Port Lockroy Blog #17: Q&A with the Port Lockroy team
As another season draws to a close, the Port Lockroy team field questions from UKAHT followers about their work on Goudier Island.
The Port Lockroy team have returned after spending over four months on the continent.
While there, Base Leader Lucy Bruzzone, Postmaster Clare Ballantyne, Wildlife Monitor Mairi Hilton and Shop Manager Natalie Corbett welcomed nearly 16,000 visitors from over 200 ships and processed approximately 549kg of mail equating to around 93,000 postcards.
Between shifts, they also had to count penguins, make wildlife observations, run the world’s most remote gift shop and museum, perform general maintenance, dig out up to four metres of snow (while developing a new appreciation of shovels) and stay on top of the upkeep of UKAHT’s oldest historic buildings.
Somehow, amidst all of this, they managed to answer questions sent in from UKAHT followers.
"Anytime we’ve all been together having fun" (Credit: Ruth Mullett)
Your questions answered
Can share how you feel before and after this season?
We all felt super excited, a bit nervous and overwhelmed by the amount we had to take in and prepare before departure! Now we are coming to the end of the season we are feeling very at home here and can’t imagine life away from the ice, sea and weather…or our penguin neighbours. Roads, politics, and social media feel very far away!
What do you guys do during your leisure time?
We rarely have any leisure time. We have one day off every two weeks. During this time, we spend quite a bit of the day sleeping! Then will go for a walk around the island, very slowly to absorb everything – the smaller things you wouldn’t usually notice in particular – limpets, moss, starfish and krill. We also take photos, read books and chat – much like the original men who lived on base.
Downtime at Port Lockroy (Credit: Lucy Bruzzone)
How quickly (if at all) do you adapt to the elements/weather?
Surprisingly quickly! We didn’t really have a choice, because as soon as we arrived, we were thrown into tons of snow and regular stormy weather. It took about a month or more to learn about the sea and how tides and winds affect landings on the island. We got used to the warmer weather through December and January, and now as it’s getting colder again we are reminded of the early days and are once again reaching for extra layers and thicker gloves. It’s come as a bit of a shock but we are adapting again as we must!
What’s been the most interesting thing from an Earth Sciences perspective? Stepping out on such a comparatively unknown landmass must be surreal and I’m curious to know what some of the highlights have been! Also, do you get much involvement ever with research groups going out to Antarctica?
We are all enjoying learning more about the rocks on the island. Clare has just graduated with an Earth Sciences degree and so is sharing all her geological knowledge with us. As we walk around the island, we are now familiar with the faults which exist as well as some of the rock types – gneiss boulders are a particular favourite!
It’s also a wonder to live so close to a very active glacier. We have become familiar with the boom which sounds like thunder as the glacier calves off behind us and the ice then disperses out across the sea. Towering mountains, lively sea, snow and ice – it’s a geographer’s dream on steroids.
In terms of collaborations, we are monitoring the penguins on the island to support a long-term study by the British Antarctic Survey on the breeding success of the penguins and the potential impact of visitors. The island also hosts camera traps used by the University of Oxford for penguin studies. Beyond this, we talk to other stations who are nearby on the radio, as well as passing research ships (including the RRS Sir David Attenborough, of whom we have many stamps!). Just a friendly hello and how are you? It’s a super friendly environment down here and we like to check in with our neighbours.
Is there an age limit for applying for a job at Port Lockroy?
Applicants must be over 18 years old. We all had to undergo a detailed medical and dental clearance process for attending, so it’s more a question of ability than age specifically.
Teamwork is essential (Credit: Clare Ballantyne)
What has been the best part of the job?
Natalie: getting to meet and talk to people from all around the world.
Mairi: meeting the PL team this season – we get on so well, I’ll always be glad I came to. Port Lockroy and had the chance to meet the team.
Lucy: living in close proximity to such stunning natural landscapes.
Clare: The adventures that we’ve had as a team.
What has been the toughest part of the job?
Knowing that it will come to an end! It felt like the shutting-down process came about very suddenly, and we’ll all be sad to leave Lockroy.
What background do you need for this job? What do you do the rest of the year?
We each have a different role here, and our backgrounds vary according to our roles. However, it's important that we all have experience in customer service or retail and an interest in heritage, wildlife and the environment.
We all do different things back home. Lucy works at the University of Cambridge in leadership development for corporate sustainability; Clare just finished a master’s degree in Earth Sciences; Natalie runs her own business; and Mairi just finished a PhD in Conservation Biology.
Life at Port Lockroy is hard work but fun (Credit: Clare Ballantyne)
What has been the most enlightening moment about being in Port Lockroy and have your opinions on anything changed while being there?
The scale and beauty of the landscape and the power of the weather remind us that humans can’t control everything and that we’re just a small part of something much bigger. However, we’ve met lots of people striving to make changes to protect Antarctica and the planet, so we’ve also become more aware of the role that each of us can play in this regard.
