Letter from Lockroy - December 2007

Letter From Lockroy - 11 December 2007

 Another season at Lockroy is well under way and it is only ten days to the longest day. We have enjoyed some wonderful blue sky days recently and Lockroy looks particularly stunning at the moment with so much fresh snow on the mountains round about. November was unusually cold, snowy and unsettled, feeling much more like you might imagine Antarctica to be. There were a few calm, stunningly beautiful sunny days but many more windy ones with lots of snow. One of the notable features this season is just how much sea ice there is blowing around in all the channels and straits. This has restricted the movements of some of the ships and meant that some were unable to visit Lockroy.

 One of the first ships to arrive at Lockroy this season was National Geographic Endeavour. They kindly offered to take us on cruise south of Lockroy to the Lemaire Channel and on down to Petermann Island, home to lots of Adelie and Gentoo penguins. There were no ships due to visit us for a day or two so we were able to jump at the chance. What a wonderful cruise this turned out to be. It was one of the fine, calm sunny days in November and south of the Lemaire, pack ice covered the sea adding to drama of the beauty of this spectacular area. The National Geographic Endeavour is well suited to working in pack ice and we were able to make our way all the way round the Argentine Islands in heavy pack ice in calm conditions and bright sunshine. A day never to forget.

Tudor Morgan who had been helping us establish ourselves at Lockroy this season managed to hitch a ride up to Ushuaia on National Geographic Endeavour, leaving the three of us to face whatever this season has in store. The ships started to visit in increasing numbers during the latter half of November as the ice conditions improved. There were a number of visits when the wind and snow made it horrid to be outside and the visitors from the ships were pleased to be within the shelter of Bransfield house. Amongst the ships that came to visit was the new Hurtigruten ship Fram. This felt like a really historic moment as she came out of the Neumayer Channel and into view at Lockroy for the first time. She seems to be a marvellous vessel signalling a new age and design of expedition cruise ships. Another memorable moment was the first visit of the season by the sailing ship Bark Europa. She came under full sail into the bay at Lockroy from out of the Peltier Channel in glorious sunshine in the middle of the day. This was a sight to behold and one that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. We were able to share an evening on board with them and a couple of shore excursions in the local vicinity. As many of you will have read, one of the cruise ships, Explorer that has visited here many times in the past will not be visiting again. Sadly she hit ice on here way here on the 23rd of November and sunk. Fortunately everyone was rescued. There were many good friends of Lockroy aboard.

 The penguin breeding season has been delayed by a couple of weeks here at Lockroy due to the heavy snow cover on the island. It really was quite a tough start for the penguins this year. So much snow made it difficult for them to find the bare ground and stones for their nest and when they finally established them selves on their nests the snow kept blowing over them. On a few mornings we came out to find the penguins on nests by the front door completely covered in snow with just their beaks poking out. It sounds like some of the penguin rookeries further north on the Peninsula have suffered even more severely from unusually high snow fall. We have just completed the first nest and egg count of the season and despite all the early nesting difficulties we find that we have 617 nests and most of them have two eggs. This is almost exactly the same number of nests as we had last season at the same time. The first eggs were laid on the 18th November and so we expect the first chicks to hatch around the 18th of December. Most will be at least a week later than this. There seem to be fewer skuas around the penguin nesting sites this season and the number of eggs in the nests suggests there has not been as much egg predation as last season at this time. However the sheathbill numbers still seem to be increasing and numerous penguin eggs seem to be being stolen by them.

Other wildlife observations this season include a considerable increase in the number of Antarctic terns on the island. It is wonderful to see so many of these beautiful birds in full breading plumage, all attempting to find nesting sites around the island. There has been an enormous ice berg stuck just off Goudier since we arrived over a month ago. It has attracted numerous types of petrels that appear to be feeding on the unfortunate victims that are stirred up by the ice grinding on the sea bed where the berg is stuck. Birds regularly seen feeding there include giant petrels, Wilson’s storm petrels, snow petrels and cape petrels. On the evening of the 12th December the ice berg exploded! It was amazing sight and what a noise. Just about every bird in Antarctica arrived to feed on what had been stirred up by the explosion. Now all that is left is brash ice piling up on the beach as the wind is blowing from the south. There have been a surprising number of visits from Chinstrap and Adelie penguins on the island this year. It is quite comical to watch the smaller Chinstrap penguins trying to boss around the larger more placid Gentoo penguins.

We seem to have settled down into the way of life at Lockroy now. The girls have the shop and post office looking really good and business seems to be brisk. Rachel and Helen have both proved themselves to be more than capable carpenter’s assistants when helping Rick on a few home improvement projects and building a new bench for the batteries in the old generator shed. Photography has reached new heights at Lockroy this season both the girls have state of the art digital SLR cameras and some of their results have been stunning. The Port Lockroy fitness and running club has a full membership and members have already been seen regularly running round the island and partaking in advanced yoga classes in the shop. We continue to surprise ourselves with the quality of the meals that we are able to turn out from our two burner stove. Curry still seems to be the favourite dish. Anything with custard on it qualifies as a favourite pudding. A morning ritual of porridge making has developed, never the same from one morning to the next as we all take turns to make it to our own preference. Rachel continues to spend most of her spare time writing in her journal and keeping her blog up to date. What a wonderful record of our day to day life. Helen spends most of her spare time knitting, we are not supposed to know what she is knitting but it is black and white with a few bits of yellow on it. Could it be a penguin! Rick has managed to read a couple of books already, more than he managed the entire season last year. Rick's birthday was a memorable occasion, both the girls were kind to him all day, quite a remarkable achievement in itself. Presents included, bright green noppen balls (apparently essential paraphernalia for advanced yoga), fancy foot cream for doggy feet and a mate for pooping penguin and a resupply of poops.(Plastic toys that provide hours of amusement to poor soles abandoned on a desert island).

Last week a film crew from Rockhopper TV joined us for three nights. The crew Joseph Loncraine and Victoria Balfour fitted into life at Lockroy perfectly and the camera never seemed to stop rolling. We are trying to produce a half hour information film on Britain’s Antarctic heritage, particularly on the Peninsula, highlighting why success at Port Lockroy is so important for its future. It will be shown on the cruise ships that are unable to have one of the Lockroy team come out to do the presentation. This film will be produced in French, German and Spanish as well as English. It was fantastic to work with two young film makers that obviously shared our enthusiasm for Lockroy and the UKAHT.

Who knows what tales we will have to tell in the next instalment on this diary but as we enter into the height of the Antarctic summer we are all grateful for our good fortune to be in such an amazing location. A few nights ago we enjoyed the first pisco sour evening, sitting down at the landing chains looking out over the sea across Port Lockroy as the sun was setting and the penguins returned from their days feeding. It does not get much better than this!

Rick, Helen, and Rachel