A young Antarctic fur seal perched on his two flippers moves his weight backwards and forwards as if ready for a fight. Then, he dips his powerful head and swings it around in a deep circle. He opens his mouth and he gives a lazy war cry, then sighs. His youthful wild eyes are locked on ours, but he seems too weighed down by his heavy weight of blubber to do anything more than pout. He is located at a reasonable distance away, about 15 or more meters from us.
This young fur seal is not our only company. Seals surround us. Usually at 15 meters, the juvenile seals lose interest in puffing out their chests and doing a warrior’s dance for show. (Maybe this bold guy will lose interest soon.)
Where we are standing now is as good as anywhere to begin what we have to do, because we are running out of time. Decaying boilers, which were once full of whale oil (abandoned back in 1931) are right beside us too, and create a buffer from the wind.
We are not going to find a better location for an interview today –we know we need to get this done quickly, so we still have time to film some final shots of seals before we must return back to the One Ocean Expedition ship, and return north back home across the high seas.
The seal in the distance is still puffing his chest, but the marine biologists we are with do not seem concerned about our furry onlooker full of brawn and might. They are watching him, and will tell us if we need to move.
So, James looks around cautiously and then bends down to lay his tripod and camera bag onto the ground ready to set up our final interview. We have a plan - first, we will interview Associate Professor Ari Friedlaender, a marine mammal biologist from University of Oregon, followed by his research assistant, Caroline Casey from the University of California, USA.
Together, we are currently standing at Whaler’s Bay on Deception Island in Antarctica. We have sailed right through a channel into the middle of a submerged volcanic crater where a hot spring makes the water slightly less ‘Antarctic’ close to shore. Some of the other guests on board the expedition vessel will later take the polar plunge before they return to the ship today. They will strip themselves of their warm protective layers, baring their naked selves to the cruelest elements of the end of the Earth. They will plunge their pale shivering bodies into ‘slightly’ warmer water at the edge of the sea, and will come running straight back out again, chilled like frost by the cool wind.
However, my limits of adventure stop right here.
Antarctica is very unforgiving to strangers, especially to those warm-blooded Australians not used to the southern chill. But, as I have said before, it is all part of the adventure, (even if you choose to just be an onlooker at times). The common theme, which lures everyone here, is the wilderness of Antarctica - its sheer raw wild spirit. Its unpredictability.
So, James kneels down, and the juvenile charges at him. James runs. The seal manages to lunge its plump body forward at a very fast pace – heading straight for James. Plomp. Plomp.
‘Run’ I yell at James, who has his back to the seal! ‘Run’ I call out, again.
Plomp. Plomp. Here, he comes.
Seriously, getting bitten right now by a seal would not end well. We still have a lot to do before we leave this island. Move faster, James. The seal is closing in.
Thankfully, Ari, (who looks somewhat like a big grizzly bear unafraid of much), steps forward and lunges and loudly claps his hands. Then, finally the seal falters a little in its step, grunts and retreats.
Today, this burly young chap has met his match - an American marine mammal biologist towering over its head, shaking his rugged beard.
Finally, we are ready to set up this interview with Ari. However, as soon as we go to set it up and ask our first question, a large group of expedition guests walks past, and so we must wait.
It is a long wait.
We watch one guest get chased by a seal, and then when we set up the interview again, there are problems with a rustling noise against Ari’s down jacket, and then a couple of stragglers pass by too.
We can see that Ari is as keen as us to finish this interview, so he can explore this extraordinary island. I say ‘extraordinary’ because when you look at Deception Island from the ship from a panoramic perspective, you see a most unusual sight: this place is an artist’s dream. It fits right in with the surrealist genre.
This is what you see: beside the calm salty sea that floods the mouth of the live volcano and beneath the towering black volcanic cliffs, the soil is a rich chocolate brown, and perched precariously on its surface is a ghost town. The old wooden-beamed quarters of where the whalers must have worked and slept are slightly sagging. When you look inside those haunting dark windows, it is like looking into the ominous soul of human history. Strewn across the landscape are old copper bits of beams, boilers and scrap metal. Our human legacy has been scattered everywhere, even here at the end of the Earth.
The boilers look as if they are sinking strangely into the ground. And, the elements and age have moulded their sickly bodies in a sloping fashion at various degrees. I think the bronzed copper works rather well in terms of blending in with the backdrop of the soil cover and the dark brown seal fur dotted sporadically across the landscape, occupying even the darkest of shadows.
Usually, I would think that a ghost town like this is a mournful place, as it was once a place where culture and people once thrived but for some tragic reason all was lost.
However, here, the story of this place is different. It’s unique.
This old town has a happy ending.
Today, it is an energetic landscape full of youthful fur seals, hundreds of them sparring with one another. The seals gather in twos and threes, and sometimes in larger packs, doing their boisterous warrior’s dance.
The rawness of nature when man is outnumbered is a rare site to see - and Whaler’s Bay is one of those special places. It was not so long ago that the ancestors of these Antarctic fur seals were hunted to the brink of extinction. They were skinned here for their pelts, blubber and meat until their populations slumped so low that the whalers took over at the beginning of the 1900s. However, with the end of commercial sealing in 1931, the fur seal ends up being one of the species that has a fairy tale ending.
Their numbers have rebounded to a healthy size today.
Here, nature has reclaimed her castle. She owns it entirely.
Finally, we finish the interview, which we set out to do earlier on. The researchers are free to roam - but with a rather cautious step. We turn our camera to the seals, grunting and barking like wild packs of dogs. They are guarding what is theirs. As we tread carefully through this ghost town, it is clear that it is no longer ‘man’s’ territory. We are no longer truly free to do as we like here. And, it is wonderful. It feels rather liberating to stand in a rare place like this.
Here, another species dominates a space, which we thought belonged to us. Who would have thought that after our power-filled eras of sealing and whaling, that various missions to Antarctica would try to reoccupy this abandoned town, only to be finally forced out by the havoc of a volcanic eruption?
The red-hot fury of Earth had finally risen.
Man essentially has been banished. So, perhaps it is a deceiving thought to think that man can at all tame nature like we tried to do so long ago on Deception Island, just as was believed in many generations before and even today wherever we go. There is a reason why we come as ‘guests’ to this foreign land and are instructed before we step foot on it to be mindful of nature and stay a fair distance from the seals.
Everyone on this island knows that if we walk too close to one of these young sparring seals, it would make us pay a price. The seal would make us pay with a hard nip to the skin.
I think everyone on board the One Ocean Expedition ship knows it is better this way, to give nature her space to survive and thrive.
The thing I love most about this bay is that it is a reminder that the more we let nature return to her former glory, the more exciting all of our adventures will be across the 21st century and beyond for generations to come.
Which adventurer wouldn’t want to visit somewhere as rich in history and wildlife as this? There is so much to be gained from watching sparring seals.