Letter from Lockroy - February 2004

1 February 2004 – Living at Port Lockroy

I had intended this letter to be an account of a typical day at Port Lockroy. It wasn't until I sat down to begin writing that I realised - there is no such thing as a "typical day"! Everyday is different and we never really know what to expect; which is part of the fun of living here. Anyway, O shall try and give you an idea of what it is like to live and work here in "Base A".

Life here is basic but comfortable. There is no running water and no electricity but neither is really needed. We use small, portable solar panels to charge our HF and VHF radio batteries and our water is supplied by the glaciers. As ice calves off the glaciers across the bay, it floats across to the island and we simply pick it up, out it in a bucket and wait for it to melt - what could be easier!?!

All out food supplies (as well as stock for the shop and Post Office) is brought on at the beginning of the season and we have enough to last through the whole season and beyond. This means we don't need to be re supplied at all during the season - although the cruise ships occasionally give us fresh fruit and vegetables which is always very welcome! Our food comprises of boxes of dried sledging rations and non-perishable items bought from the supermarket and shipped South - i.e. tins of meat, pasta sauces etc.

The 24 hour daylight means we don't need lighting and although there is a small coal-fired stove in the bunk room it is rarely used - it is summer after all!!

On the colder days when we sort out and cancel the mail it is good to light the fire and once we have cooked a meal on our 2-ring propane gas stove, the bunk room is soon nice and warm.

We do get asked why we don't have central heating etc like at the modern research stations such as Rothera, but it's really not necessary and doing so would mean bringing in generators, fuel, new wiring etc which would take something away from this historic site.

We live, eat and sleep in one room of the building - the rest being given over to the museum and interpretive material. Our day begins at 0700 with a cup of tea - in true British style! After this, the flag is raised and Port Lockroy is ready for the day! There is always something to be doing here so we are never bored and we certainly don't get lonely!

There are 3 of us here this season and the project consists of 3 main tasks. Firstly we are here to run the base and maintain it as a historical site and monument. This involves lots of cleaning, painting and repair work both inside and outside the building.

Secondly we run a small shop and Post Office here for the tourists which finds the whole project. As a self-funding project run on behalf of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, any profits we make go back into the Trust to help maintain other historic sites in the Antarctic such as Storington.

The third aspect of our work here is to continue a study looking at any impact that visitors to the island may have on the population of breeding gentoo penguins here. A portion of the eastern side of the island is roped off and the visitors do not enter that area. This contains control or non-visited colonies of penguins. By keeping this area visitor free we are able to look at and compare breeding success between visited and non-visited colonies. In this way, any impact on the breeding success of the birds will become apparent in the visited colonies as the number of chicks successfully reared per breeding pair will be significantly lower that those in the control colonies.

This is the eighth year of study and the great news is that despite a large increase in the number of visitors to the island, the breeding success has been the same for both visited and non-visited colonies. This means that the birds are not being disturbed. Years when breeding success has been poor (i.e. a low number of chicks per pair) is more closely associated with local environmental conditions such as a lack of krill (the birds main food) or lots of snow cover late into the season (as gentoos nest on pebbles).

Our time here is divided between these 3 main tasks. When we don't have visitors ashore from cruise ships there are many tasks to do - painting, shoveling snow, restocking the shop, sorting/canceling mail. We sometimes go onboard cruise ships to give a talk to the passengers about our work here and the historical importance of the base.

Sailing yachts often call here too and it's always nice to have a crew ashore to chat about their adventures.

Just living here also takes effort. Cooking, cleaning up, collecting ice, keeping the base clean and tidy all takes time and effort. Waste management also plays an important role. All our waste is separated at source - paper/plastic, tins/glass etc is all boxed, sealed and labeled ready to take away at the end of the season for disposal outside of Antarctica.

