
Here you can find abandoned hangars, the remains of a short runway, and other relics left over from the whalers and from the scientific research bases that followed them, but that were evacuated during volcanic eruptions.
The black sand beach is rugged and beautiful in its own way, but it also adds to the eerie sense of abandonment that you feel across Whaler’s Bay. The cemetery, the final resting place of many of the sailors who perished on Deception Island over a century of whaling operations, is an even eerier place to see firsthand.
Baily Head is the best place to visit on Deception Island if you’re looking to see the local wildlife. This exposed headland is located on the far eastern side of the island and is a wonderfully untouched, raw and natural habitat.
The catch, though, is that this exposure makes it very hard to land here. Most ships aren’t able to stop due to rough seas and even if they do, they often cannot land skiffs on the beach because of massive waves.
A black sand beach lines the shore, while the rocky peninsula is mostly ice-free, making it a prime spot for the thousands of Chinstrap Penguins to live and nest. Out to sea and along the coast, you’ll be able to spot seals in the water, while the air is often filled with the sight of rare birds.
Baily Head is home to the largest chinstrap penguin colony in Antarctica with more than 100,000 breeding pairs. The swooning couples build their nests inside an old volcano crater that is shaped like a massive amphitheater.
For whatever reason, luck was on our side when we sailed to Antarctica and were able to land at both Whaler’s Bay and Baily Head. With a rare good weather window, the crew went above expectation to arrange an 11 PM landing at Baily Head for anyone that wanted to go. Not one person stayed behind on the ship.
The moment that we climbed up the hill to view the amphitheater is a moment that will stay with me for the rest of my life. The sound, the smell, the overwhelming number of penguins was the quintessence of nature at work. We were beyond lucky and privileged to witness it with our own two eyes.
With so much geothermal energy trapped beneath this active volcano, it’s no surprise that one of the best things to do on Deception Island is to bathe in the hot springs. It’s an incredibly unique experience, as while the outside air temperature falls below zero, you’ll be sitting comfortably in 40-degree water.
The dash from the hot springs and back into your warm clothes though, no matter how brief it is, will not be an enjoyable part of the experience!
A timeless tradition on Antarctic expeditions is to take a bone-numbing Polar Plunge. This involves stripping down from your warm clothes and taking a dip in the icy ocean.
Deception Island has always been a popular destination for a Polar Plunge because supposedly, the surrounding ocean is warmed by the geothermal energy. Unsurprisingly, the water is still going to be too cold for this really make any difference.
It is popular for people to plunge from the beach if the water is calm. Ships will also arrange the polar plunge directly from the ship in the protected waters of Whaler’s Bay.
In the middle of its horseshoe shape are some of the calmest waters that can be found on the Antarctic Peninsula so naturally one of the top things to do around Deception Island is to go Kayaking in its bay. There’s really a no better place in Antarctica to go Kayaking.
With every paddle stroke, you will be fascinated with this area. Along the shoreline, you will find ruins of old ships, planes, and buildings that nature has taken over throughout the years. Along the shoreline, you will also find wildlife that’s as fascinated with you as you are of them.
Enjoy a waterfront view of Gentoo Penguins, Chinstrap Penguins, Leopard Seals, Elephant Seals, Weddell Seals, and even Peale’s Dolphins. There’s truly no other place in the Antarctic Peninsula like Deception Island.
With so much being located along its shoreline naturally, a popular thing to do is to explore Deception Islands coastline on a zodiac cruise. Taking advantage of everything in this area your expedition will probably offer this either before you explore the land or after you have explored the land. No matter what this will be a highlight of your trip to Antarctica.
The knowledgeable guides who give lectures on board are also on land and in the zodiac with you pointing out the wildlife, nature, and history of this area. The magic behind a zodiac cruise is none will be the same. It’s all based on where’s the wildlife and what else can you find. This is always changing.
Around Deception Island your zodiac cruise will head across the bay to a little beach where there will be Gentoo Penguins, Chinstrap Penguins, Leopard Seals, Elephant Seals, Weddell Seals, and even Peale’s Dolphins.
Then from there, you will head through the opening into the open sea where you will look at Neptune’s Bellows from the seaside. After that keep your eye to the water because once back into the bay you will be able to see whale bones sitting at the bottom in shallow water.
Deception Island is home to 11 protected areas because of its botanic and ecological values. The Island has the greatest number of rare plant species of any other place in the Antarctic. This is due to its volcanic activity that creates substrates for plant life.
Our experienced Quark Expeditions guides pointed out these sections to us and explored the uniqueness of this area.
Below are the 11 protected areas on Deception Island. As an expedition passenger, you will probably not visit any of these sites unless you are with a researcher. A permit is required for entry into any of those sites and you only can explore within the boundaries that are set up with your expedition staff. But we feel this is information you should know about.
- Collins Point (Site A): This site contains great examples of long-established vegetation, with high species diversity and several rarities.
- Crater Lake (Site B): Here you can find a scoria-covered lava tongue with a diverse cryptogamic flora that has exceptional development of turf-forming mosses.
