Letter from Lockroy - March 2007

Letter No. 4, 8th March 2007

Sunset

The buildings at Lockroy sit empty once again as winter closes in around about. The final part of the season was no less busy than those that had gone before. The weather remained fine for almost all of February and into March. In fact we had some exceptionally fine days for so late in the season. Life at Lockroy remained rich and interesting until the day we left.

boat 

There were as many ships visiting as ever during February, every one full to capacity with passengers overwhelmed with the beauty of Antarctica. In addition to the regular small ships that visit the station there was a marked increase in the number of really large (2 to 3 thousand passenger) ships passing by. One of these ships, Crystal Serenity invited us on board to give a presentation about Port Lockroy. Rick ended up giving the Lockroy presentation twice, to packed audiences, in the ship's vast auditorium, while Sally and Gerard coped with a stampede of people buying post cards and stamps.

Towards the end of the first week in February Birgit Sattler, a scientist with the University of Innsbruck, and a good friend of the team at Lockroy, arrived on the ship Explorer to undertake some scientific research. But during her visit she help ease the stain. Her assistance was invaluable; it is hard to imagine how we would have coped without this extra pair of hands.

Amongst the interesting visits in February was Paul Allan from Microsoft on his mega yacht Octopus. This ship, one of the largest private yachts in the world, came complete with its two helicopters, submarine and motor launch. They arrived on a rather grey cold afternoon when Lockroy does not really look her best. None the less Paul and his friends all seemed to enjoy their visit to our humble abode. None of the residents of Port Lockroy were inclined to trade places with any one on Octopus!

 Penguins

There were no shortage of yachts visiting Port Lockroy in February and March. Amongst them was the famous Northern Light a beautiful small red sailing yacht that was one of the first to winter over on the Antarctic Peninsula some twenty years ago. Eric Hiscock's old yacht Wanderer3, a new modern yacht called Wandering Albatross, the charter yachts Northanger, Viheri, and Australis were all in the vicinity of Lockroy around the end of February. Spirit of Sydney a sixty odd foot sailing yacht that has been down here the past few years was with us on and off all through February. She was working with a group of Canadian scientists studying whales and would call in from time to time for a beer and a chat. The whale populations on the peninsular have been quite numerous this season providing the opportunity for some excellent research. Also later in the season there were numerous visits from the Argentinean and Chilean navy ships.

The end of the season witnessed a satisfactory conclusion to the penguin breading season at Lockroy. With the weather remaining fine and with an apparently plentiful food supply the penguin chicks continued to grow fast and strong. There were remarkably few casualties and most of the chicks had gone to sea by the time we left the island on the 5th March. The leopard seals did return to reap the harvest of vulnerable young penguins but in nothing like the numbers of the previous year.

The large resident leopard seal that was with us later this summer seemed to enjoy the company of humans and was often to be seen down at the landing area, where the passengers come ashore, watching the proceedings. Some times she would just lay with her head on a rock a stare at us. Other times swim around the landing site for ages, leaping out of the water and generally showing off. We also regularly watched her come right out of the water to grab unsuspecting penguin chicks down on the seashore. This was a hunting technique that we had not observed before.

The king penguin that arrived at the beginning of the month had a successful moult along with some of the gentoo penguins in the gully to the north east of the base. Once the moult was complete it made a ponderous return to the sea. We watched it, very stiffly, walk down to the waters edge and make its first attempts at swimming in its new feathers after having been standing around for three weeks or more. It was a very thin, stiff penguin that returned to the sea in a remarkably loose fitting skin that was considerably more colourful than when he arrived. While the king penguin was with us it became quite the attraction. When it returned to the sea it stayed in the area for a few days and was seen amongst the gentoo penguins over on Jougla Point from time to time. It may well be on its way back to South Georgia by the time this goes to print. We wish it luck.

The sheathbill population has probably not had such a successful season. Five chicks were raised under the main hut by the four breeding pairs that nest there and three chicks were raised in the nest under the whale skull at the boat shed and no chicks were raised under the boat shed. The skua population which seems to be on the increase were seen to attack sheathbills and chicks on several occasions and this is suggested as being one explanation for the reduced breeding success this year. The adult flock at Lockroy is still thriving and the bird's ability to turn newly painted surfaces white with their guano is not in question!

It was time to start thinking about going home. The four residents of Bransfield House closed shop in the evening of the 25th February and had an end of season dinner party, savouring the few moments we had to ourselves. Birgit went back to Ushuaia on the Explorer on the 26th February, and Sally went out on the Nordnorge on the 27th. Nordnorge was on her way north at the end of the season and dropped Sally off in the Falkland Islands. Rick and Gerard held the fort for one more week finally closing things down on the 5th March. There were still ships and yachts visiting most days. We found it surprising that people still wanted to leave post cards with us even when we told them we would not be able to post them until November!

 Port Lockroy

Rick and Gerard were picked up by the fine ship Andrea and treated to warm friendship and hospitality for the forthcoming few days. We were lucky enough to enjoy some spectacularly good weather as we cruised south to Detaille Island before heading north along the Antarctic Peninsula and across the Drake Passage. Homeward bound for a well earned rest.

Rick Atkinson