Life’s a Beach

16 07 2008

Deception 1

The latest in beachwear, summer collection (Deception Island, Antarctica)

Every winter, millions of people from the northern hemisphere migrate south to sun-drenched islands to lounge on a beach and swim in clear ocean waters.  It sounded like an excellent plan to me as I slipped into my swimsuit…except for one minor detail:

 

The island was called Deception…and I was in the Antarctic.

 

I have never been a particularly conventional sort. I’m not exactly a rebel, but I do enjoy snubbing the latest fad, rarely watch the highest-rated television programmes and never cheer for the favourite team. Sometimes though, my zest for the unusual gets the better of me…which was clearly the case as I prepared for a polar plunge.

 

It was late summer in the Antarctic and the weather was a few degrees above freezing. Over the past days we had explored the Antarctic Peninsula in glorious sunshine and driving snow and sleet. We had relished still mornings and weathered gale force afternoons, and now, as we sailed north, we stopped at Deception Island.

 

Deception is a volcanic island that sits off the Antarctic coast in the South Shetlands. The caldera of the volcano collapsed 10,000 years ago leaving a horseshoe-shaped island that can be entered through a very narrow channel. It is a stark vista of black volcanic sand, steaming fumaroles, cloud-capped peaks and the remnants of a scientific station that had been swept away by lava a few years ago.  Under a leaden sky the ocean was dark and uninviting and although the island provided some protection from the open seas, the water chopped and lashed as we sailed into its watery sanctum.

 

We donned heavy clothes over our sun togs and headed for the beach. The wind battered and buffeted as we bounced towards the shoreline before clambering out onto the black sand. Wisps of steam rose from thermal rivulets that wound down to the ocean. We set to work with a shovel, dug a shallow pit not far from the shore and allowed it to fill with a few inches of the hot water. Once done, we stripped off, dashed through the chill and into the pool. Despite the brutal wind whipping in from the sea, the water was warm and reasonably comfortable even if the view was more Apocalypse than Acapulco.

 

Deception 2

“The black sand beaches attract ecstatic travellers from all over the world” 

I had experienced intense, mind-numbing, body-wracking cold before. An early morning outdoor cold shower in the windswept highlands of Landmannalaugur, Iceland, had left me shivering like a frightened Chihuahua. Childhood dips in the North Sea had me wishing my parents would sell me to the circus to be raised by trained chimps, but nothing compared to the agony of standing on an Antarctic beach, soaking wet, desperately trying to get dressed.

 

My fingers were blocks of wood that could barely pick up my clothes never mind lace boots or close a zip. My body twitched and convulsed involuntarily. My teeth would have chattered like hail on a tin roof…if my jaws hadn’t been frozen shut and the goose bumps resembled a stippled ceiling. The longer it took to get dressed, the colder I became. We’re not talking mere shrinkage here, we’re talking permanent dismemberment!

 

The zodiac trip back to the ship was a test of endurance…but the heat once on board and a tumbler of scotch (no ice!) soon had every extremity buzzing and humming with life-giving warmth and renewed circulation. I was exhilarated, rejuvenated and certifiably mad.

 

Back at home in the remnants of a Canadian winter, I was asked where I had gone on vacation. I replied that I had been lying on a deserted beach, swimming in clear water and just relaxing on a distant southern island. They said it sounded idyllic…and, hiding my blue fingernails, I had to agree that it was.

 

Photos and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

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One response

21 07 2008
John Walter

Wild! Ok, so it’s not Antarctic or anything, but for anyone who wants to take a crack at a Polar Bear Dip, there’s on in Oakville each year on January 1st, raises money for charity – http://www.polarbeardip.ca/

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