Letter from Lockroy - March 2005
Well the three of us are now safely back home but a large part of our season went unrecorded so I thought I would finish the story! And this time with some proper photos rather than polaroids....
The unusually bad weather continued right through February with not much respite. The worst consequence of this was that a number of ships were unable to land at Port Lockroy due to heavy seas and strong winds. Unfortunately this included the FIDS cruise on Polar Star - ex-BAS veterans, some of whom had been at Port Lockroy when it was a working station. We were bitterly disappointed when their visit was abandoned after only around a dozen people had managed to get ashore.
As you can see, our stoic Gentoo penguins and their chicks had to sit out the worst of the weather. The third and final island-wide count of the Penguin Monitoring Project, the creched chick count, was carried out on 17 February. There was a grand total of 691 chicks on the island, most of them beginning to fledge and some well on the way to adulthood. During the rest of our time at Port Lockroy, we would watch these chicks become progressively more confident around the water's edge, test the waters, take the plunge then join a sort of penguin swimming school which consisted of a large group of chicks thrashing about in the shallows. They then tried porpoising (leaping out of the water) which took a while to master, and eventually left the island for the winter. Unfortunately, there were some chicks which had lost one or both parents, or had hatched just too late to mature in time for winter. Towards the end of the summer, there were a number of very bedraggled, forlorn looking chicks which were unlikely to survive. Leopard seals began to prowl around the area in mid to late February and were catching and flensing penguins several times a day during the last few weeks of summer. No wonder we had the odd little visitor taking refuge in the porch.
The sheathbill chicks also grew up rapidly, and although Phil disappeared, we discovered another chick living under the remains of the Nissen Hut. Pete, Matt and Sue (the boatshed brood) along with Liz (hatched under Bransfield House) quickly fledged, and the first of them were seen to take to the air on 2 March. They were fascinated by our boots, especially the bit on the front where the yellow rubber had worn away leaving a black spot, which they ran up to and pecked whenever we gave them a chance.
Base maintenance projects continued in earnest. All the bare floorboards are now covered with lino, which makes mopping and sweeping (a daily task) much easier than previously. One of Matt's main assignments for the season was to replace the ramp leading up to the door of Bransfield House, as it was starting to show its age and was becoming unsuitable for the heavier tourist. The old ramp was saturated with ancient guano and seated in pools of liquid gunk, so it was quite an unpleasant task to remove it and chop it up for disposal. Pete drew the short straw for this job. Meanwhile, Matt and his keen young apprentice (good at making tea, coffee and roll-ups...) spent the next few days constructing a new ramp, not as easy as you'd think because the uneven rocks round the hut meant that the ramp came in from one side as well as sloping up to the door. However, nothing can faze the original Hippy Chippy, even the nine inches of snow which fell during a few hours, and a new bombproof ramp is now in position - finished just in time for load testing by 320 obliging passengers from the cruise ship Nordnorge. The penguins have already decorated the ramp profusely in their own inimitable way.
As well as visits from the Royal Navy ship HMS Endurance as part of an international Antarctic Treaty inspection, and our smallest yacht of the season with a crew of just two people (Chemin de Cygne), we continued to have visits from tourist vessels right up to 17 March. After one visit, we were intrigued by a comment left in the visitors' book which read only "Perfect Bottom" - we figure it's referring to Matt, but who can tell through our very unflattering (but very warm) padded overalls? At this point I must say hello to the Japanese couple on their honeymoon who whipped out wedding costumes for a photo opportunity. The padded overalls rather spoiled the effect… Unfortunately like the numpty I am, I seem to have mislaid the piece of paper on which I wrote down the bride and groom's names - but we all wish them well! ( Naoyuki and Tomoko Isogai - ed.)
Dear Sue, Matt, and Pete,
How are you doing? I believe you are now back in the U.K. and having your second summer in this year. Here in Japan, we are heading into a rainy season just before summer.
By the way, I found your fantastic diary recently, and thank you so much for introducing our wedding photo session there. This is one of the prettiest photos we took in Antarctica.
