Letter from Lockroy - November 2006

Port Lockroy Diary - November 2006

It seems to be little more than a blink of an eye since the team was leaving Lockroy at the end of March. The summer has gone by in a flash and the team has headed back south. The intervening months have been witness to considerable behind the scenes activity related to the operation of Port Lockroy.

For the last ten years the operation and staffing have been managed by the British Antarctic Survey using BAS ships. But under a new memorandum of Understanding it was agreed that the management of Port Lockroy should be handed over to UKAHT. Rick Atkinson and Rachel Morgan went out to Washington DC in May to attend the IAATO conference. All the IAATO members were wonderfully supportive of the Port Lockroy project and between them have offered to provide the logistical support in order for us to operate this season.

So Port Lockroy has entered a new chapter in its operation and is now being run independently of the British Antarctic Survey. Rick Atkinson has been appointed as project leader and heads up this year’s team at Lockroy. In practice there will not be so many obvious changes, just a continuation of the way Lockroy has been evolving over the past ten years. There has been lots to think about and achieve through the past summer months to keep the show on the road. These included operating permits to acquire, personnel to select to run the shop and post office, merchandise to order, insurances to sort out, flights to book, and shipping of goods to arrange.

                     Rachel and Tudor Morgan preparing cargo for transport

Somehow, mostly due to Rachel Morgan’s tenacity, all the above came together in time and Rick Atkinson took all the merchandise and base requirements in a lorry across the English Channel to Cherbourg . Here the 2½ tons of cargo consisting of 176 boxes were loaded onto the Norwegian MV Nordnorge which had agreed to transport the cargo and two of this year’s team to Port Lockroy.

On the 15th October, Rick Atkinson flew to Buenos Aires to join the Nordnorge. The trip down to the Antarctic included the Falkland Islands in its itinerary where Sally Owen, the second member of this year’s Lockroy team lives. Sally had been busy collecting together the Post Office materials, fuel and other essential requirements for Lockroy and was waiting at the dock in Stanley when Nordnorge arrived. The trip to Antarctica went via South Georgia and Rick and Sally enjoyed a couple of days there looking round the old whaling stations and king penguin rookeries. The sea crossing from South Georgia to the Antarctic Peninsula was quite rough but this is to be expected so early in the season. A few more landings were made in the South Shetland Islands and on the Peninsula in wild really marginal weather conditions before we arrived at Port Lockroy.

Sally and Rick in the Falkland Islands

The remarkable thing about our journey south was how little ice we encountered for this time of year. At Port Lockroy there was none, - not even any fast ice in the bay behind Goudier Island . Serendipity has to be the word I would choose to explain how things have worked out this summer and during our journey to Port Lockroy.

We seem to have had a guardian angel looking out for us. All through the summer during our preparations things just seemed to work out. Any problems that did arise seemed to solve themselves or an answer would present it self out of the blue. We just have to believe that good things happen to people who believe they should.

This was how it was as we headed down to Port Lockroy from Neko Harbour on the Antarctic Peninsula . The weather had been just about as wild as it gets the previous 24 hours, fierce winds, heavy snow and huge rough seas. Giving little prospect of making a landing at Goudier Island and next to no chance of unloading cargo, Nordnorge was working to a very tight schedule and would not be able to hang around waiting for a break in the weather.

This meant that if we did not make the landing that afternoon we would have to stay on the ship for another week and head up to Ushuaia and return on their next trip south.

This in turn would mean not having any time to prepare for what promises to be a very busy season. Almost as if by magic as we headed south through the Neumeyer Channel the weather started to calm down. By the time we rounded Damoy Point the sea had become smooth and the sun was breaking through the clouds.

The tide was high so we were able to land at the boat shed and as already mentioned there was no sea ice to be seen. The snow on Goudier Island was hard which made it easy to walk on. The next couple of hours had to be seen to be believed. All the cargo came ashore in the Polar Circle landing boats and the ship’s tender, along with a rotation of the 260 passengers on board Nordnorge. Some of the expedition staff helped with unloading cargo while others supervised the passengers. I am sure every one felt that they were contributing to a meaningful and worthwhile exercise. In what seemed like no time at all the cargo was stacked high and dry in the boat shed.

                 cargo arriving at Port Lockroy

Everyone congratulated each other on a job well done with a photograph outside the base. Fond farewells were made and Sally and Rick found themselves alone at Port Lockroy with another summer season stretching out ahead of them. Last season it was well into December before we made it to Lockroy and numerous ships had visited the station before we got here. This year we were definitely the first to arrive. There were no foot prints in the snow. Every thing was exactly as Rick had left it at the end of last season.

                       

It was a wonderful feeling being back, Rick opened the front door that is not locked and stepped into Bransfield house. All the evocative smells from this home from home have a strong emotional effect; hundreds of happy thoughts rush through his mind triggered by the smell of this old building. All within was in perfect shape, dry and free from any damage from what the winter had thrown at it.

