Mountains have long held a kind of magic over many of us, both enthralled and appalled by their wild irregularity and the glimpse of danger deep in their embrace. Many peaks have great significance to different faiths and cultures, a rich folklore to explain their origin, or are places of pilgrimage for locals and visitors alike.
You are not in the mountains. The mountains are in you.
The most spectacular mountains in the world have captivated the imagination of those that have laid eyes on them. The endless play of light and weather creates views that melt and shift in moments. Dynamic landscapes that are at once intimate and vastly unknowable. Peaks that rake the sky and alter the perspective of those that attain the lofty heights. There is no getting accustomed to them.
To aim for the highest point is not the only way to climb a mountain.
Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
Whether you’re a seasoned mountaineer, passionate orographer or geologist, a photographer, or merely an inquiring traveller, there’s going to be a mountain on this list that will leave you spellbound.
At first glance, Jougla Point is low rocky peninsula indented with small coves on the southern edge of the natural harbour at Port Lockroy, on the edge of Weinke Island. A colony of gentoo penguins occupy the peninsula during the breeding season, sharing space with blue-eyed shags and their prehistoric looking offspring, and on the ridge behind, rising steeply to the blue ice of Harbour Glacier, nest Antarctic skuas and kelp gulls.
Most visitors spend some time at Jougla Point in conjunction with their visit to Goudier Island, site of historic Base A, the first permanent British base on the Antarctic Peninsula, and home to the world-famous Penguin Post Office at Port Lockroy. And just like it’s near neighbour, a visit to Jougla Point reveals an insight into the history of human activity in Antarctica, though a glimpse of a darker, more industrial past.
As the tourist season progresses, snowmelt reveals a jumbled collection of weathered old whale bones among the granite stones. Rusted chains and shackles that once moored a large ship. A vast skeleton, a composite mainly constructed from the bones of fin whales is laid out in a cove. Further from the water’s edge, the rocks are covered with the scattered staves of old wooden barrels, and crumbling concrete footings show where buildings once stood.
The Antarctic Whaling Industry
From the early 1900s, the majority of ships operating in Antarctic waters were part of the whaling fleet, or scientific survey vessels associated with the industry. Most had sailed from western Norway and eastern Scotland, signing crews from Dundee, Bergen, Leith, Sandefjord, Tórshavn, Larvik, and Lerwick.
The unknown qualities of Antarctica and the notoriously challenging conditions of the Southern Ocean were considered worth exploring, as traditional whaling grounds in the northern hemisphere had been exhausted. Bases were established on South Georgia and in the Falkland Islands to take advantage of the untapped resources of the South, though the human costs were high.
Floating factory ships soon ousted the need to transport whales to shore for processing, working alongside a small fleet of fast, agile whale catcher boats, which would chase down whales and harpoon them for factory ships to collect. The harpoons were explosive, lodging in the whale’s body before detonating a few seconds later, guaranteeing a kill.
The whalers charted large sections of the Antarctic Peninsula and the coast of Queen Maud Land (Dronning Maud Land), making their contribution to the knowledge of the continent, and often provided a safety net for expedition vessels on voyages of exploration early in the Heroic Age of Antarctica. But the intensity of their activity left an indelible impact on the ecosystem they exploited.
The Antarctic summer of 1930-31 was unprecedented, with the greatest number of whaling vessels operating in the Southern Ocean concurrently; 232 whale catcher ships taking their catches to 32 pelagic factory ships, nine floating factories moored in harbours like Port Lockroy, and six shore-based whaling stations. These were serviced by a fleet of supply ships, regularly bringing in food and fuel for the crews, and taking away processed whale oil for the global market.
In that season alone, records show that 29,410 blue whales were killed in the Antarctic, setting an all-time record for the exploitation of the species. Just over 30 years later, in the 1964-65 season, only 20 blue whales were killed, all that the hunters had observed.
The End of the Whaling Industry in Antarctica
More than 1.5 million whales were slaughtered in Antarctic waters before the International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium on commercial whaling was enforced in 1986.
By this time the industry was already in terminal decline, the result of over-exploitation of the whale stocks and increased regulation by the IWC reducing profitability. Companies faced the paradox that further hunting at existing levels would hasten the end of their industry, but there was no reward for showing restraint, and many of the key players diverted their interests into shipping freight or pelagic fishing.
