Letter from Lockroy - February 2006

Letter From Lockroy - February 06

January has flown by and now we are rushing into February. We have been amazingly busy this season and an astonishing 7600 visitors have crossed our threshold already. Every day since we arrived seems to have been full of action and things to do. Most days there have been ships here, some days, two, three or even four ships. Slipping in between the ship visits there have also been numerous yachts stopping by to say hello.


The weather at Port Lockroy always seems to be different from season to season and this year is no exception. The only way to describe it is hot and dry. We mentioned in the last newsletter, how little snow there was on the island when we arrived and how warm and sunny it had been. Well the warm, dry, settled weather has continued to be the norm. We have only experienced one little short lived blow since we arrived and this was a warm wind with rain. It has made life very pleasant for us living at Lockroy but it has not been much fun for the penguins.

(NB since Rick started this letter last week we have had 6 days of consistent wind and rain, maybe we spoke/typed too soon!!)

One of the best things about living at Lockroy is watching the breeding cycle of the penguins unfold. This year has been a particularly interesting year for many reasons. As mentioned before, the snow melting off the island early encouraged the penguins to start their breeding cycle about two weeks earlier than usual. We watched with interest to see how this would affect the outcome as the summer progressed. For the first two to three weeks after the chicks were hatched there appeared to be little food available for the chicks and the adults were away for long spells searching for fish and squid. There was certainly little krill around at this stage. The good news was the weather remained warm and dry so the chicks were not stressed by weather conditions.

The sheathbills were having an effect on the breading success at this stage. The adult sheathbills were attacking penguin nests, taking eggs and young chicks, probably to provide much needed protein for the formation of their own eggs. The dozen or so adolescent sheathbills on the island were seen working as a flock causing a whirlwind of havoc wherever they struck. The nesting penguins were incapable of defending there chicks and eggs against such onslaught. We are ware of six breeding pairs of sheathbills on the island that now have all produced at least one chick per pair.

While there was little krill available for the penguin chicks there was a tendency for one chick to develop in each nest and one to remain rather stunted. The krill did eventually show up and the chicks started to grow rapidly. It is very easy to spot when krill comes into the area, all of a sudden the island turned pink with the penguins vomit and excreta

Almost as soon as the krill arrived the chicks grew at a phenomenal rate and soon left their nest sites to form crèches. The weather was still very warm and dry at this stage, about 10 degrees C or even hotter during the day. At this stage we counted the number of chicks raised which was 867. The adult penguins were all starting to go in search of food which must have still been some distance away as they were gone all day leaving the young to defend themselves. The weather stayed warm and dry for days on end and the chicks appeared to become quite stressed. The Skuas that have been noticeably less concerned by human presence this summer started to attack the chicks in high numbers, killing apparently large healthy chicks that could have become weakened due to the extreme temperature. At the end of the hot spell we had appeared to lose around 120 chicks to the skua predation.

We all watch with interest to the developments and are thoroughly enjoying watching nature unfold. This week the chicks in the control area have taken heed of the Keep Out Sign and left the area in favour of joining the boatshed gang. The parents have lured them away from the nest sites and down towards the sea. We have seen one or two now going for there first paddles in the Southern ocean.

Rather them than me. They also have a new trick of standing on the front door ramp or sleeping on the boot cleaner just as visitors arrive, which causes great confusion. The rules stipulate you must be at least 5 metres away from wildlife and cannot cause a reaction. But how do you get into the Post Office?


The news from Port Lockroy post office is impressive
 We have been selling more stamps and post cards than ever. In fact we almost ran out of stamps and it was necessary to send a request to Stanley for a re-supply. For a while a mountain of unstamped and unfranked post cards were piling up in the bunk room. We just did not have time to process what was being delivered. Then a small miracle came to pass. A sailing yacht crammed full of some of the finest medical practitioners ever to reach the shores of Antarctica arrived at Port Lockroy. They had planned daring adventures, climbing peaks and skiing virgin slopes but a broken gear-box on their yacht forced them to stay tied up in our bay for a week. Lured over with the promise of tea and cakes they were soon put to work. We all enjoyed a great afternoon of chat and stamping and they came back two days later to complete the job upon which we cracked open a bottle of celebratory champagne. Thank you very very much to the Pelagic team, Sally, Simon, Carole, James, Clive, Fran, and skippers Giselle and Alex, for all your help and for your company.

