Letter from Lockroy - March 2008

 Team

Firstly apologies for such a delay in this diary entry. Well now we know what the season had in store. It has been another good one but sunshine was in short supply. The weather remained remarkably unsettled all season with a really unusual number of rainy days. The other recurring theme from the second half of the season was windy days and heavy snow storms. That said almost all the planned ship visits went ahead and the weather only affected the success of one or two of the landings. Most passengers seemed to enjoy the wild days, saying this is what they came to the Antarctic for. By the end of the season 1500 more passengers had visited Port Lockroy than last year.

The days leading up to Christmas were punctuated with interesting ship visits, the arrival of the first yachts and a few fine days for painting the roof of Bransfield House. Helen and Rachel took decorating the base for Christmas very seriously and never before has the base looked so festive. Word had got out that our Christmas mail had been lost when the ship Explorer sank. The staff on the ship Orlova put together a bag of Christmas presents for us which more than made up for our losses and were much appreciated. What a fine collection of chocolate and silly hats we had amassed by the time all the presents were unwrapped. We were out on two of our favourite ships for dinner on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. On Boxing Day the yacht Tooluka arrived with two of the station personnel from the base at Vernadsky who came to stay for an overnight visit. They developed more than a liking for the Christmas cake Helen’s mother had sent down for us!

One of the most memorable aspects of this past season was the good relationship we enjoyed with all the ships that visit Lockroy. This has resulted from many years of cooperation and is not something we take for granted. We took a great deal of pride from trying to make every ship visit special and hope that was the feeling all the visitors went away with. Thank you to all the ships for their support. In particular we are especially grateful to Nordnorge who delivered us and all our cargo to Lockroy safely at the start of the season and to Explorer II who retuned us to Ushuaia at the end of the season. We were also very grateful to the Saga Ruby and Spirit of Adventure that offered so much support to us and the UKAHT through the season. The re-supply of merchandise and gas bottles provided by HMS Endurance mid season and the visit later on with Rob Bowman from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was also much appreciated.

It is interesting how technology is changing life even at Lockroy. All the ships visits are now coordinated by email. This took quite a bit of time but is a great improvement from years gone by when we had no idea when and if ships would be arriving. It is hard to imagine how we would have coped in February this season without it: - so many ships were having to change their schedules due to bad weather. Being able to establish quickly when they would be able to land at Lockroy was invaluable for both the ships and us. Email has also meant that communication with the UKAHT office back in the UK has been much more reliable.

The poor weather this season did not make maintaining the buildings at Lockroy any easier. By the end of the season we had managed to do most of the outside painting. There were a few roof painting parties where all three of us slapped on the bitumen. The base continues to look good and still is holding up remarkably well considering how many people are visiting it and how wet it has been of late. Each year the base comes back to life a little bit more and this was no exception. We improved the 12 volt lighting in the radio room and bunk room and enjoyed the pleasure of being able to switch the light on in the bunk room in the evenings. Another one of this year’s projects was the replacement of all the cracked panes of glass around the building. Last year we did not manage to paint the boat shed. This year it was touch and go whether we would have time and it was only in the last couple of days that we were at Lockroy that we managed to finish off painting the roof. A group of guys from the army yacht Discoverer volunteered to help dig out a considerable quantity of guano and detritus that had accumulated around the back of the old generator shed. This has considerably improved the drainage from around this area and has created a rather pleasant place to sit in the evening sun.

Snow kept falling from the skies during the period between Christmas and the New Year. The penguins repeatedly had to endure the indignation of being buried while sitting on their nests. The first penguin chick was spotted on the 24th December but it was a week or two after this that most of the chicks hatched, which is quite late compared to recent years. There were some days of extraordinarily heavy rain in early January which flooded many of the penguin nests and soaked the chicks. For a while things were looking pretty desperate but fortunately we only lost a few chicks. One advantage of all this rain was that it washed off much of the penguin guano from the island. The sea around the island became chocolate brown from all the run off. It is quite remarkable what the gentoo penguins are able to endure. Despite all the adversity this season’s weather threw at the penguin chicks they seemed to thrive. There was very little mortality through out the season and skua predation was low compared to recent years. It appeared that we had a strong healthy batch of penguin chicks leaving Goudier Island this year.

