Letter from Lockroy - 22nd January 2009

Letter From Lockroy - 22 January 2009

January has brought about a hive of activity here at Port Lockroy. Since the beginning of the month, we have welcomed around two ships together with various yacht visits onto the island each day, alongside fitting in maintenance of Bransfield House at every possible opportunity. We’ve been blessed with some truly fantastic weather – much warmer than at home in the UK by the sounds, where we understand that temperatures of up to minus twelve have left everyone feeling a bit chilly to say the least! We even learnt that the London Evening Standard carried the headline ‘Britain – Colder than Antarctica’ – wish you were here?!? Don’t worry – we’ve been thinking of you all whilst sitting on the veranda for a quick cup of coffee or two in the sunshine!

Our adult gentoos have been panting in the (relative) heat, and their chicks have been sprawled out in their nests, some lucky enough to have parents that have figured out they are more comfortable cooled by their shadows! Thanks to the glorious weather we’ve been enjoying, the bundles of fluff have in the last few days been venturing a few metres from their nests, escorted by a watchful adult or two. We have even seen some mimicking their parents’ calls, whilst rocking back and forth on their (surprisingly) big orange feet for some semblance of balance (it can’t be easy with those sizeable bellies full of krill and fish)! It is remarkable how tiny some of them still are, whilst others are a good ¾ of the size of their parents, being greedy little gannets!

During a ship visit we saw that one of the gentoo chicks had been knocked off of the large rock in front of Bransfield House by a skua. Despite efforts by random adults to protect the chick, nature eventually took its course. The girls in particular felt rather sad but accepted the inevitable, which is of course part of life here in Antarctica. Jude was the first to spot a snowy sheathbill chick underneath the boatshed; not quite as ‘baby rat-like’ as we had been lead to believe! The sheathbills nesting under the veranda in front of the lounge window are still on their nest, and we expect to hear the cheeping of a chick or two in the very near future, and more ratty tearaways!

Gentoo feeding chicks

Goudier Island is now almost completely dry of snow; quite a remarkable change compared to early November. Gone are the distinctive pink-coloured penguin highways, and the cracks of the smooth grey rock are now littered with penguin quills and limpet shells. We have heard numerous ice falls around and about, and were fortunate enough to see a significant calving across from Bransfield House, from the iceface of Damoy Point. Having watched the crack in the ice open up over the weeks since our arrival at Lockroy, we were thrilled to see large portions of ice eventually give way. Calving ice is happily not a great cause for concern for us based here on the island, as the channel of water in between is fairly shallow, and it is only small waves that result from crumbling fragments. It is remarkable that rather than huge chunks falling into the water, we have watched the ice disintegrate into powder and then slide down the ice face, revealing fresh blue ice beneath.

                                                         View of Goudier Isl from ridge at Dorian Bay

There have been several groups of people diving in the waters around Lockroy recently, including both scuba and free divers! One chap who had been in the water had an amazing (if not slightly un-nerving) experience with a leopard seal, which frequents the waters around Goudier Island. The seal had been nibbling the divers’ fins, and with this particular diver had pushed down on his head whilst he was surfacing, as if urging him to stay longer and continue playing. An hour or so after the experience, the diver was all smiles whilst recounting his tale to the team in the safety of the shop. Knowing the power and speed of such wild animals, the team here at Lockroy are always wary of leopard seals – treating them with as much respect as the the gentoo penguins do! We had our own amazing interaction with a very large leopard seal whilst travelling by dinghy from the base to the yacht Australis, with skipper Ben. The seal was following behind the craft’s wake, rolling over in play, speeding alongside us and raising its head and shoulders clear of the water; eye-balling us curiously from around 6ft away. Just recently, the yachts have been wise to raise their dinghies out of the water when at anchor in the back bay; one such yacht failed to do so and had a considerable repair-job on their hands thanks to a hungry seal! Some of the groups from the yachts have been out in their kayaks, or have ventured up onto the ridges in the mountains overlooking the base – what stunning views they must enjoy of the mountain ranges around here!

 Besides leopard seals, we have also seen our first crabeater seal here this month. Mike from Corinthian II had offered to take us on a zodiac ride after dinner onboard. It was a truly magical evening – with the most stunning soft pink light on the bay surrounding Goudier Island and lighting up the mountains of Anvers Island. There, floating on a small iceberg just off of Jougla Point we caught sight of a beautiful dappled cream crabeater seal enjoying a snooze! It was the perfect end to a spectacular sunny blue-sky day which had also seen the team dining at Captain Adam’s table onboard Corinthian II – quite a privilege Unfortunately we have not seen any whales out in the Neumayer Channel in the last week or so, however have heard of some fantastic sightings of around 50 orcas in the Gerlache Strait and nearby to Paradise Bay. We can only hope that they will swing by our way soon!

Jude and Nikki have been utilising their foreign language skills this month; with French yachts and German groups onboard expedition vessels making visits to Port Lockroy. We also had the pleasure of welcoming students from the Hotchkiss School in the USA, courtesy of Mr Forrest Mars, arriving onboard Prince Albert II. In addition, a group of Stanford Alumni came ashore from Le Diamant – another good visit!

Rick has seen supervising the team's various projects around Bransfield House, all part of the ongoing restoration and maintenance. Jude undertook a messy job of working on one of the coal stoves; sanding down, clearing out the insides (full of rubble and cigarette butts from previous occupants!) and re-spraying it with paint – it now shines beautifully in the corner of the living room in the museum. The team have also been continuing with painting the window frames and facia boards of the house. Both Laura and Jude have been surrounded by tins and bottles of various shapes and contents in the museum – part of a major archiving job in the kitchen and pantry. As ‘Museum Curator’ and ‘Chief Mould Controller Extraordinaire’ Laura has her teeth firmly into the task of sorting through all of Port Lockroy’s artefacts and cross-checking them against previous records! Nikki meanwhile has sanded down and painted an old Aldis lamp from the radio room in the museum, used on FIDS bases for morse-code communication with passing ships. Rick and Nikki have also been hard at work improving the path up to the house from the ‘chains landing’. Rick is quite rightly very proud of his ‘rock garden’ – having widened the area in front of the house so that more rock is exposed for visitors to walk on, whilst still being a good distance from the nesting penguins. The girls wonder when he will start planting his geraniums and marigolds in the border! It is amazing how many tin cans and bits of old wood have appeared from Rick’s gardening efforts buried in the days when the base was operational including a toothbrush and several doorhinges! A quiet sunny day also meant that Nikki could tackle the front door, which was last painted by Jo Hardy a few years ago, and has lasted well – good job Jo! It now back to its former glory – shining bright and red!

Jude restoring stove Nikki restoring aldis lamp

Laura cataloguing artefacts

We are always delighted to receive incoming post from friends and family at home, and Fram recently brought a Royal Mail sack full of goodies for us all, including Valentine’s day mystery parcels, pick ‘n’ mix sweets and maltesers from Woolies at home (sadly be no more we hear), some lovely smellies and photos, and A DVD OF MAMA MIA! Thank you, thank you, thank you! Much singing, humming, and foot-tapping was to be had in the Port Lockroy cinema last night (aka crowding onto Nikki’s bunk whilst watching the laptop propped up on Jude’s bed). What a fantastic evening we had – and we are now subjecting Rick to ABBA on the ipod – poor man! Life is good at Lockroy!

Meanwhile, we hope that you are all enjoying the diary updates.