Letter from Lockroy - 8th February 2010
Antarctica is a continent owned by no-one, open to all and home to some. Many countries make territorial claims, but all believe that Antarctica should be shared for the benefit of all. 'Research and Discovery' is the British Antarctic Territory motto, and this week there's been much of that going on. Research vessels, mountain climbers and explorers' relatives have all called in, learning about Lockroy and teaching us in turn.
Our first lesson was glaciology, taught by the three French climbers aboard Isabelle Autissier's yacht, mentioned in the last blog. The climbers found a new route up Mt Luigi this week, reaching the summit high above the clouds. They scaled the rock face in under 33 hours and took breathtaking film footage which they showed us on their return. With mugs of hot tea, surrounded by their drying gear, Claire, Eleanor and Rachel watched awestruck as they tunnelled through 'mushroom snow' and dangled from ropes 3,000ft above the ground. They taught us about 'rime ice' (a new addition to our growing polar vocabulary) which they described as 'climbing chandeliers' as it shattered and splintered around them, and they're heading further down the peninsula for more climbs this month.
As we left the yacht, our oceanography tutors arrived – scientists aboard the American research vessel Laurence M Gould, which stopped off at Lockroy en route to Palmer Station having just completed a month of experiments in the waters around the Peninsula. We were delighted to be invited on board for a tour of the ship, which is a fully-functioning, floating science laboratory and home to 45 scientists and crew. We enjoyed hearing about the different oceanic research projects they're conducting and seeing the isotope containers on the back deck, and were treated to a wonderful dinner 'American-style' with great company, chocolate chip cookies and Coca-Cola on tap.
Continuing the oceanography theme, we have been learning about 'spring' tides and 'neep' tides ourselves after much confusion as to why the tide here was behaving differently every day. Luckily on the days it has been cooperating the weather has been dry enough for us to scramble over to Bills Island to go hunting in the rockpools. We found a bright pink and purple jellyfish, intricate limpet grazing trails and a Weddell seal snoozing on the snow.
We've also played host to three naval vessels this week: the Spanish ship Las Palmas, the Argentinian vessel Avilo Castillo, and HMS Scott which has come South for her maiden Antarctic voyage. We've enjoyed welcoming all three ships to Lockroy and hearing about their patrols. The Treaty that governs Antarctica is a fine piece of diplomacy, and all countries work on the understanding that Antarctica should be 'devoted to peace'. A hilarious misunderstanding occurred this week however, with the captain of the Argentinian Navy: regular readers may remember Avilo Castillo arriving on Anna's birthday in November, which she mentioned to them this time round when they radioed to announce their visit. Somehow this message was muddled and in less than an hour the captain was at the door, carrying the most enormous birthday cake any of us have ever seen! So we all celebrated Anna's birthday for the second time and shared cake with all sorts of visitors over the coming days.
We are indebted to HMS Scott for bringing down the new windows kindly provided by Jeld-Wen for Bransfield House. Anna and Eleanor were thrilled to go on board to deliver a mobile post office and shop. Helmets had to be worn in the zodiacs and we were winched up to the deck before meeting the captain and crew, who had been carrying out hydrography work in some of the channels nearby. Anna was delighted to see her old boss Rod Downie (who spent two seasons at Lockroy himself) and we were also pleased to offer a bed for the night to Rob Bowman, Deputy Head of the Polar Regions Unit at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office who was transferring to another ship the following day. Rob was a fantastic addition to the team, stamping passports, helping out in the museum and making up First Day Covers. We really enjoyed having you here Rob and Rod, and hope you both had safe journeys back to the UK.
Although most early work was done by ships, much of the research into, and discovery of, the area around Port Lockroy was done by small aircraft which used to land on the glacier opposite the base. Damoy Hut in nearby Dorian Bay was built as an air facility to support these expeditions and has just been declared an Historic Monument under the Antarctic Treaty. At the end of last week we had our first official day off(!) and both the Lockroy team and Nissen team downed tools for a fun day out together and sailed round to Dorian Bay on Australis to give it a second coat of paint. We donned our Dickies overalls and Tog24 clothing (fantastic, really warm, withstands any weather and loved by us all!) and had the job done in no time, giving us the rest of the afternoon to cruise up and down the Neumayer channel in the hope of spotting some whales. Despite mirror-calm water there wasn't a whale to be seen and even the seals we spotted turned out to be rocks(!) but it was wonderful to be out on the water nonetheless, looking up at the towering peaks and watching chunks of blue ice drift lazily by. We did manage to see a snow petrel, but the best sighting of the day was the legendary Brazilian sailor Amyr Klink, who came sailing round the headland with his two-masted yacht. Ever since we arrived at Lockroy we've heard stories of Amyr, who wintered solo at Dorian Bay, freezing his yacht into the ice. We couldn't believe our luck when the very man himself came zipping round the headland in a bright yellow zodiac, closely followed by his striking yacht Paratii-II. We all went on board that night for some home-brewed killer cocktails and to hear about his plans to leave the yacht anchored in Dorian for this coming winter as well. Paratii-II will be left in the capable hands of Flavio, an experienced member of the crew, who will be over-wintering in Antarctica for the first time.
Winter is on everyone's minds as the days get shorter and the nights draw in. Last night we saw stars for the first time all season and grease ice was reported in Dorian Bay. Amyr left with Ben and Skye on Australis, and Ben and Skye's company (and wonderful cooking!) are already missed by us all. (We look forward to seeing you guys one more time before the end of the season!) Even the penguins are preparing for the colder months as the adults moult and the chicks lose their downy fluff to swim to warmer waters in the next few weeks. Progress on the Nissen hut continues apace though and Rick, Joe and Graham are already sleeping inside. It's fantastically warm and light inside, especially with the new Jeld-Wen windows, whilst we've been lighting tilley lamps in the bunkroom in the base in the evenings which burn brightly and give out a rather comforting and atmospheric hiss.
But winter and darkness will have to wait as there's plenty to do in our final month: ships to see, postcards to frank and chores galore to keep the Lockroy ladies busy just a little while longer. And of course the more we do, the more we learn, the more we share, the more we realise just how little we really know, and how much more there is still to discover.