Port Lockroy Blog #14: Base A: then and now
One of the most exciting aspects of running the world’s southernmost museum is seeing visitors come face-to-face with the “Beastie”. This magnificent ionosonde machine measured the upper atmosphere from Port Lockroy between 1953 and 1961, contributing to a unique long-term dataset that demonstrates global warming and informs modern climate models.
However, I have also enjoyed turning my attention to less conspicuous artefacts kept safe in Bransfield House: annual base reports and radio messages from the 1940s, 50s and 60s. These documents provide insight into the lives of the men who lived here over 70 years ago, with surprising similarities to our lives as a team operating the base today.
Below are excerpts written by Port Lockroy's 1944-62 occupants, with commentary elaborating on their relevance to us in 2023!
“Life progresses apace and it doesn’t get too tedious.”
Indeed, the past four months at Port Lockroy have flown by and we can't believe it's almost time for us to leave! We have found that although our team have become proficient in running the museum, post office, shop, and penguin survey, Antarctica never fails to keep us on our toes. We can never plan far ahead or know exactly what's going to happen in a day because of weather and ice conditions, and accordingly, ship schedules and our own plans, change constantly.
An entertaining request from the 1957 General Assistant (Credit: Clare Ballantyne)
It reads “FROM: ‘Base A’. Could you fulfil the requirements for the IGY [International Geophysical Year]? Two dozen large McEwan's type sparkling ales. Four Gordon's type gin. Grateful you arrange shipment replacements and render valuation for settlement. Usual irreproachable discretion appreciated.”
“Weather lousy. Digs fair. Grub smashing.”
Still an accurate summary! We have experienced lots of wind (up to 26 meters per second) and rain during our time here. In fact, it has been the wettest Antarctic summer since 1968, according to measurements taken at the nearby U.S. Palmer station. Fortunately, our Nissen accommodation has been a cosy refuge from the many storms that have passed by. We have also eaten very well! Lucy served up a particularly spectacular lunch yesterday of freshly made bread with poached eggs and avocados generously donated by a visiting yacht.
“Life has been quite pleasant even during the coldest spells. The main room was warm at all times and even with a howling gale outside and low temperatures... we could sit in our pyjamas and play cards.”
Our main living space was often 6°C whilst eating breakfast at the start of the season, so I’m not convinced ‘warm at all times’ would be an accurate description today. Even so, we have maintained the practice of sitting in pyjamas playing cards during storms, and expanded the repertoire of games to include Pass the Pugs, Charades, Scrabble, and Catan!
“Photography has been the outstanding hobby this year. The activities and growth of the Penguin chicks have been made the subject of much camera clicking.”
Still applicable for the team, except we no longer require the use of the darkroom in Bransfield House to develop our photographs!
Lucy photographing a yacht sailing out of Port Lockroy (Credit: Clare Ballantyne)
The greatest interest, for all of us I think, has lain [been] in the comings and goings of the local bird life. Apart from Penguins, there are Terns, Sheathbills, Skuas, and Wilson's Petrels... Though none of us are learned in Ornithology, the activities of the various birds and their nesting habits and chicks have been a source of much interest and amusement.
We observe the same varied bird life at Port Lockroy today: chirping terns, Wilson’s Petrels that dart bat-like across the sea surface, and guano-eating sheathbills that enthusiastically bob up and down whilst making a clucking noise (hence their nickname, garbage chickens). Particular highlights include the sleeping penguin chicks. They lie splayed on their front, dreamily lifting their flippers and oversized orange feet into the air.
A penguin chick snoozing next to its parent (Credit: Mairi Hilton)
Alongside are penguins that have started moulting all their feathers ahead of leaving Port Lockroy for winter. They spend their days huddling miserably next to rocks, sheltering from the elements and unmoving except to preen themselves. Their changing appearance is fascinating and funny to watch. The white feathers that form the characteristic headband remain in place long after the grey facial feathers. As such, some Gentoos look like they have very impressive eyebrows!
[Regarding Adelie penguins] “This bird is only an occasional visitor… obviously lost and swimming aimlessly in the harbour. When observed with the Gentoos both species have shown an attitude of mutual indifference to each other.”
It's always a highlight to see the occasional Adelie as it rushes around with its hunched back, out of place amongst the more sedentary waddling Gentoo penguins. Chinstraps sometimes visit us too.
“One of the main faults of this base is the lack of space on the island and the impossibility to be able to get away from the base... This could be overcome by an aerial ropeway.”
Interestingly, none of our team has minded living on a football pitch-sized island, as we are surrounded in all directions by massive open spaces: mountains, clouds, and wide channels. However, in contrast to the residents in the 1950s, and in the continued (sad but safe) absence of a long suspension bridge, we have been able to occasionally leave the island by getting lifts from ships. This has enabled us to successfully conduct surveys of the penguin colonies on the three neighbouring islands. During these excursions, we have been excited to get our first glimpses of blue-eyed shag chicks, fur seals, and a moulting Chinstrap penguin!
A blue-eyed shag nesting on a neighbouring island (Credit: Mairi Hilton)
“Conversations between bases were greatly enjoyed. The majority of talks were with our nearest neighbours... but all bases were contacted during the year and it was pleasant to discuss news and views.”
Similarly, this year we enjoyed making twice-daily radio contact with the conservation team while they were repainting the hut at Damoy. It was fun to have neighbours for the first time after two months, just around the corner but hidden from view by a towering glacier! We checked in every morning and evening to discuss our plans and accomplishments, and exchanged thoughts of the day which included inspirational quotes such as 'when things seem like an uphill struggle, think of the view from the top'. We also enjoyed a nice chat with the U.S. Palmer station and frequently hear the nearby Chilean Base, Yelcho, via the radio.
“It has been an extremely fine and pleasant year and personally I could not hope for more agreeable companions.”
Couldn't have put it better myself!
Clare Ballantyne, General Assistant and Postmaster, Port Lockroy