Detaille Island Hut A brief history

From 1956 to 1959, Detaille Island Hut (66º52'S, 66º48'W) was home to Base W of the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (the precursor to the British Antarctic Survey). Following a hasty evacuation due to encroaching sea ice, the hut remains incredibly rich in artefacts and is one of the best preserved of our bases. However, the site is also the hardest one to reach. Designated Historic Site and Monument no. 83, Detaille has been managed by UKAHT since 2009.

The Original Escape Room

Located in the Lallemand Fjord, off the Loubet Coast, Detaille Island hut was established in 1956 and used primarily for mapping, geology and meteorology, contributing to the science programmes of the International Geophysical Year in 1957. However, the site was abandoned in dramatic circumstances just two years later, when unrelenting sea ice prompted an emergency escape across the ice sheet.

Humble beginnings

Detaille came from humble beginnings. The structure here, like on Horseshoe, is an original Boulton and Paul prefab that was assembled using detailed architectural drawings. The building features a bunkroom, meteorological office, toilet and washroom, radio room, kitchen-diner, lounge and office, as well as a sledging workshop, generator shed and kennels. An adjoining emergency refuge now sits off-limits but can be viewed from the outside.

A sharp exit

The site was initially well-used. Scientists occupied the base, running experiments in geology and meteorology, evidence of which can still be viewed in the building’s own Met office. As the sea froze over, the staff would cross the sea ice to the mainland of the peninsula to carry out surveys. But in 1959, everything changed when it became clear that conditions would impede the crew from reaching the supply boat, leaving them with insufficient food to survive. Taking matters into their own hands, the team sledged over 30 miles across the ice to reach their boat.

Frozen in time

They left almost everything behind, except the sledges they escaped on and their work, which included geological samples. However, many personal possessions were left behind. Detaille remained abandoned for almost four decades but is very well preserved: a frozen-in-time snapshot of an archetypal sledging base and science facility. Some repair work has been carried out but otherwise, the base acts as an almost perfect time capsule with minimal curation and interpretation on display.

Younger sibling

The base at Detaille, along with its counterpart on Horseshoe Island, was at the centre of Britain’s contribution to the International Geophysical Year (1957-58). Detaille, Horseshoe’s younger sibling, was made from the same flat-pack DNA but distinguished by a differently-orientated generator shed. Despite its exceptional condition, there has been some natural degradation of building materials and artefacts. Chimney flues have come out and snow melt has seeped down to damage the stove and wood burner, leaving them rusty and decayed. The building was originally painted black and could be repainted if this can be done with limited environmental impact.

Steve the dog

An Antarctic adventure right up there with the Heroic Age. On 31 March 1959, the Detaille team and their dogs sledged across the sea ice to meet their waiting ship. As the dogs were being hoisted aboard, one of them, Steve, escaped. Nearly three months later, everyone at Horseshoe was astounded to see Steve running happily over the hill, fit and well. From his healthy condition, it was clear he had returned to Detaille and lived on the old seal pile from which the dogs had been fed. As midwinter approached and his companions failed to return, he must have decided to go and look for them and retraced his steps all the way to Horseshoe.

The site today

Despite its remote location and a series of submerged rocks that must be manoeuvred on the approach to the landing site, Detaille still receives over 5,000 (2022/23) tourists per year. As the site remains relatively unaltered since its abandonment, it provides a fascinating insight into the science and living conditions at research bases when the Antarctic Treaty was first signed in 1959.

Photography credits: UK Ministry of Defence CROWN COPYRIGHT, 2022, Belinda Aiker, RN; David Moore; Ruth Mullett; BAS Archives; Phil Wickens; John Graham; Tudor Morgan; UKAHT.