Letter from Lockroy - February 12th 2011

Letter from Lockroy - 12 February

This week we have been lucky enough to see various folk from other bases in Antarctica.  It is always a pleasure to meet our polar neighbours, and to learn from them about their experiences and life on the different stations.  The first encounter came via a Polish yacht, Katharsis; a chap called Peter from the Polish Arctowski station was on board.  He had just spent the last 16 months or so on King George Island, South Shetland Islands. There seem to be so many bases at KGI, as it is more commonly known (Great Wall, Frei, Copacabana Hut, Bellinghausen...).  The snow conditions at the start of the summer (Nov 2010) there were very different from Goudier Island; not much snow fall to speak of, whereas here we have had plenty of snow and ice!  In contrast, last summer saw the situation reversed; very little snow on the island here, but plenty in the South Shetlands.  Here our chicks are far later in their development than on King George Island and further north on the peninsula.

Large chicks rest on the footpath!

It was Ylva and Hen's turn to venture off base for a short while on Thursday, to visit the US Palmer Station. Lisa Trotter, expedition leader for National Geographic Explorer (and Station Manager for Palmer last winter), kindly offered two of the team a ride over to Anvers Island to meet our American neighbours. Station manager, Rebecca Shoop, , welcomed our two UKAHT representatives, and they enjoyed a fascinating tour of the base, including the living quarters and laboratories.  Souvenirs requested from the rest of the team (Nikki and Hannele) were purchased in Palmer's shop, and in turn a small mobile gift shop was offered from Port Lockroy.  Ylva and Hen returned to base later that evening with a very large box of assorted yummy cookies, and had even managed to smuggle back Diane's much-coveted cookie recipe for Nikki.  What a lovely surprise treat for Hen and Ylva!  Many thanks to Lisa and National Geographic Explorer.

                                                  Ylva and Hen at Palmer station on Anvers Island

As well as the team trip off base, we have been delighted to welcome back VIP team members; we were all excited about UKAHT Operation Manager Tudor's return to Port Lockroy on 8 February (dubbed 'T Day' by the team and written large in red on our calendar).  Thanks to Hurtigruten's kind transportation on the Fram, Tudor has been on a whirlwind inspection tour of the historic bases measuring-up, making copious amounts of notes and taking plenty of photographs of these special places to plan for future work.  At Detaille he met up with Dave, Anna, Michael and Liesl, and saw first-hand their fantastic progress with key works done to weather-proof and clear up the base.

Tudor with the Detaille team: Liesl, Michael, Anna, Dave and the historic hut in the background  Tudor visits the HSM at Stonington Island

With just one sunny ship-free day this week, we were able to make the most of some calm weather to crack on with the repainting of Bransfield House.  The combination of snow walls around the house at the start of the season, a busy January and windy wet weather so far in February, has not made outdoor work an easy task this summer.  The team donned the obligatory overalls and boots to combat the 'pink mud' and the house is looking increasingly shiny and fresh again with a black coat of bitumen, putty replaced in windows and a refreshed colour of red and white on the frames.  Now that the chicks have only just crèched and moved away from the front of the new gennie shed/gift shop, we are able to start on this part of the building.  Please keep your fingers crossed for some sunny, calm weather for our last month here at Port Lockroy!  We look forward to updating you as to the coming week's progress, which will happen weather-dependent or not! 

Painting in progress

It is due to the heavy snow that the gentoos were delayed in their breeding cycle this year.  The very young chicks have been struggling here at Port Lockroy, with quite a few being picked off out of the crèches by the ever-opportunistic snowy sheath bills. It is at times like these that our fondness for the scavengers disappears - but such is the cycle of life here in Antarctica.  We have also on several occasions had the pleasure of watching a giant petrel having its lunch outside the rear veranda of the Nissen hut, at the same time that we have broken for a bite to eat!  The vast majority of the chicks are almost the size of their parents, and have  started to crèche.  The gulley between Bransfield House and the Nissen hut, as well as the buried water boats down by the boat shed, have become popular gathering grounds for the chicks.  The gaggles are looked over by one or two adults.  We believe we can still just about recognise Puddle (our first chick this season), whose head is decidedly that of an adult chick, with the rest dressed in a fluffy suit of grey and white cotton wool.  Sadly this 'fluff' is not yet waterproof, and thanks to the rainy weather, the chicks have been very bedraggled the last week.  The many moulting penguins on the island are also looking sorry for themselves. We have considerably more than we would  normally expect at this time, probably due to the failed breeding success of many of the adults. Gentoos moult once a year, and it takes around three weeks for them to lose their feathers and produce new ones. At this time they cannot feed (as they are not waterproof) and so rely on their energy stocks to survive. It is not an easy time for them, and we are especially sensitive as to these birds at the moment.

   Giant Petrel hunting and feeding on chick Fur seals visit the island

 As well as anticipated visitors, we had a surprise call from a couple of young fur seals, who chose to rest on some outlying rocks just to the north west of the island.  What an amazing sight for us and a rare treat to sit for a short while watching one scratch and snooze just a matter of metres away from the shoreline.   We have missed the usual territorial leopard seal that prowls the area, although are confident he will return just as the young penguins are venturing into the water.  In fact it seems that leopard seals are notably absent from this area according to the expedition teams, who have been hoping to spot one here.  On the other hand, 'crabbies' (crabeater seals) have been a common sight both around Port Lockroy and in the surrounding channels.  With just over one month left here on Goudier Island, we have all been remarking at how odd it will be not to be surrounded by penguins and such stunning scenery every day (although we definitely won't miss the smell!).

We certainly are incredibly fortunate to be living here at Port Lockroy for this short summer season, with so much happening here on the island in terms of visitor landings, wildlife and work about the base.