Letter from Lockroy - 3rd January 2005

Letter From Lockroy - 3 January 2005

 Hello there!
 We've been at Port Lockroy for almost a month and have settled into our own routine. Every morning the alarm goes off around 7am and Pete is usually first out of his sleeping bag. He turns the gas cylinder on and puts the kettle on the stove. Meanwhile, Matt and I are struggling out of our respective bunks ready for the day's activities. We all sit down for a cup of tea and some breakfast - here, nothing happens before the first cup of tea in the morning.

What happens next depends both on the weather and whether a cruise ship is in the bay. If there's no ship, we get on with the general tasks of daily living (digging snow to melt for water, emptying buckets, cleaning the bunkroom and hut) or start one of the many maintenance jobs which need to be done. There is often some mail to be processed - everyone likes to send a postcard from Antarctica and so far this season well over 10,000 items of mail have passed through our hands. We have been debating whether the adhesive used on stamps contains many calories - if so, we'll all be piling on the pounds this summer from licking so many stamps! Our mail goes by ship to Stanley in the Falkland Islands, then travels by aircraft to the UK where it enters the UK postal system and is distributed around the world.

If a cruise ship visit is imminent, Pete goes out to inspect the landing site while Matt and I sweep through the hut and light a Tilley lamp to hand in the radio room (which is otherwise too dark). The numbers of passengers on a ship range from around 20 to over 300, although there are site guidelines in place here which limit visitors to 50 on the island at any one time and a daily maximum of 300 people. The tourists get the chance to see how a research station looked in the period 1944-1962 and also to see penguins "up close" since they next all around the base. Interestingly, the penguins only moved on to Goudier Island after the base was closed in 1962 - when the base was operational there was no penguin colony here.

Our penguins are doing us proud and Pete was the first to notice a tiny cheeping sound on December 30th. A quick investigation found the new chick, the first of the season. By the end of the day we had seen 2 chicks plus 2 more emerging from their eggs. It really is a magical thing to watch - the beginnings of a chip in the egg, followed by the first sight of the chicks eye tooth which it uses to break its way out of the shell. Later on, more of the chick is visible and you may see a flipper sticking out of the hole. Eventually the chick is freed completely from the egg and has its first feed of regurgitated krill, its tiny head seemingly too heavy for its even more tiny body. During the first few days, the chick are too helpless to do much more than feed, poo and utter little cheeps - but luckily they have doting parents which do a good job of incubating them from the weather and protecting them from predating birds, as well as providing warm food on tap!!

The problems we had a couple of weeks ago with heavy ice conditions preventing the cruise ships from visiting seem to have eased and the tourist season has started in earnest. We get to know most of the expedition leaders from the cruise ships and it is great to see them again on repeat visits and hear tales from their voyages. Many of the ships invite us on board for dinner if they are spending the evening in the bay, and our first shower of the season, after 11 unwashed days was on board Endeavour (it felt soooo good!).

The festive season has been a whole lot of fun for us, starting on Christmas Eve when we were invited onto the little Russian ship Grigory Mikheev for dinner. Their passengers included a large party of Finns who organised a demonstration of how Christmas is celebrated in Finland. The Finns, like many other countries, have their main celebrations on December 24th. There is a declaration of national peace and they wear elf hats and something red, drink a Gluhwein type drink and sing traditional Christmas songs. This was brilliantly demonstrated by Terhi Hultamo and her team of Finns, and we had a magical evening on board.

Christmas morning was ship-free for us and we were lucky enough to have a morning of bright sunshine. After opening an assortment of Christmas presents which had been arranged around our tiny battery-operated fibre optic Christmas tree (£1.49 from Morrisons!), we spent the morning relaxing in the sun watching the world go by. During the afternoon, it became overcast and windy, then in the evening we were visited by a party of 13-18 year old students from 10 nations (the Students on Ice programme) on the ship Polar Star. They were great fun to have around and again we were invited on board for dinner.

No time for a lie-in on Boxing Day, as the ship Nordnorge arrived early the next morning. She is the largest ship to visit Port Lockroy and carries 300 passengers, so a Nordnorge visit always lasts a number of hours. More ships over the next few days including a 7am visit with the blow softened by a thermos of coffee and some fresh Danish pastries! Our next ship-free days, the 30th and 31st December, were spent painting the roof. This is done annually and the job starts with scraping all the sheathbill poo away.

Sheathbills are pigeon-sized snowy white birds - interestingly the only birds in the Antarctic without webbed feet. Unfortunately, Nature has given them a rather ugly, warty-looking face and slightly unpleasant characteristics. They are scavenging birds and will take unguarded penguin eggs and chicks, as well as being partial to a nice tasty morsel of poo - any kind of poo, they're not fussy. At South Georgia they have been known to enjoy a meal of elephant seal snot. All this unpleasantness eventually finds its way to their rear ends, and they like nothing better than to copiously decorate our newly-painted roof with sticky embellishments of their own, as well as making non-webbed footprints through the wet paint. I must admit to having a secret liking for these inquisitive, pre-historic-looking birds with their nasty eating habits and their strange nodding rituals, but I've never met any fellow sheathbill admirers so there can't be many of us around.

Back to New Year's Eve: we had a visit from a party of mountaineers, camping at nearby Damoy Point. One member of the group is ex-BAS winterer Phil Wickens, well known to Matt and Pete. As well as mountaineering, they have been using a kind of motorised parachute, which adds to the often slightly surreal aspects of life at Port Lockroy - one minute we are sitting on the veranda admiring the towering mountain peaks all around then the next minute we hear an engine drone and look up to see a man dangling from a parachute high above us!! After the visit by the Damoy party we retired to the lounge and bar for our New Year's Eve celebrations. I began the evening as DJ and kept the gramophone running with such favourites as George Formby ("When I'm Cleaning Windows"), Benny Goodman, Gracie Fields, Glenn Miller and Pete's favourite, Flanagan and Allen singing "Nice People" ("Nice people, with nice habits, they keep rabbits..."). This was followed by some new-fangled technology - i.e. iPods and minidisks. After a satellite phone link with South Georgia (they saw in the New Year an hour before we did) we had some Christmas pudding and toasted the beginning of 2005. It has to be said, we are in a stunning venue to see in the New Year.

So, I'll finish here, at the beginning of a New Year, with new chicks hatching all around us and plenty of people passing through and having a thoroughly good time.

Very best wishes to our friends and family and to everyone who follows our progress here.

Bye for now,

Sue Dowling