I hope all is well with you, and see you again somewhere in the world.
With all the bad weather, the painting situation was starting to look slightly desperate and at one point Matt even had us out painting while the snow was falling. However, as the season came to an end we had a short run of calm and dry weather which, as well as boosting our spirits, enabled us to finish painting all the external walls and woodwork. The west end of Bransfield House (the main hut) was particularly tricky to paint as the precipitous rocks there made positioning a ladder safely an almost impossible task. Because of this, we fashioned "the longest paintbrush in the world" by fixing a paintbrush to a mop handle then taping the whole thing to a long piece of spare timber. Unwieldy, yes, but Pete was well up to the task and soon the whole building was looking bright and shiny again.
The Antarctic is renowned for unusual atmospheric effects, and the skies over Port Lockroy often provided spectacular haloes and sundogs. During our spell of sunny weather, we were treated to the sight of an upside-down rainbow - yet another reason to call Port Lockroy the maddest place in the world! For those with an interest in these phenomena, the sun was surrounded by a halo and the rainbow was a further halo radius vertically above. And it wasn't raining! We suspect there is a meteorological term for this, but casual grilling of a meteorologist (admittedly on the way back from a night out in Stanley....) didn't reveal any answers.
The few days of good weather meant that we could spend the evenings down at our favourite little late afternoon sun-trap spot, the "rusty chains" landing. The penguins got an exclusive concert from quite possibly the world's most isolated musical ensemble, "Guano", consisting of Matt (Not So Young) strumming guitar and me on vocals. Luckily the penguins seemed to tolerate our 4-song set, and due to gatecrashers the crowd was slightly bigger at the end than when we started. These evenings spent relaxing in the setting sun were amongst our favourite times at Port Lockroy, with the waves and ice lapping just below us, the sky and snowy mountains slowly turning orange and pink, and all kinds of wildlife contributing to the overwhelming awesomeness of the Antarctic scenery. (It was quite chilly though....)
As the number of tourist visits died down we started to do our stocktaking (Pete in the shop, Matt in the workshop and me in the Post Office) and package up items which were being taken out at the end of the season. This included our waste, personal items, equipment which needed cleaning and/or maintenance, Post Office stock, and some tools and materials to be used in maintenance work at Wordie House. Everything needed to be securely packed and clearly labelled. We also checked and double checked the accounts for the season's shop and Post Office takings, and finally had an Ultimate Scrub-Out to get the hut spick and span for next season. By this time thoughts of hot showers, warm cabins with heated bathroom floors, electricity and other luxuries were starting to intrude and it was with much joy that we spotted our big red taxi RRS Ernest Shackleton on 20 March. The pick-up was very straightforward thanks to the slick cargo work from the ship's crew and FIDs present - and it was great to see old friends again.
After the longed for hot shower, an extra special treat of pancakes from the chefs (thanks, Ash and Keith!), and a late night in the Red Room, we were ready the following morning to be disembarked at Akademik Vernadsky, the Ukrainian Antarctic Station. Fog in the area caused some delay but eventually the three of us were landed, along with our kit bags, tools and equipment, at the station. Pete and I had been lucky enough to visit the station last season so it was nice to catch up with the Ukrainian winterers we had met then. We received a very hearty welcome; in fact rather too hearty for me and after the umpteenth vodka toast I made my excuses and retired to my bed.
The reason for our stay at Vernadsky was to do some maintenance and a building survey of Wordie House. Wordie House was the original Argentine Islands (Base F) hut from 1947 until the base was moved the 400 yards or so to Galindez Island in 1954. Base F was renamed Faraday in 1977, then handed over to the Ukrainian Antarctic Programme in February 1996, when it was renamed Akademik Vernadsky. Wordie House is now a registered Historic Site (No. 62) under the Antarctic Treaty, and although the Vernadsky team does a great job of keeping it tidy, overall responsibility for its upkeep rests with the UK - hence our visit.
