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Fire within Antarctica's Ice

Deception Island is as intriguing as its name. Ben Groundwater explores the history, wildlife and geothermal waters of this Antarctic volcano.

It seems, at first, like the last thing you would want to do. Go swimming in Antarctica? Strip down to your smalls and dive into the icy depths? No chance. Except, of course, the depths aren’t icy. Not here, anyway. Not at Deception Island, an active volcano that has sunk down to the lip of its caldera. It’s an almost perfect ring of land with numerous hot springs – torrents of warm water that flow into its otherwise freezing lagoon. 

So yes, you can swim at Deception Island. If you pick the right spot. If you dig up the volcanic black sand on one of its many beaches and create a shallow pool to relax in, you’ll experience the bizarre feeling of soaking in a warm bath while taking in the glacial beauty of Antarctica
View of Deception Island of Shetland Islands, Antarctica
But that amazing opportunity is not the only drawcard of Deception Island. This volcanic outcrop in the South Shetland archipelago, near the Antarctic Peninsula, is a ruggedly charming place that you soon learn has a history as both provider of safety and creator of danger. 
image of Shetland Islands Sheltered harbour
Its harbour, known as Port Foster, is one of the safest in the great southern continent, with calm waters that are almost completely encircled and protected by land (the “deception” is that some ships miss spotting the narrow gap in the caldera). For centuries, sailors have been hiding out here, avoiding everything from storms to icebergs. 
However, Deception Island is also an active volcano, one that has often destroyed the attempts of fishermen and scientists to set up bases here, forcing them to flee. The shells of those early settlers’ existences can still be seen on Deception Island’s treeless terrain. You might, for instance, spot the wrecked hulls of old boats and the skeletal remains of the boilers used by the sealers and whalers who took safe harbour in the 1820s. 
View of rusted ship, deception island
You will certainly see the remains of research bases set up by the British and Chileans back in the 1940s and 1950s, abandoned after two volcanic eruptions. And there’s a good chance of catching a glimpse of the Spanish research station on the banks of Deception Island, which is still staffed and utilised today.
The scientists on the island aren’t alone, however. The most famous inhabitants of Deception Island are more than 100,000 mating pairs of chinstrap penguins – a huge colony, thought to be one of the largest in the world. Spend a little time here, watching the penguins in action, and you could almost picture yourself joining them for a swim
Group of pengiuns standing together on land, Antarctica