The end of the whaling industry did not come from a position of nature conservation or animal welfare, but rather the loss of economic profitability from the sector.
The Return of the Whales
The Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary was established in 1994. Covering an area of 50 million km2, including waters below latitude 60° South governed by the Antarctic Treaty System, it protects waters that provide summer feeding for an estimated 85% of all the world’s whales. The aim of the sanctuary is to enable the recovery of whale populations, not just in terms of absolute numbers, but also in the balance of sexes, age structures, and genetic diversity.
In early 2020, the British Antarctic Survey reported on the results of several years of expedition studies in the waters around South Georgia, suggesting that the long, slow road to recovery was now starting to show results. The observers recorded 55 different blue whales over 36 sightings in 2020, up from just one confirmed sighting in 2018.
Visitors to Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands can contribute photographs and details of any whale sightings they have on their voyage to the citizen science project Happy Whale and help be part of the efforts to monitor the return of the whales to Antarctic waters.
Have you visited Port Lockroy and Jougla Point?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
Did this post capture your imagination? Why not pin it for later?
The last three months have been a strange time for all of us, and certainly not what I’d anticipated for my return from Port Lockroy. Reunions planned with friends and family were tempered by the COVID pandemic response, filtered through window glass and laptop screens, and those “what next” plans I’d made were left on ice. Potential opportunities for future work drifted away over the horizon or sank without trace, and other responsibilities have surfaced in their wake.
So despite an abundance of time that’s been available during the lockdown, it’s been exceptionally difficult to find the right mental space to reflect on my time in Antarctica at Port Lockroy.
Part of that is the challenge of finding the right language to articulate all the experiences, thoughts, emotions, and ideas I felt in Antarctica, and distil down to something palpable, unmasked by superlatives that a place of such outrageous beauty demands. Over the 110 days of our stay, I took thousands of photographs, made several short films and sound recordings, and filled my journal and sketchbook with observations. But still, it sometimes feels as if the whole thing wasn’t quite real.
It’d taken a long time for me to reach Antarctica. I’ve always been drawn to the region, at first through a fascination with the strange and unusual wildlife that make their home on (and under) the ice, then being captivated by stories of exploration and adventure. Growing up in northeast Scotland, the polar ship RRS Discovery, in drydock in Dundee, was practically on my doorstep, and the rough country of the nearby Angus Glens and Deeside served as a training ground for some of the first to venture South.
I studied marine biology at university, holding a vague and undefined idea that it had the potential to take me there as a research scientist or in a support role at a base, however, the events of my life conspired to take me elsewhere. The cost of visiting Antarctica as a tourist was way beyond my reach, so I forgot all about the possibility for a while.
Then, a few years ago, the idea popped up again. My job in environmental education had been made redundant following cutbacks, and after a summer sailing with Draken Harald Hårfagre in Norway, I needed a paying job. I started in the warehouse of a well-known online shopping company*, working 50 hour weeks stocking shelves as they approached their peak-sales period in November. I can honestly say I have never had a less enjoyable job, although my squat and stretch game was on fire.
*That big river in South America. Not the Orinoco.
Driving home one evening, shortly before the anticipated horror of Black Friday/Cyber Monday shopping, I heard a caller on the radio request a song for the team heading to Antarctica to work in the Penguin Post Office for the season. As soon as I was in the door, I’d searched out the UKAHT website and worked out how to apply for the role. This was my way to go South.
The goal had crystallised, but it wasn’t a straightforward route to get there. When applications opened the following February, I submitted from Bermuda, days before setting out on a transatlantic sailing voyage. When we arrived in the UK a month later I didn’t get the news I was hoping for, to be part of the 12 people invited to selection, but had an encouraging note from the Ops manager to tell me to keep applying for the role.
In between other opportunities, following selection on my second time around, I got the call to say I’d been successful. I’d just been ashore to chat about moorings in Loch Spelve on Mull, for Irene, and had hopped into my wee tender, untied and pushed off. My phone rang as I was about to start the outboard, so I let myself drift out into the loch to take the call, hoping I didn’t drift out of mobile reception before I got the official nod.
