Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Taphophile Tragics

Last week saw the springing to life of a new meme from Julie at Sydney Eye - Taphophile Tragics. New to me, the word taphophile refers to someone who is attracted to cemeteries and has an interest in musing on the history of those who have passed. A bit morbid for me I thought although I seemed to have enough of a passing interest to flick through fellow bloggers who had added their stories to the theme. 

However, this week starting to edit photos from my travel to Antarctica this year I came across images from Deception Island. Formed from a collapsed volcanic cone, Deception Island is one of the South Shetland Islands.  To enter the island's harbour, our ship had to navigate through Neptunes Bellows - a 230 metre wide break in the volcanic wall that channels strong winds through the strait. The striking rock formations at the entrance belie the dangerous rocks that lay just beneath the surface and on either side of the channel.

It's remote here and the environment is harsh. From 1906 to 1931 whaling was carried out at Deception Island. In 1908, Britain which had formally claimed the island as part of the Falkland Island Dependencies gave a lease to a Norwegian whaling company. One of the reasons for this was to ensure better processing of whales. Until then only the blubber had been used to collect whale oil leaving the carcasses which contained much of the whale oil to rot. Under the new regime the meat and bones were boiled down by the onshore station. About 5000 whales could be processed this way annually. 

I enjoy travelling to out of the way places, seeing human endeavour and how people living in remote regions go about their daily lives. On Deception Island however it was hard to comprehend what would drive people to live in such an inhospitable place away from families and civilisation for years on end. Due to illness or misfortune some would never return to their homelands. No doubt some (maybe many) would have opted to escape to these remote parts to avoid a fate probably worse than the living conditions at Deception Island.

The Whalers Bay cemetery was once a graveyard for some 45 men. In such a remote environment death seems harsh and with homelands on the other side of the world, lonely and alone.  In 1969 a volcanic eruption melted the glacier above the shores of Whalers Bay and the ensuing mudslide buried the cemetery under several metres of sand. Some of the cemetery's simple wooden coffins were tossed about by the mud and water and now lie open and empty on the black volcanic earth. 

I can only wonder what the working and living conditions would have been like. According to Lonely Planet's Antarctica, Charcot a visitor to the island in 1908 wrote:

We find two three-masters and two steam vessels, surrounded by several little steam-whalers, this fleet belonging to three different companies. Pieces of whale float about on all sides, and bodies in the process of being cut up or waiting their turn lie alongside the various boats. The smell is unbearable.

Stories of the challenges of whaling life and the dreadful stench were also repeated in the wonderful and informative museum on South Georgia. 

The bay where we landed was a huge desolate graveyard - whale bones (there are two huge whale skeletons in the above image), boats and buildings slowly disintegrating. Huge boilers and tanks from the whaling station operations lay heaped together in a junk pile by the shore. 

The volcanic rim of Deception Island is considered by volcanologists to be a 'restless caldera with a significant volcanic risk'. Nor is there much comfort in getting away from the island if there was an eruption without warning. It would seem to be almost impossible to get out of the bay through the 230 metres gap in such an emergency and when we were there the winds were enough to make the entry and exit extremely difficult and that was on a clear day! 

You can click here to see other contributions to Taphophile Tragics. 


  1. This is quite an essay with great photos to match. I was particularly drawn to the old boat resting on land. I shall follow your link to the new meme to see what I can see!

  2. Very interesting post and great shots Rae. Thanks.

  3. The first shot will be a fabulous entry into Julie's theme, such a lonely looking grave. What a brilliant post Rae, you certainly have some very interesting travels.

  4. What a fascinating story. Thank you so much for the wonderful photos of a place I will most likely never see in person.

  5. Great stuff! Great photos and interesting background.

  6. Wonderful tragics here Rae - and they all have a story to tell.

  7. What a salutary post, Rae!

    The text and the images so well balanced to convey your story. And what a story it is. My nostrils filled with the vile stench, and the bleakness whipped around my heart. What drives people to live in such beautifully desolate places on this earth? And how extreme is this earth that a glacier could be melted by molten lave pushing rubble over its surface like flotsam.

    I love everything about this post, and am so appreciative of your contribution to Taphophile Tragics. You add much to our variety and to our quality.

    Thank you.

  8. What a wonderful post. The top shot evokes the harsh loneliness you describe. I am amazed at the variety of posts that are appearing on this meme.

  9. A fascinating post and great photos. They are perfectly alien. My grandfather sailed to the other desolate end of the world a couple of times on a US Coast Guard Cutter, and I've found the subject fascinating. It's nice to meet you and your blog :-)