The population of sheath bills around Port Lockroy is still increasing although some of the regular breeding pairs failed to raise chicks this season. We are not sure of the reason. More fighting than usual for nesting territories early in the season and the wet weather may have had something to do with it. Three chicks were raised down at the boat shed by two breeding pairs and two chicks were raised under the old generator shed and two under the new generator shed. One interesting development amongst the sheath bills this season was that they changed there traditional roosting location. In February twenty or more of the local population stopped roosting on the old generator shed and moved round onto the deck in front of the building. It was quite a sight to see them there when we went out in the mornings but it has provided us with another chore having to clean up behind them.

Other notes from the wildlife diary include the fact that the skua population remained low all season. The pair that usually nest on Bills Island did not breed. The skuas this year were not as aggressive in their hunting behaviour as some years. That said one Skua was observed attacking a young blue eyed shag in the sky and knocking it down into the sea. The large numbers of Antarctic terns seen at Lockroy did not stay around to breed. In fact we had no breeding pairs on Goudier or Bills Island this year. Very few whales were spotted from Goudier Island this season, this may have been that the weather was not conducive to whale spotting but our feeling was they just were not around. We only saw a couple of fur seals all season, one early on and one just before we were leaving. One quite unusual observation from this year was the complete lack of algal bloom in the sea. The sea around Goudier Island usually goes cloudy with a greenish tinge for most of the summer. For some reason it remained clear throughout the season. Could this have been due to the lack of sunshine or was it due to different sea temperatures? There was not much in the way of leopard seal action this season. Our observations concluded that we had two leopard seals in residence most of the time. One large female that we think has been here for years and a smaller one, probably a male. They were seen harvesting the young penguins at the end of the season but there was not the apparent carnage of some years. The most unusual visitor to Lockroy this year was a mature emperor penguin that turned up over at Jougla Point one day. Possibly as a result of the fact hundreds of people were landing there when it arrived it only chose to hang around for a day or two.

For various reasons the Port Lockroy athletics club seemed to fizzle out towards the end of the season. This was largely due to the increased work load of more ship visits and the fact that the floor in the yoga room (shop) was often wet and mucky after passenger visits from the ships. Running round the island continued whenever the rocks were dry enough to permit this precarious form of exercise. Rachel and Rick enjoyed a few seconds swimming on one of the rare sunny days this summer but that probably did not really help keep us trim. The most reliable form of exercise during the last few weeks of our stay at Lockroy was scrubbing the floors, washing down the path to the landing site and transporting boxes of merchandise from the boat shed to the shop. The occupational hazard of over indulging in chocolate, ice cream and the wonderful food on the ships combined with a less vigorous exercise program led to the inevitable expansion of waste lines.

One of the greatest pleasures at Lockroy is meeting and getting to know all the people on the different yachts that visit the base. This year there were in the region of 60 yachts visits and some nights we felt like we were managing a yacht marina in the bay at Lockroy. Some were yachts who have been returning to Lockroy over many seasons, some visiting for the first and probably only time. On Burns night, the 25th January there were 7 yachts in the bay. We had been invited out to one of them for dinner, just as we were about to start the desert we heard the sound of bagpipes from outside. One of the personnel from the British army yacht Discoverer was drifting around in the dinghy standing in his kilt and full regalia playing the pipes for all he was worth. Shortly afterwards a radio announcement on the VHF declared there was a Burns party taking place on the yacht Discoverer and every one was invited. An extraordinary party in an extraordinary place! Much whisky was consumed before the night was done.

The need to do something about accommodation at Lockroy has been at the forefront of our thinking this season. The temperature and humidity recording devices that we installed in most of the rooms this season reinforced our concerns that the base is not a particularly healthy place to live. Moves are afoot to restore the old Nissan hut and turn the space inside it into warm, dry, basic accommodation for the staff working at the station. This will also free up quite a bit of space for more interpretive material and allow us to display the bunk room and old generator shed more like it would have been when the base was operational.

So once again the base at Port Lockroy sits empty after having been the focus of so much attention and visitation these past few months. The three of us who were lucky enough to find ourselves running the base through the past season have many fond memories of our time there. The quiet reflective moments when all the visitors have left, the wild windy nights when the little old base shakes and groans as we lay cocooned in our warm sleeping bags, the times when the base is buzzing with energy from all of the enthusiastic visitors. They are all good memories. Lockroy is a unique and very special place. Just a smelly, old, wooden hut on a lonely, tiny, rocky island but so much more. It is a real pleasure and privilege to be able to be able to share this place with so many people. We do not take it for granted.

Rick, Helen, and Rachel