The thing about the opportunity that had appealed to me most was the prospect of spending an extended period in a location of which most people only get a snapshot glimpse. To be witness to the progression of time, the comings and goings of the wildlife, and the changing season in the far South.
And that was undoubtedly the highlight of my time in Antarctica. Paying heed to changes in my surroundings: noting snowmelt or the scouring effects of excoriating wind; the swirling movement of ice floes riding on the tide; and the march of increasing day length, followed by returning night and star-filled skies as we tilted over the equinox. A muffled boom reverberating through the landscape, felt as a pressure wave in the ears as much as heard, as ice calved and crumbled from the glacier. Sculpted chunks of bergy ice which glowed with a blue luminosity, as if lit from within. There’s an ethereal quality to the place.
Then the more subtle captivating things: the shape and movement of clouds; scintillating sundogs and solar arcs; the feel of the wind, from a gentle caress to a knife-sharp slash, the ever-changing play of light and shadow over the landscape. Moments that leave one consistently undone by the beauty of it all.
And of course, the wildlife. The ceaseless cacophony of life in the penguin colony. Watching penguins on the island, getting to know them by their nesting locations, and following the progress of a pair, it was hard not to anthropomorphise. Or to foist a unilateral emotional bond upon them. Their swaying, tottering gait, stumpy little legs and rounded tummy, and naïve inquisitiveness around us seem to recall human toddlers, and invoked a secret desire in me to name them all.
Even so, living amongst penguins for any time, happenings in the colony show us any human connections we suppose to these creatures are tenuous. At first glance they’re putting on a chaotic avian comedy show; curious chicks playing with our buckets and brooms, throwing back their wings and chasing adults for food, always demanding more. Taking to the water for the first time, with none of the natural grace one would expect of a sea creature.
In reality, we watched a wholly unsentimental and more elemental existence: newly hatched chicks huddle in nests constructed with bones from ill-fated siblings of previous years; adults voiding excrement on each other, from nests highest on the rock to those below, sheathbills swooping in to eat the debris; the lurking threat of predators from the skies and the depths. Witnessing the awesome and grotesque cycle of life and death on a daily basis, alternately heartwarming then heartbreaking, always fascinating, is part of the unique Antarctic experience.
Though they demand the most attention, penguins are not the only creatures that leave an indelible mark on the memory. Other birds, sleek Antarctic terns, the colour of low cloud on a soft day, and skuas, ever-observant to opportunities to pillage the penguin colonies. Sheathbills, our curious companions with their only-a-mother-could-love appearance, and monstrous giant petrels, their apparent cruelties to distressing to note here.
The uncanny song of Weddell seals, lounging on an ice floe in the back bay. The lurking menace of leopard seals, conducting secret surveillance of the shallows, waiting to surge ashore and snatch the unwary. A boulder, almost the size of a small island, that yawned deeply and transformed into a bull elephant seal.
On still days, when fog lay like a felt blanket over the natural harbour obscuring views of peaks and pinnacles of Wiencke Island, immediate sounds were dampened, amplifying the roaring silence that lay behind. The raucous colonies of penguins and blue-eyed shags muffled long enough to pick out the saltwater signals of whales taking their breaths in the silky, quicksilver water of the bay; two, no three humpbacks scouting the deep water channel on the inside of Lecuyer Point, or a lone minke making its way between the improbably named islands of Boogie and Woogie.
Port Lockroy is a rare place in Antarctica, a tiny island where the human story of the continent is writ large. Around us was the evidence of the whalers that followed the ships of the Heroic Age of exploration South, through to Operation Tabarin and the construction of Bransfield House/Base A, at the time when international relations on the ice were strained, and politics pushed to the fore. Then the era of science, where the continent was transformed into a vast laboratory of measuring and monitoring, revealed by the artefacts and oral histories of the museum, to our current-day experiences of expedition tourism and bucket-list travel.
The wealth of stories continued with the people we met throughout the season, both face-to-face and through correspondence delivered to the Post Office. Previous Lockroy team members, experienced field guides and expedition leaders, research scientists, and former and current staff of both the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust and British Antarctic Survey passed through Goudier Island during the season, enriching our understanding of the place and welcoming us to the Antarctic family like we already belonged, allowing us to become part of the ongoing history of the place.
