Animal Life in Volcanic Antarctica

in Island

On Deception Island ice, volcanic heat and wildlife exist together. Deception Island, an old sunken volcano, lies 100 kilometres off the Antarctic Peninsula. On the outside it looks like a black, glaciated Antarctic island. Yet, as its name implies it is deceptive; inside the 12 km by 8 km island is a 6 km by 4 km mass of water, Port Foster. Neptunes Bellow, the entry channel from the outside sea is only 500 metres wide.

Humans who have lived on this cold island since the beginning of the 20th century have felt volcanic activity. At low tide one's hand could be scalded if you put it into the black volcanic sand. In 1921 the sea boiled, and in 1930 there was a 5-metre drop in the sea floor. The 1967 eruptions from the side of Mont Pond led to the destruction of the Chilean scientific base, and two years later the British base was left uninhabitable as ice and mud swept down the mountain. Though few humnas now live on Deception Island it still has wildlife. Several invertebrates, including the largest Antarctic land animal, a wingless midge a centimeter in length, live here. Lichens and moss grow on the island even after the eruptions, and the only two flowering plants in the Antarctic, hair grasss and pearlwort, are increasing here though most of this is due to global warming.

Inside Deception island the wide gentle volcanic beaches would seem attractive to wildlife, but for most animals the underground heat is yet another Antarctic hazard. A few seals, mostly fur seals, haul themselves up on the black sand in order to rest. An occasional exhausted crabeater seal displays 2 centimetre scars around its body where it has managed to escape an aging killer whale. A few gentoo and chinstrap penguins wander along the shore. Antarctic terns nest among the volcanic boulders, and on the dark brown lava cliffs above are the nests of black and white Cape pigeons and tiny Wilson petrels. There is a lot of space on the inner Deception Island, but few marine animals use it.

Under Port Foster the sea is warm with the occasional release of volcanic steam, and here there is more life. Notothenia, scuplin look-alike fish with large heads and small bodies inhabit the water as does krill, a shrimp life creature a couple of centimetres long. Several thousand krill can be found in a cubic metre of seawater; they feed on tiny phytoplankton. Most Antarctic sea life depends on krill for food. Deception Island's seabed is home to sea cucumbers, sea urchins, limpets, and yellow brittle stars. The life is less prolific than it was before the volcanic eruptions in the 1960s, but especially nearer to Neptunes Bellows divers have found much to see and photograph.

On the outer part of Deception Island with less volcanic activity, there is a chinstrap penguin rookery numbering 100,000 pairs. Thousands of penguins nest, from the glacial ice near the top of the mountain down to the black sand at the coast. For some the walk to the sea is more than one kilometer of a waddling gauntlet between other pecking penguins. Those returning with fish for the young face a similar gauntlet. On the black beacb, hundreds of chinstrap penguins plunge into the sea, and hundreds land on the sand as the waves crash shore. Off shore lone leopard seals cruise for their lunch.

Some 10,000 tourists a year visit this icy, volcanic Antarctic island to view the scenery and the wildlife. Some even bathe in the volcanically heated seawater.

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Michael Warr has 1 articles online

Michael Warr worked as a meteorologist and dog handler in the Antarctic in the 1960s. He returned as an Antarctic tourist on an icebreaker in 2005, and was an Antarctic historian on a cruise ship in 2006.

He taught in British Columbia and is now retired. Michael's activities are running, reading and gardening. He may be reached at

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Animal Life in Volcanic Antarctica

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This article was published on 2010/04/04