We don’t think our opinions on anything specific have changed, but it’s been a privilege to work with such a collaborative and supportive community – Antarctica really brings out the best in people. Alan Carroll, a former base leader at Port Lockroy in the 1950’s, sums it up perfectly: “Cold place, warm people.”
What are you most looking forward to doing/eating etc when you get back home?
Natalie: Taking my dogs on a nice long walk up and over the South Downs, followed by a massive pub lunch!
Mairi: Taking my dog for a walk and going out to brunch!
Lucy: Catching up with friends and family and eating a salad!
Clare: Eating my Mum’s apple crumble with custard, then walking the dog in the Lincolnshire Wolds.
Christmas at Port Lockroy (Credit: Clare Ballantyne)
Best and worst parts of the job?
@carr.teresa / @karn_christensen, Instagram
The best part of the job is how varied it is. You never really know what the day is going to bring. We get to meet so many interesting people when we welcome them to the museum, and then we get to survey penguins and do all of the other tasks required to run the base. There’s always something interesting to write in our diaries at the end of the day! There are no worst parts of the job. Everything we do here is a privilege because it means we get to spend time at Port Lockroy!
One key skill required?
@carr.teresa / @karn_christensen, Instagram
Flexibility! Not physically; but with regards to how each day pans out.
For people applying to work on the base, what advice do you have?
- Be yourself! UKAHT choose a team who will get along well and support each other to get all the daily tasks done, so to show you’ll be the right person for the job, it’s important that you be true to yourself.
- Make sure you understand what the job entails – busy days that are not always full of glamorous tasks. The job is much more focused on the museum, shop and post office aspects than penguins, so if you’re looking for a very wildlife-focused role, this might not be the job for you.
- You need to be excited about Port Lockroy – you’ll be welcoming many guests to the site over four months, so genuine enthusiasm is a must!
- There is A LOT of penguin poo! It’s definitely not a place for people that are sensitive to these types of things.
You must get used to penguin guano at Port Lockroy (Credit: Mairi Hilton)
What do you do in your free time?
Sleep! Or have a whole-team movie night, walk around the island, take some photos, play games, or have a good chat over some drinks!
What do you eat?
Read our blog post on how we get creative with our food in Antarctica: Ready, steady, cook at Port Lockroy.
Are you excited to see your family and pets (especially a certain dog called Maisie)?
Of course! We will all be sad to leave Port Lockroy, but leaving means we get to be reunited with loved ones. We are all very excited to be reunited with our four-legged friends and go for a walk!
Would you go back?
We’ve all definitely caught the Polar bug and will hopefully be returning to the white continent in some capacity. It truly is a beautiful, magical place and we’d all love to spend more time exploring it.
Can you bring me back a penguin or two?
No, but you can adopt a penguin and get a plushie one to keep!
Penguin smuggling is strictly forbidden! (Credit: Mairi Hilton)
How do you think living in Antarctica will impact your life after you leave?
I think living in Antarctica will change our lives, as it will initiate a career switch for at least some of us! We’ve all enjoyed our time down here so much that we want to try and get back in some form: at Port Lockroy, as an expedition team on ships or as scientists.
Was this an entirely new experience for all of you? What was the application process like?
Coming to Antarctica was a brand-new experience for all of us, although some of us have dreamed of coming here for years and we all have backgrounds and experiences that lent themselves to the job.
The application process was a long and thorough one. After the initial online application, we were invited to a video interview with a panel from the team at the Cambridge offices. This interview also came with a timed writing exercise. After this, we were invited to Cambridge for a selection day with the final 12 applicants. On the selection day, we did various team-building exercises and personality tests – we even did an escape room!
Favourite moment of the season?
Natalie: When we first saw icebergs, marking our arrival in Antarctica after a two-day Drake crossing. It was such a special and breathtaking moment, it really signalled the start of our adventures down here and I’ve continued to be awe-struck by the size and magnificence of the icebergs ever since.
Lucy: Every day I look out of the windows or up to the mountains and see the clouds swirling around them, they are really awe-inspiring!
Mairi: All of it!
Clare: Anytime we’ve all been together having fun.
A glorious day at Port Lockroy (Credit: Natalie Corbett)
Least favourite food?
Any fears for the future (after leaving)?
Spiders- we haven’t had to deal with them here
What will you miss the most when you’re home?
Having adventures as a team.
Favourite object at Port Lockroy?
Do you ever feel lonely?
We’ve all had so much fun as a team this year, that we’ve not felt lonely at all. The UK Antarctic Heritage Trust did an absolutely fantastic job at selecting us as a team, we all immediately bonded and have had the best season together. It’s going to be very strange for all of us to leave here and not be spending every day together anymore.
Any scary moments during your stay?
Clare was once looking through binoculars when a skua swooped a couple of metres in front of her, but of course, appeared much closer through the binoculars and gave her a huge fright! Much to Mairi’s entertainment. Otherwise, nothing too scary has happened.
