In 1967, Graham Seear was one of the youngest people ever to work in Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey. A single man with no ties, he was looking for adventure, but on Dec 4th 1967, he got more than he bargained for when the volcanic island on which he was based, erupted. Trapped on a piece of rock 2000km from civilization, Graham and the rest of the team had no way of knowing if the world realized what was happening, or if help would arrive in time to save their lives.
“The eruption looked just like an atomic bomb” recalls Graham. He knows he was lucky to survive the dramatic events of 1967. Yet they only came to wider attention recently, when Graam re-discovered his diaries, black and white photos and – best of all – colour cine film of the eruption, all of which have now been made into a book and a short film.
Graham and the rest of the 15 man team were not the first to experience the power of Deception Island. Horseshoe-shaped and barely 14kms across, a 19th century whaling captain witnessed the island’s volcanoes erupting and described it as ‘the mouth of the dragon.” Yet by the 1960’s, Deception Island was thought to be safe.
“I knew it was volcanic, but the scientists said it was dormant.” laughs Graham.
A science research team, the British were not the only people on Deception that year and a Chilean team based a mile and a half away were welcome company through the endless dark winter. Unlike the British, the Chileans had a seismologist, but still Graham remains perplexed as to how signs of what was about to happen were missed, or misinterpreted. Raised on a farm, Graham noticed the Antarctic spring was too quiet.
“Suddenly,” he recalls “there was no wildlife…and there was a stillness about the place, which was quite weird.”
The day the supply ship departed after its annual visit, Graham noticed it was covered with the little birds that weren’t good flyers; they were hitching a lift! As station engineer, Graham was not involved in the scientific research, but he became increasingly concerned about the growing tremors on the island – fears confirmed when the tremors began in earnest and the sea temperature rose 4 degrees in one day. The scientists however, believed the volcano was settling down.
On December 4th, the British team were sitting down to dinner, when a massive shudder threw them from their chairs amid flying pots
and pans. Rushing outside, they witnessed the first of several volcanic eruptions rip the island apart. With huge presence of mind, Graham filmed
continuously using a cine camera as, just one short mile away, the first massive explosions threw a mushroom cloud of super heated ash and rock 17,000 feet into the air, falling on the base.
“All I could think about was Pompeii.” recalls Graham, as sulphur rolled across the island. The team then discovered that dramatic electro-magnetic
storms had also jammed the island’s radio links with the outside world. Fortunately, the sub-zero temperatures meant the lava was solidified and ejected as huge rocks, which smacked, hissing, into the bay.
They were isolated. The Chilean base appeared to be directly in the path of the volcanic vents opening up and they were all were thousands miles from civilization; a world that might not even know of their perilous situation. With radio contact down, Graham and his colleagues had no idea when – or if – they would be rescued.
Graham and a friend, Shawn, were asked by the station commander to leave the dubious safety of the base, take a small boat with an outboard motor and rescue anyone they could from the Chilean base. It was a dangerous, even foolhardy attempt that Graham abandoned when he saw the boats were high and dry. New fissures in the seabed had sucked the bay dry prior to a tsunami-like surge of the Antarctic Ocean.
It was a night Graham will never forget. “We were very frightened,” he says “the darkness, the ash falling, the anxiety…”
Some of that anxiety was relived several hours later when the Chilean team staggered onto the British base, having walked across a glacier through
the storm. By morning a message got out and that afternoon, both teams were rescued by the Chilean Navy, whose helicopter pilots showed extreme courage.
A new island appeared in the centre of the bay and Deception Island was eventually abandoned as a research station, although cruise ships now make briefs stops there. Graham however, was keen to come home and cut short his two year posting.
“I’d had enough of adventure by then!” he laughs.
The full story of Graham’s adventure can be found in a book for younger readers called The Day The Island Exploded , written by his daughter-in-law, the author Alexandra Pratt (published by Barrington Stoke). http://www.barringtonstoke.co.uk/search.asp or
You can read more from Alexandra Pratt @http://www.alexandrapratt.com