The post office has also played host to some younger visitors, the families onboard Le Sourire and Paratti II. Mairi was delighted to put her countryside ranger skills to use and immediately got out the felt pens and glitter much to Rick’s (the floor sweeper) dismay.

Following this we enjoyed a courtesy visit from the Chilean and Argentinian Navy and tomorrow we expect the British Navy ship, HMS Endurance. Special thanks this month has to go to Saga Rose and especially Shirley (Purser). Through sales of our merchandise they raised a lot of money for the Antarctic Heritage Trust and we were delighted to go onboard and talk to the passengers about our work.


But it’s not all human visitors at Port Lockroy!
 This month has been fantastic for wildlife. Our first visitor of note on the 22nd January was a Macaroni penguin. He was first spotted down by the boatshed but there was no chance he could hide or blend in with the Gentoos with great yellow tufts stuck to his head.

We were very excited at first and welcomed him to our island but soon we changed our minds as he started to systematically go round the island picking fights with all the Gentoos and their chicks. He was a real bully despite being smaller and would make great displays when each battle was won. Despite this we still enjoyed this very unusual visitor and were disappointed when we couldn’t find him on the 25th.

On the 4th February Graham was busy painting the windows when he heard a great puffing and thumping noise round the front of the building. On closer inspection it was not Mairi and Rick on another crazy exercise regime but a large male Elephant seal making his way up from the beach towards the building. Now we are very careful at all times to move slowly and quietly amongst the penguin chicks so we do not cause a reaction and then along comes this 12 foot, 3 ton seal and they are sent scampering around the island.

And finally we can report some whale sightings. Whilst dining on the Marco Polo I was complaining to a Whale expert about only seeing 2 Minke whales so far this season when all of a sudden a Humpback surfaced right beside the ship. Fingers crossed we will start to see some more.

 Wildlife Newsflash!!

Last night during a visit by MV Ushuaia a Leopard seal was seen taking a penguin from the island. The first one we have seen this season. After eating the kill and leaving the carcass for the Gulls and Petrels the seal returned to our shore and lay in wait, looking just like a rock for his next victim. He had chosen the spot where most of our penguins swim into so it wasn’t long before he got a second course. After finishing this second meal he came back again and lay in wait for a third time. We stood and watched as penguins swam up towards him and then suddenly changed their minds whilst one actually jumped on top thinking he was an innocent rock. The penguin soon realised his mistake and made a very sharp exit. After 30 minutes waiting we finally had to come in for our own food but will be keeping a close eye on the action today as we’re all going to be out painting the building walls.

So onto the Building Maintenance update.
 Graham has been a very happy chippy this month as we finally released him from behind the shop counter and let him get his tools out. 14 of our 17 windows have now been stripped back, mended and re-painted. 3 of them are a lovely shade of pink at this time but Graham assures us they will turn red as soon as it stops raining.

The shop refit continues slowly due to the numbers of visitors but we have managed to remove an old generator and Graham has built a great display table in its place. We realise now any more improvements will have to wait until the end of season when it begins to slow down. Next on the technical job front was the building of a wooden rack to display our 5 dog sleds some dating back to the 1950s. They are a great artefact to have at the museum and a great talking point especially for Rick.


And finally, general life in the bunkroom at Port Lockroy.

Although the building has many rooms they are all designated to the museum and we make do with the old bunkroom as our living room, bedroom and kitchen. Most of our visitors are quite amazed at this and there first question is “did you all know each other before you came down?” The answer is 'No' but we know each other now.

Rick only just commented today that it’s great how we still enjoy our nights in on our own as much as we enjoy going out and socialising on ships. A great favourite at night is of course the Port Lockroy Cribbage Championship. I mentioned this in my first letter but it appears that the boys forgot to update the scores in the last letter. Well apparently with 3 people cribbage is a game of luck rather than skill so I must be a very lucky lady as I’ve been winning overall since the 1st December!!

Scores on the doors Mairi 10, Graham 7, Rick 6. I mentioned earlier an exercise regime, well we tried. Rick and I one quiet and sunny afternoon bounced out of the hut, clad in shorts and sweat bands, and armed with skipping ropes. We managed 30 minutes thrashing around which probably amounted to 5 minutes of quality skipping time as Graham looked on somewhat amused by the spectacle. The next day there were sore knees, backs and joints all round. I managed a further 2 sessions but that I’m afraid is that. With little time and little space and a little island covered in little penguins our waste-lines are more on the large side.

Hope to send you more exciting news soon.

Best wishes to all our family, friends, and colleagues.

 Mairi, Graham and Rick