It seems that w-words dominated the mobile conservation team’s late-season work at Base A. Wind and waves walloped Goudier Island from the time the core Port Lockroy Team departed on the 4th of March until Michael and Liesl closed the base on the 19th of March. In that time, there were almost two days of respite with warmer weather, calm seas and sunshine, but more often than not, the whir of the wind vane being wickedly besieged by strong gusts from the south whined through the nights, keeping even the sheathbills well-under-cover and quiet, and we focused daily work tasks inside the base buildings, putting most of our efforts into replacing the worn flooring in the Bransfield House Shop.
Despite the weather, wildlife too was a significant topic as we scuttled between buildings and around on chores, the din of manic penguin chicks splashing about gaining swimming wisdom, frantically running around working their wings, perhaps wearing their parents out with long chases, or being wildly flailed by Leopard seals was almost constant. Never had we seen such active seal predation. Giant Petrels joined the fracas, as did dancing Wilson’s Petrels, opportunistic Kelp Gulls, and clever Skuas, all happy for the feast caught by Antarctica’s second-biggest predator (the killer whale being the largest). Finally, towards the end of our stay, water was warmly welcomed as the ship Plancius visited Goudier Island and Jougla Point on of March 17th, and we generously received laundered base items and our 3rd hot shower of the season. Soon after that, the Ortelius visited us for the second time during our late-season stay and packed us on board with their passengers for a journey northward to Ushuaia that included much whale watching. All in all, one could easily say the first three weeks of March were full of wonderment.
We arrived in New Zealand three days ago, and fortunately, our luggage finally showed up today having not caught the same planes we did. As we unpack and organise washing, it is a joy to reflect on our recent experiences at Port Lockroy. As indicated above, the weather was the dominant factor in our life and work. Not only was it cold and wet, it made laying floors and improving communications cabling set up (our two primary tasks) a huge challenge. According to Alan Carroll, local expert, in a missive about the weather: ''...it's been a bit of a swine this season, when prevailing winds were reversed for most of the time: not cheap newspaper headline stuff, but one of those 'once every fifty years' situations, and this is exactly what it was!'' Michael agreed and insisted that he had not seen such poor weather since overwintering at Rothera in 1991 – they had 12 nice days that season.
The Leopard seals were as curious as they were vicious and appeared to look around, play, and casually patrol as much as hunt for penguins. Liesl, watching Michael by Chains Landing, who was watching three Leopard seals within 10 meters of him, had visions similar to those staged in Crocodile Dundee when the reporter leans near water bedecked with binoculars on a neck strap… fortunately Mr. ½-meter-away-with-one-inch-canines Leopard Seal hadn’t seen the movie and just inquisitively observed Michael for over a minute, then swam away. A few moments later, we watched one of the seals crawl over partially-submerged rocks by the boat shed, right into penguin swimming lessons (splashing groups of newly-feathered chicks flapping wings, peaking under water, practicing maneuvers at intense speed) to easily nab a naïve chick, tortuously playing with it for 10 minutes before its final thrashing into small bites. As Apsley Cherry-Garrard said in The Worst Journey in the World, “Take it all in all, I do not believe anybody on Earth has it worse than an Emperor penguin.” However, a gentoo in March at Port Lockroy might argue the point.
While the shop was closed when Helen, Jane, Kristy, and Sarah left, we had 310 visitors to the museum and almost as many cards posted (to be actually stamped, franked, and “mailed” by the 14-15 Team next November) – a Merry Christmas to the happy recipients, including our families! Greeting visitors and telling them about the interesting history of Port Lockroy and the work of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust was a nice break from working on the Shop floor, cabling projects, or closing tasks
Between this year’s UKAHT conservation team are 28 summers and 6 winters in Antarctica, and visiting the southern continent still stirs great interest. Our latest trip south was bolstered all the more by the energy of the passengers, crew, and expedition team aboard the Ortelius who brought us back north across the waters of the Drake to Argentina. Like other travelers in Antarctica, their interest, friendliness, respect for the environment, and enthusiasm could sustain any soul and we are encouraged to see such good ambassadors visit the places we hold so dear.
Try as we did, we did not achieve everything that we’d hoped this season, but major goals were accomplished, we had good experiences in beautiful places, and we met and worked with great individuals. An additional “bright side of the coin” is: there is potentially more work next year.
Cheers to wishing Port Lockroy and the other HSM’s a fair winter.
Michael David Powell & Liesl Schernthanner