Port Lockroy is reported to be one of the most visited sites in Antarctica, and while this season proved to be far from usual, we still welcomed thousands of people into our small world, and helped them pass on their share of wonder and awe written on the back of a postcard.
Finally, all that remains is to say what a privilege it was to share such a profound experience with an incredible team of people, who started the season as my work colleagues and after four months of living in each other’s pockets, are firmly life-long friends. Sitting together on a golden afternoon by the landing site, once the day’s guests had gone, watching for the blown spray and flashes of tail flukes across the Neumayer Channel, listening to the snapcracklepop of melting icebergs, and toasting our luck with gin gifted by the crew of a superyacht and tonic scrounged from our favourite hospitality manager. Or huddled together in a cuddlepuddle under blankets and duvets to watch a film as sleety rain-lashed windows and storm-force winds shook the very building around us. These are the moments I’ll cherish most.
Standing on the aft deck of the ship that would take us back to Ushuaia I could feel the undeniable magnetic pull from our island, tucked under the sheer rock and ice of Mount Luigi and the Seven Sisters, then a sudden snap as we rounded the headland and Port Lockroy was lost behind the rise of Doumer Island. I think a little piece of my heart was left behind.
By endurance we sauna.
Extracts from this piece were first published as posts on the UKAHTPort Lockroy blog.
A few of my favourite things from the past season.
I’ve just returned from four months in Antarctica, working for the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust in the famous Penguin Post Office in Port Lockroy through the southern summer season. It’s been an overwhelming couple of weeks, as I reconnected to the rest of the world and remembered how to do little everyday things that were missing from my life over those 110 days.
Like using money and buying things I want from shops and bars, rather than just asking someone to bring things to me. Driving, and even just moving around at a faster pace. The colour green. Or looking out the window and seeing animals that aren’t penguins. I miss those penguins. (Though the odour of penguin guano is still lingering on in the fabric of my outdoor clothing).
Then there was the added strangeness of adjusting to our new normal in the time of corona. Reuniting with family wasn’t the hugs and long conversations I’d imagined I’d have, but waving through the window of houses as I stood outside in the garden, and staccato notes in what’s app chats and skype calls. It’s tough, but I know that I’m not the worst off in this situation, and for that, I’m so very thankful.
These are a few of the things that I loved over my Antarctic season, living in close confines with a small team, on a little island with no escape. There may even be a couple of things you find useful yourself over the next few weeks as we adjust to living in lockdown.
A series of interesting facts about Antarctica that I uncovered during my research.
Earth’s southernmost continent held us in its thrall long before it was first sighted in January 1820, still just a blank space on the map. The limitless solitude and silence, the vastness of scale, occupying mythical space in our imagination. Even now, with the possibility to visit the continent as a tourist, we are drawn by the idea of blankness, the purity of a landscape without the cultural associations of our own, where we can make our own connections and add new pins to the map.
I’ve done a large amount of research recently to familiarise myself with Antarctica: the short human history and tales of exploration; ecosystems and wildlife; the rock and the ice; the striking natural beauty of the continent. In the process, I’ve uncovered more than a few interesting facts on which to hang my own understanding and experience, and I’m sharing the best of them here.
I’ve compiled a list of my favourite books about Antarctica, including biographies, travelogues, and expedition tales.
I’ve long had a fascination with Antarctica, being captivated by stories of exploration and discovery in Readers Digest books at my grandparent’s house on long Scottish summer afternoons. Primary school trips to see the polar vessel RRS Discovery in Dundee, the three-masted barque that took Scott and Shackleton on their successful first voyage south, and to the penguin enclosure in Edinburgh Zoo, where I met Sir Nils Olav (then just RSM of the Norwegian King’s Guard), further fuelled that interest.
So I’ve been in an absolute whirlwind of excitement since finding out I’ve finally got the opportunity to go for myself; the realisation of a long-burning ambition. I’m part of the team from the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust that will be based at Port Lockroy, to run the famous Penguin Post Office, for the 19/20 season.
In preparation, I immersed myself in Antarctic-themed reading, and these are some of my favourite books. Until you get the chance for yourself, these books will transport you South. I’ve also rated each book by the amount of penguin content it contains, not as a comment on the quality of the writing. They’re all good books, Brent.