- Southern End of Fumarole Bay (Site C): This site has many rare species of moss that have colonized the heated soil crust close to the line of the volcanic vents.
- Fumarole Bay (Site D): This is where you can find the most diverse flora on Deception Island.
- West Stonethrow Ridge (Site F): This site has a surface dating back to 1967 that allows accurate monitoring of colonization by plants and animals.
- Pendulum Cove (Site G): This site known-age site is being studied for its mosses and lichens.
- Mount Pond (Site H): This highest point contains exceptional moss, liverwort, and liches.
- Perchue Cone (Site J): This site contains many rare mosses.
- Ronald Hill to Kroner Lake (Site K): This is another known site that has numerous cryptogam species and a unique algal community that is found on the lakeshore.
- South East Point (Site L): This site supports the most extensive population of Antarctic pearwart know in the Antarctic region.
- There are also two marine sites that have been protected for their benthic communities.
Deception Island is one of Antarctica’s best kept historical sites/wildlife areas, so let’s keep it that way. As travelers, we need to think about the effects we have when we visit Antarctica.
If we do not do our part, Deception Island will become another one of those islands that are loved to death by the tourists who visit. We encourage all travelers to make sustainable choices when traveling.
Quark Expeditions is leading the way for responsible travel and sustainable tourism in Antarctica. Onboard we learned all about visiting Antarctica responsibly and what practices we would take there to ensure that we are not hurting the environment or its wildlife.
Below are simple responsible travel tips you should live by when visiting Antarctica:
- Clean all of your items before and after stepping foot on land
- Keep on marked paths
- Never bring food onto land
- Never feed the wildlife
- Always move slowly
- Never approach wildlife
- You should stay at least 6 feet away from all wildlife
- Never take a selfie with a wild animal (Even if you have a GoPro selfie stick)
- If a penguin does approach you, just let it have the right away and wait for it to pass
- Don’t stay with one too long, especially with babies, this can make them nervous
- Practice LNT (leave no trace )
- Respect your guides
- Understand what’s right and what’s not, we all want that award-winning photograph
Facts about Deception Island
Deception Island is a fascinating place. When visiting this location it cannot help to spark wonder about what it was like to travel across the torturous sea to end up on a landmass that’s pretty much unnatural.
While we were onboard our Quark Expedition ship we had an experienced and knowledgeable historian, who not only informed us about these historical facts on board but also onshore while we explored the locations.
Below are some facts about Deception Island that will help fuel the fascination of this location.
- Deception Island is in the shape of a horseshoe.
- January 1820 was the first authenticated sighting of Deception Island was by the British sealers William Smith and Edward Bransfield from the brig Williams.
- Deception Island was named by the United States sealer Nathaniel Palmer in 1820.
- In 1920 the Pendulum Cove became the base of the US sealing fleet led by Captain Pendleton.
- Deception Island was initially claimed by the British in the early 1800s but was abandoned in 1842 after volcanic eruptions.
- In 1829 the first scientific expedition to Antarctica landed on Deception Island. Led by the British Captain Henry Foster, visited aboard HMS Chanticleer in 1829.
- Lieutenant Kendall compiled a map of Deception Island, It was the first accurately surveyed map of an Antarctic landmass.
- While many countries have since staked a claim on Deception Island, it now falls under the remit of the Antarctic Treaty System.
- Deception Island was a popular whaling spot that operated from 1906 to 1907
- In 1928, the Australian Hubert Wilkins and the Canadian Carl Ben Eilson undertook the first powered flight in Antarctica on Deception Island.
- Deception Island was also the base of an early Aerial Survey Expedition from 1955-1957.
- During World War II Deception Island was a British military base.
- In 1842, William Smiley of the US sealing vessel Ohio gave the first account of a volcanic eruption on Deception Island.
- Following seismic unrest detected in April, a new eruption began at Deception Island on 4 December 1967.
- A short-lived eruption occurred on Deception Island in 1969 from a series of fissures under a thin (ca. 100 m thick) glacier
- Deception Island volcano had an eruption on 12 August 1970.
- Satellite images showed a plume from Deception Island in 23 July 1987 that extended ~100 km SE.
- Increased seismic activity and water temperatures in the caldera of Deception Island were detected in the austral summer 1990-91 by Spanish-Argentine scientists, but no eruption occurred.
- Chile, Argentina, and Spain all have research outposts on Deception Island but none are permanent due to its activity.
- Over a million penguins live in colonies on the outside of Deception Island during austral summer.
- Mount Pond is the highest point on Deception Island.
- There are 8 species of seabird breeds that can be found on Deception Island.
- The annual average air temperature of Deception Island is -3 degree Celsius and the average temperature ranges from 11°C to -28°C.
- Remains of the whaling tanks, whaling buildings, and the airplane hanger still exist.
- There’s even a small cemetery there.
Do you know a fact about Deception Island that we should add? Please let us know.
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Our trip to Antarctica was in partnership with Quark Expeditions, however all opinions are 100% mine, as always.
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