Wordie House (on Winter Island) stands very close to the main base buildings on Galindez Island, but the two islands are separated by a channel called Stella Creek (named after a boat carried by John Rymill's British Graham Land Expedition of 1934-37, which wintered here). In order to cross this creek to get to work, we were lent a small boat which seemed to be the result of a bizarre cross between a bathtub and a lawnmower. She was quickly dubbed the Cripple Creek Ferry by Matt (who else?!). In fact, although slow, she was perfect for the job and enabled us to get on with our work without disrupting the base activities too much.
The hut had been well looked after and was in reasonably good condition, although there was evidence of a longstanding leak in the roof which will need further attention. Matt spent some time doing a detailed building survey as well as trying to identify and seal the site of the leak. While he was doing this, Pete and I got out the paintbrushes and gave the external walls a couple of coats of wood preserver and paint. As well as smartening it up, this should help to protect the hut against the ferocious weather experienced in this part of the world.
During a pause in the proceedings at Winter Island, Matt demonstrated what we already suspected - yes, he really CAN walk on water...
Although delayed for a few days by strong winds and snow, the work on Wordie House was soon completed. We took the opportunity to stand back and view the awesome scenery of the Argentine Islands, which must be a fantastic place to spend a winter. The Argentines are a number of small islands all separated by narrow channels which freeze up with sea ice during the winter. Galindez Island itself is fairly small but still large enough for a bracing walk around the area, and boasts ice caves and crevasses in the spectacular ice cliffs at the southern end.
Back in the warmth and comfort of the Vernadsky base, we were overwhelmed by the generous hospitality of the Ukrainians. Our stay coincided with by far the busiest time of the year for them - three days after we arrived, their relief ship the Ushuaia arrived for a two-week period of handovers and international science projects. Throughout this time we were always made to feel welcome, and never as if we were in the way. In fact, it was a real privilege to be able to see another nation's Antarctic station at work, and work they certainly did. Relief was completed quickly and the handovers were in full flow, as well as important science projects - there was a Slovenian research expedition also visiting the station. The old Dobson photospectrometer which was the actual machine used to detect the infamous hole in the ozone layer was packaged up and replaced with a brand new one which we had brought with us on the Ernest Shackleton.
The recent dramatic events in Ukraine were a big talking point amongst the base members. Having been at Port Lockroy since early December we had missed much of the news, but hearing the Ukrainians talking animatedly about the election brought home to us quite how important an event it was. The Ushuaia brought in a portrait of President Yushchenko which was promptly put up on the dining room wall, whilst an orange "Yushchenko Tak!" scarf appeared along with a book of photographs of the election events in the bar.
The Vernadsky bar is without doubt the finest in the Antarctic. Built by some wayward carpenters in the Faraday days, it boasts arches, curves and a lot more fine woodwork. Souvenirs from numerous visitors - including a large collection of brassieres to which I added one of my own - are displayed around the room. Whilst waiting for the weather to clear enough for us to take the Cripple Creek Ferry over to Wordie House, we spent quite a bit of time in the bar reading, socialising and playing crib, chess, pool and other games. On our last night at Vernadsky, Matt and I tried out the sauna - an experience not to be missed. The tiny sauna was at a temperature of 110 degrees C, and a ladder runs from the sauna down to the sea below at a temperature of something under minus 1 degree C. Certainly not for the faint hearted, but really exhilarating.
All too soon our time at Vernadsky was up. After making the final call of the season at Rothera, the Ernest Shackleton had come back to get us. We said our goodbyes to the Vernadsky winterers old and new, and sped off back to the ship where we caught up with the outgoing Rothera team, some of whom Matt had spent the 2003 winter with. Only a crossing of the Drake and a 16-hour flight now stood between us and our families and friends back home.
So, that completes the saga of the 2004-2005 Port Lockroy season. We've had a blast! All that remains is for me to say hello and thanks to the tourists, yachties, ship's crews and expedition leaders who made Port Lockroy such fun, and here's a message for the guys at Vernadsky:
Bye for now, Sue
Sue Dowling, Pete Milner, Matt Jobson