Life in Antarctica: Looking back on a season at the Penguin Post Office

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The view from our doorstep. Looking from the accommodation building on Goudier Island to the historic Base A building at Port Lockroy in January 2020.

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.

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The sailing ship Bark Europa, moored up in the back bay under Jabet Peak, was one of the more unusual vessels visiting Port Lockroy during the season.

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.

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The ice-bound bay filled with brashy floes, making it impossible for zodiacs to land on the island and leaving us isolated.

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.

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The modern nissen hut that provided our home for four months, slowly revealed by thawing snow. On arrival, it was a high as the top of the door frame and we dug our way in.
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Collecting bergy ice for a freshwater supply early in the season. Most of our drinking water was provided by visiting ships, but when the ice closed in and ships couldn’t visit, we melted ice.

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.

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Don’t stand so close to me. A fine example of the projectile defecation of penguins. I believe there are even some papers written on why? and even how far?
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The colony surrounding the Stevenson screen at the highest point of the island.

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.

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The blatant thievery and cheating in the colony contributes to soap opera levels of drama.
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The chicks are in equal measures adorable and infuriating, especially if you’re trying to transport a 20kg cylinder of propane from sone side of the island to the other, and the priority is to create minimal disturbance to their activity (mainly napping).

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.

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At the creching stage, the chicks become bolder and venture away from nests to form small gangs and await a parent to arrive with a regurgitated krill meal.

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.

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Graffiti on the rocks of Goudier Island, left by the sailors and whalers of the Solstrief in 1912, one of the largest factory whaling ships to work Antarctic waters.

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.

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Base A, the first permanent British base established on the Antarctic Peninsula, and now home to the Penguin Post Office and museum.
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The incongruity of the galley view.

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.

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Postcards cancelled and packaged, ready to start their journeys around the world.

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.

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The awesome 19/20 season Port Lockroy team. Photo Credit: UKAHT
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An icy evening spotting arcs and sun pillars in nacreous skies and shimmering reflections by the landing site.

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.

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It wasn’t actually cold enough to justify all those clothes on that day. Taken as part of a photoshoot wearing our branded gear and items for sale in the shop.

Extracts from this piece were first published as posts on the UKAHT Port Lockroy blog.

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Armchair Travel: 10 Books to Explore Antarctica

I’ve compiled a list of my favourite books about Antarctica, including biographies, travelogues, and expedition tales. 

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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. Continue reading “Armchair Travel: 10 Books to Explore Antarctica”