Alan's personal diary - December 2006

Port Lockroy – 52 Years on!

A personal missive by Alan Carroll (written March 2007)


Alan Carroll spent two years at Port Lockroy between 1954 and 1957. Since then he has helped the Trust in documenting the history of Port Lockroy as well as restoring many artefacts now returned to the base. In December he was asked by the Trust to go to Port Lockroy to undertake tasks that no-one was better qualified to do.

Having been invited by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust to return to Base ‘A’ to do some work on site and to evaluate the inventory of artefacts, I set off for Ushuaia on 19 December 2006, flying via Madrid and Buenos Aires. The flight from Buenos Aires had been delayed, resulting in my arriving in Ushuaia eight hours later than anticipated, no more than a minor inconvenience. Arriving just before midnight I was greeted by Carlos, the proprietor of the charming guesthouse Poseda Costa Serena. This ideal stopover location is situated close to the docks and built in the traditional style.

Full of enthusiasm, next afternoon I went down to the nearby jetty to board the Lyubov Orlova, one of the Russian ships operated by Quark Expeditions, and settled in before she set off through the Beagle Strait into the Drake Passage. Compared to my original journey south on the old John Biscoe which took around 35 days from Southampton to the Falkland Islands, this was a remarkably smooth passage, made even more so by the fact that she was six times larger than the old Biscoe. The standard of accommodation and food on board Orlova was a revelation – one more example of how the world has changed since 1954, when I shared a cabin with fifteen others on the Biscoe.

                         Orlova

 Aided by a relatively smooth sea, our transit of the Drake Passage proved to be quicker than expected, permitting an additional landing to be made on Aitcho Island en route to Port Lockroy, as well as the routine visits to the Weddell Sea, the South Shetlands, the South Orkneys and the northwest coast of the Peninsula. On the afternoon of 27 November, I came ashore at Base ‘A’ on the first Zodiac, to be welcomed by Rick Atkinson, Jo Hardy and Sally Owen. To the day, it was exactly 52 years since I first stepped ashore on Goudier Island.

Before I left the UK, friends had asked whether this was to be a sentimental journey but, in truth, this was not the case. Having been involved behind the scenes with Port Lockroy for the past ten years, there were few surprises awaiting me, although inside the hut I soon decided that the bunk beds built by Len Fox in 1957 were nothing like as comfortable as the earlier sprung beds, but then maybe my bones had stiffened-up over the years!

The most significant thing I noticed was the impact of the nesting Gentoo penguins on the face of Goudier Island. Naturally, I would never question their right to do so, but the establishment of the penguin colony some twenty years ago has drastically changed the appearance of the place. Walking around the island, the absence of diesel generator noise and the long-departed seven antenna masts were to be expected. Accepting the smell from the penguins, what was most noticeable was that all the lichens, the moss beds and their resident insect colonies, and the limpet shell-filled crevices in the rocks, left behind by generations of nesting gulls, had all but disappeared. The boulder retaining-wall built by Ivan Mackenzie Lamb in 1944 to contain his experimental garden is still in place, although most of the soil he imported has been eroded away.

                     Antarctic mosses

The date of establishment of the Gentoo penguin colony on Goudier Island long after the Base was closed is open to question. It was presumably brought about by an overspill of birds from Jougla and Lecuyer Points and no date is definitively recorded, although a newspaper report in July 1989 stated that ‘penguins had stolen two-and-a-half tons of Her Britannic Majesty’s anthracite to build nests on Goudier Island.’ In his 1914 publication, Gain recorded Adelie penguins nesting at Lecuyer Point in 1908/9, with Gentoo penguins nesting at Jougla Point. Having completed the first regional bird census in 1954, I found no Adelie penguins nesting at Lecuyer Point, although at this time they had a small colony at nearby Biscoe Bay but this is now no longer occupied.

Most visitors to the Base are amazed to see penguins nesting not only directly adjacent to the front door, but even underneath the hut. The visitors are quietly amused to see the penguins so unconcerned and take great care when passing them, reassured to learn that this has been happening for the past ten years. Disturbance is kept to a minimum and even when the team is sitting outside in the sun having coffee, the cut and thrust of nature is not interfered with, and no attempt is made to intervene when a skua steals an egg or a chick a matter of a few feet away.

Installation of a low-voltage lighting system in the bedroom and radio room and the wiring-up of maintenance-free batteries took a couple of days, and now there was no longer any need to light a Tilley lamp when visitors arrived to view the exhibits. The next task was to check as much of the artefact inventory as possible before setting up two of the rooms to reproduce as closely as possible how the Base looked when fully operational. Compromises had to be made, as during every year of occupancy changes in layout were made by base members to suit the work in hand, and to improve working conditions. To this end, by 1958 Base ‘A’ had gained the reputation of being ‘less like a base and more like a gentleman’s club.’

It was a delight to meet so many visitors and show them around the geospace gear that had been the mainstay of operations for two-thirds of the time the Base was occupied. As the one ‘living museum exhibit’ on site, I rapidly lost count of how many times my photograph was taken – usually alongside a photographer’s wife – bringing forth my much-repeated phrase ‘This may not have done much for you, my dear, but you’ve made an old man very happy!’ The visitors’ book makes very interesting reading: in the comments section, following page after page of remarks such as ‘Wow!’ and ‘Wonderful!’ was one typically Yorkshire comment – ‘Quite nice…’

                      Alan Carroll

Before I arrived in December, I really had no appreciation of how much time and effort was required to prepare the base for each ship arrival, nor did I realise the depth of interest shown by so many individual visitors. The questions raised revealed how many had ‘done their homework’ before they arrived, and emphasised a point I had made to Kara Weller, the Orlova’s expedition leader. As I said to her, ‘If tourists attended half of the lectures on the way down, and remembered only some of the points raised, they would know more about the Antarctic before they ever set foot on the place than we did back in the old days, until we had served and studied there for quite a few months.’

Alan Carroll, March 2007

Thanks to Quark for making this visit possible.