Port Lockroy is a place where we meet many interesting people from all walks of life. The base is now one of the most visited sites in Antarctica with over 8000 people passing through in 2002-2003. The real positive is that if you were to step ashore you could allow yourself to believe you are the first here for months. The sea is totally clean. There is no litter. The penguins are happy. Visitors behaviour os exemplary and Port Lockroy stands a testament to the fact that with a little effort we can really look after our environment. It really is a great place to work and we feel privileged to live in this pristine environment. Hopefully I've given you some idea as to what it is like here and what we do at Port Lockroy, but no amount of words and pictures can do it justice - so come and visit us and you'll see exactly what we mean!!


Wildlife at Port Lockroy

One of the best things about living and working a Port Lockroy is the opportunity to become familiar with the wildlife that abounds here.

Of course the most abundant wildlife around this area are the gentoo penguins that breed here on Goudier Island. Currently we have 726 pairs of birds and hatchling finished about 10 days ago. We have over 1100 chicks now - small bundles of fluff everywhere you look. It really is special to have penguins nesting right outside our front door. To watch eggs being laid, chicks hatching, growing , fledging and finally leaving is something we are privileged to be so close to. On a nice day there's no better way to spend a tea break than sat outside watching the penguins go about their business. It's great for watching them steal pebbles from each other's nest, have squabbles with their neighbours and scold their chicks when they step out of line - who needs television when you've got penguins!?!

Other birds we see around the island include skuas which are large, brown, gull-like birds that predate penguins eggs and chicks. We see them every day - patrolling the sky above the colonies searching for vulnerable nests to swoop down on.

There are also at least 10 pairs of Snowy Sheathbills in the area. They also have chicks and we have seen then peering out from under the base, the boat shed and the old whalebones down by the shore. Sheathbills are scavengers and are unlike any other Antarctic bird in appearance - white plumage, a bare face and unwebbed feet. They will pretty much eat anything - guano, dead chicks and unhatched eggs. They also run along the roof and yack at the lining - which can often keep us awake at night or wake us in the early hours. For small birds they can make a lot of noise! They have several nicknames; we often call them mutts, but there are many other more unflattering names form them - most of which aren't repeatable here!!

We are lucky enough to see several other types of bird here, We occasionally get to chinstrap and adelie penguins visiting the island and they really do look odd as we are used to seeing gentoos. Besides the penguins there are Dominican Gulls which look and sound very similar to seagulls found back home in the UK. We also see Antarctic Terns, Southern Giant Petrels and Wilson's Storm Petrels. There is also a small colony of Blue-eyed shags nesting across the water from us on Jougla Point.

However, it's not all bird life here at Port Lockroy, we get our share of marine mammals too. We often see seals - of various types - in the area. Weddell seals are seen quite frequently enjoying a snooze on the shores or on ice floes. Early in the season we saw a lot of crabeater seals in a group on an ice floe.

We have had one particularly lazy female elephant seal lying, asleep, in the same place for the last 3 days. She only occasionally raises a flipper to have a scratch or raises her head, yawns and rolls over onto her other side!

Leopard seals have started to appear now too. As the time nears for the penguin chicks to go to sea, more "leps" will appear - on the lookout for an easy meal. Having watched the chicks grow up from eggs we can't help but feel a little protective over them, but of course we can't interfere with what happens. After all, leps need to eat too! It really is nature at it's rawest, and some may agree, cruellest.

Our most exciting sightings are usually the whales out in the bay. More often then not we hear them before we see them. As they surface to "blow" we hear them and usually we're just in time to see a back and a dorsal fin before they dive beneath the surface once more. We usually spot Minke whales although we have seen a few Fin whales too. They are often far out in the bay and binoculars are needed for positive identification but occasionally they come in closer.

One memorable time we were waiting by the landing site for visitors as a pod of 6 minkes fed about 50 yards offshore, surfacing at regular intervals. It was great to watch these huge, graceful animals and hard to imagine what it would be like to see them really close up.

A couple of humpback whales have also been spotted by cruise ship staff but we have yet to see any ourselves. However the binoculars and cameras are always at the ready - and who knows? One day we might yet to get luckier than we already are and be in the right place at the right time!!

Dave Wattam