Going back outside we took a longer look at what was going on. The penguins were here already, busy pulling out stones from the ice and snow for their nest. The sheathbills were strutting about as if they own the place. All the breeding pairs already well established on their territorial ground. The pair that nests just under the front door welcomed us back. There seem to be even more sheathbills around this season and there are a few stories to tell about them already.

It has been remarkably easy to settle back into the routine of life at Lockroy. We both enjoyed our first night in the cosy bunk room and by the end of the second day here we pretty well organised. We had a rude reminder that we were in Antarctica though and that winter was not quite finished. For most of this first two weeks of the season the weather has been really cold and there has been heaps of snow and wind. Luckily though each time a ship has come to visit there has been a brief lull in the weather and the sun came out.

Most of our efforts since we arrived have been in the shop. At the end of last season we started a major revamp of the counter and shelving. This has now been completed with the introduction of lots more shelving units from Ikea to display our T shirts and the construction of a really nifty book case and display unit built over one of the old concrete engine bases (the shop is in what was there generator shed). We are well impressed with how well the shop seems to work.

                          

There are a few more improvements to make but all the basics are now in place. The other significant project that we have undertaken since arriving is the installation of quite a high tech communications station in the bunk room. In addition to the excellent HF radio which we have had for a couple of years now, we have installed a VHF radio base station with a powerful aerial which now allows us to communicate with the visiting ships from a considerable distance away. In the past we were only able to speak to them in the bay at Lockroy which often caused considerable frustration.

The most remarkable part of our new communication system is the introduction of email, sent over our iridium phone. This is an amazing development which we are still getting use to. Of course all this technology is only as good as the people that operate it and it is taking a while for us technophobes to get used to how it is meant to work. Also there is the question of how much time should we spend on the computer. We are here to get away from all that stuff right? On a practical note one snag with all modern technology and that is the necessary batteries do not like to be charged or used when the temperature drops below +5 C. Most of the time since arriving at Lockroy it has been considerably colder than this.

Since operating Port Lockroy as a museum there has not been much in the way of weather monitoring until now. We have with us this year an electronic weather station which is set up in the bunk room. So now we know just how cold it is which we are not sure is a good thing. It has been very interesting to watch just how low the air pressure has been falling lately. In the biggest of the storms to go through since we arrived the pressure fell to 940mb! One of the station’s other useful functions it tells us the humidity in the bunk room. Even when we are cooking it seems to stay much lower than the humidity would be in a house back in the UK.

The Port Lockroy sheathbills have always made a considerable contribution to these news letters and this trend is likely to continue. What is behind it I am not sure but the population of these pugnacious birds is definitely on the increase. May be it is warmer winter temperatures, may be their food supply has improved, I am not sure what the reason is but they are taking over! One of their endearing habits is to walk or run loudly across the bunk room roof in the middle of the night. We had learnt to get used to this and accept it as part of the joy of being here. The trouble is things have changed this season; these birds’ hooligan tendencies have attained new heights.


All the delinquent sheathbills in the area have taken to chasing each other round the roof for hours on end through the night and the noise they generate in the bunkroom below defies imagination.

Another unfortunate development is two individual birds seem to derive pleasure from tapping with their beak on the window for hours on end (perhaps seeing a relection of a 'rival'). What a noise they make. A few days ago this was going on at around six in the morning and had got particularly loud, - sufficiently loud to cause Rick to prise himself out of his sleeping bag and ask them to desist.

He discovered to his embarrassment when he opened the front door to see where all the noise was coming from that it was one of the expedition leaders knocking on the door to ask if we would open up early for a ship visit. Rick was wearing his best convict style pyjamas and must have looked quite the spectacle.

One other terrific improvement this season is the clothing we have been given from a company called Tog 24. This gear is proving to be so comfortable, stylish and warm we are reluctant to take it off. It has also been attracting quite a bit of attention in the shop because it has the Lockroy logo on it and looks so good. Thanks again Tog 24.

Just to reassure anyone who might be concerned life at Lockroy is all work and no play. We have already enjoyed a few fine walks round the island at low tide which takes considerably longer than you might imagine for such a small island. Last night we discovered a new sport. We have some old dog sledges for display. The rack we built for them is still buried under the snow.

So they are waiting down by the boat shed to be put back on there when the snow goes. We had been talking about dog sledging with lots of the customers off the cruise ships yesterday and so when we went for a walk last night we ended up down by the dog sledges talking some more. Unusually at the moment the island is so well covered in hard packed snow. It is possible to slide a sledge from the top of the island down to the sea in quite a few directions. So for some considerable time Rick and Sally took it in turns to ride and push the smaller of the dog sledges down the hill at some significant speed experiencing a taste of what dog sledging was all about.

One of our other pastimes has been savouring some fine recordings of Scottish folk music of which we are both big fans. So tomorrow is the start of a new phase in this year’s season at Lockroy when Jo Hardy our new team member arrives on the Quark ship Shokalsky, one of the cruise ships to visit us.

Rick Atkinson, Sally Owen, Jo Hardy