A skua in flight (Credit: Mairi Hilton)
Any specific moment of joy/inspiration?
The first time we heard icebergs popping and cracking in the sunlight comes to mind. Another memorable moment was an evening when we all sat down at the landing site at the end of a particularly sunny day, watching humpback and minke whales swimming out in the bay. It was extraordinary.
How easy/hard was it to adjust to life down there?
Adjusting to life in Port Lockroy was surprisingly easy for all of us! There were some difficulties, to begin with. For example, remembering to pick up your VHF radio, waterproofs, sunglasses and gloves when going from the boot room to outside took a bit of getting used to, but we’re now all pros. From the moment we came ashore it really felt like home for all of us. We very quickly became like a little family, the Nissen hut a cosy home to return to at the end of each day for a warm hot chocolate and a yummy dinner.
What happens to human waste at Port Lockroy?
We have a special permit to dispose of it in the sea. Because we are only four people on base, the amount of waste is small and is considered to have a negligible impact.
Is Antarctica experiencing a below AVG summer temperature?
On our tiny island at Port Lockroy with limited internet and resources, we can’t speak for Antarctica as a whole. We don’t have information about the AVG summer temperatures of previous years, but our newly installed weather station has allowed us to calculate the AVG summer temperature this year to be 2֯°C.
The low sea ice has been noticeable as the bay has very rarely been filled with ice – repeat visitors to Port Lockroy tell us is unusual.
There's been plenty of snow this year! (Credit: Clare Ballantyne)
What's been the best thing about your time in the Antarctic? And the most difficult thing?
Best thing? It’s impossible to just pick one thing. The people, the scenery, the wildlife – literally, every single thing has been perfect.
Most difficult thing? Saying goodbye to Port Lockroy – it was an emotional day!
What is something that most people wouldn't think of about living in Antarctica?
That it’s not actually white on our island, it’s rather brown from December onwards. There is so much guano! We are very much living in the midst of a bird colony here and we’ve all been shocked at just how much the penguins poo!
What has been your best experience working in the post office?
Getting to help people share their experiences of this incredible place with loved ones all across the world! Visitors are really excited to send a postcard from Port Lockroy, so it’s great to make this happen.
Life in the Post Office (Credit: Lucy Bruzzone)
Any tips for landing the dream job? I’m applying again this year! And tips on “surviving” once there.
Read UKAHT's FAQs on applying for Port Lockroy.
Support your team, communicate and pace yourself: there are a lot of tasks to do but it doesn’t need to happen all at once.
Thanks for the warm welcome in mid-December, have you noticed the daytime weather becoming much colder as your posting draws to an end?
Adrian Polo Smith, Facebook
Yes! In the last week or so it has turned much colder. The ‘feels like’ temperature has reached -10°C, whereas it used to be around zero most of the time.
Lucy snaps the scenery (Credit: Clare Ballantyne)
How did you like the honey from Prague? Thanks a lot for the amazing lectures and for sending the postcards – they made it in just four weeks!
Matej Hronec, Facebook
We loved it! Thanks so much for the honey. We ate it all within a couple of weeks and were sad when it was finished. It was great to meet you, we’re very glad you enjoyed the lecture and that the postcards made it to you so quickly.
Could you tell us about your best wildlife experiences, please?
Trevor Potts, Facebook
Natalie: Just yesterday, a Skua swooped right past my head, maybe an inch from my face. It was so close I could hear the wind passing through its feathers. It’s amazing to be living so close to such impressive, massive birds.
Mairi: When we saw the first penguin chick! Natalie and I were surveying the whole colony and weren’t expecting to see any chicks, so it came as a surprise. The penguins had a rough start to the year, so we felt so relieved to finally see a chick! There were also a few times when we got into a zodiac (tender boat) and humpback whales appeared about 15-20 metres away, which was incredible!
Lucy: I went outside in the evening during a blizzard and saw a giant petrel walking around on the ground outside the Nissen, it was so huge and majestic, a reward for heading out at night to turn off the gas!
Clare: When I saw a fur seal, Weddell seal, crabeater seal, and then leopard seal whilst walking around the island, with Antarctic terns, giant petrels, kelp gulls, skuas, and Wilson’s storm petrels flying across the bay. I have enjoyed learning to identify all our neighbours!
Penguins are never far away (Credit: Lucy Bruzzone)
How often do you manage to shower?
Brenden Bithell, Facebook
We’ve been quite lucky this year, with ships passing fairly regularly. The longest any of us have gone without a shower is 9 days, but usually, it's every three or four days. You get used to the lack of shower facilities fairly quickly though. Merino wool layers are key to not getting smelly and the colder climate here means that we’re not sweating as much.
Team Port Lockroy 2022-23
Lucy Bruzzone, Base Leader
Clare Ballantyne, General Assistant, Postmaster
Mairi Hilton, General Assistant, Wildlife Monitor
Natalie Corbett, Shop Manager