Letter from Lockroy - January 2003

Greetings from Base A, Port Lockroy!

Pete and I have agreed that this is the most bizarre job that we have ever done. It's also great fun given that we never really know what will happen from one day to the next. We've yet to classify what an "ordinary" day is at Port Lockroy. In addition to maintaining historic Bransfield House and monitoring penguins, the job also involves running the Post Office. This was daunting at first to say the least - particularly since it has been described as 'the most famous Post Office in the world' and would be the target for an expected 75 or more cruise ship visits this year.

So, when Pete and I, apprentices of Dave Burkitt (who would spend the first six weeks on base with us), flew down to the Falkland Islands on 17 November 2002, our first task was to go and introduce ourselves to Ann Murphy at Port Stanley Post Office for a training day. "Tell me what you need to know" she said. "Everything!" we replied as at that time we didn't even know the difference between a cancel and a cachet!

Two and a half weeks later, after being delivered to tiny Goudier Island, we found ourselves officially opening the 'Base A' Post Office for the season in preparation for an expedition cruise ship that arrived just a few hours after we did. We didn't even have to cook that first night as we were invited onboard for a spectacular BBQ. The ship was wedged securely into sea-ice less than 500 m from the island and we crunched across the ice with the passengers surrounded by ice cliffs glowing mother-of-pearl in the evening light.

The next few days were a whirlwind of unpacking, receiving ships and trying to absorb everything that Dave was teaching us. The wealth of knowledge that he has of the area and Antarctica in general is astonishing. In between we counted the number of gentoo penguin nests on the island. Just over 700 pairs occupy the island with us and presumably because it had been such a mild winter, with comparatively little snow, their egg laying business was already well established. Although I've studied penguins for the last few years, I've never lived anywhere with them actually on my doorstep. They appear perfectly happy with the arrangement and opening the front door in the morning with a cup of coffee and "Morning Stinkies!!" provokes little response. Neither does the steady stream of boots that pass just inches from their nests when a ship calls. Rather, it's the visitors who look visibly confused when they reach the foot of the walkway leading up to the base and realise that it is impossible to get in without keeping the 5 m distance from the birds that has been recommended to them. In fact, comparisons of hatching success between penguin colonies on parts of the island with regular visitors and those on the island that only get checked three times a season by us, have shown no difference in the last six years.

The penguins get on with their usual tasks of pebble pinching and trying (unsuccessfully) to keep their chicks in line. Just this morning (22 January) a parent next to our walkway watched in alarm as it's two chicks bumbled across our doorstep and into the porch, poking their bills into the prickly doormat and slopping their pink feet on the new linoleum that Dave had fitted two weeks before! Pete and I went down to the landing to greet passengers coming ashore and by the time we had all returned, both chicks were lying spread-eagled across the doorstep like pint sized bean bags, fast asleep. Of all the nests 87% produced chicks this year and judging by their growth and bulging bellies of their parents when they return from feeding trips, it will hopefully continue to be a prosperous year.

Naturally the penguins generate many curious questions from visitors. These make talks on the ships very entertaining for both parties and although most are on general penguin biology others that crop up include "What are the medicinal qualities of penguin guano?" and "How do you cope with the smell?" I think we smell just like them by now!

We also, perhaps uniquely, operate a mobile Post Office. The ship Marco Polo visits in January and February carrying 500 passengers all of whom are keen to send postcards and letters home with our frank. It's not possible for them to land here, so we go onboard for the day to offer a postal service and a pre-dinner question and answer session on a big stage next to a white grand piano. On our first visit we stared open-mouthed at the casino, cocktail waitresses and plush gift shops. We took turns going to afternoon tea to sample delicate pastries which together with the hot shower and dinner (accompanied by ice sculpture displays - "What a waste of fresh water!" exclaimed Pete) makes for an unusual and enjoyable day out. In some ways it makes us even more appreciative of our simple life at Bransfield House, our noisy, flippered neighbours and the sheathbills that gallop up and down the roof like goblins...but I'll leave Pete to say more about that!

Normally the noise of the penguins does not keep me awake at night. However the sheathbills (or Goblins as they will now be known) run around on the roof of the hut which you can hear if you wake up during the night.

During the day, my main quest is the search for the ultimate penguin photograph. Perhaps that's just an excuse to put down my paintbrush and enjoy the abundant wildlife that lives with us. We are here to work however and there are many maintenance tasks to do on the hut. Plus, of course, the work involved in just living here. By that I mean collecting ice for drinking water, charging radio batteries with solar panels, cooking and cleaning etc.

The penguins behave in such funny ways it's easy to keep taking photos of them. There was a chick asleep on the boat cleaning brush recently. Penguins on guard around the Union Jack as it moves in the wind must be the supermodels of the gentoo world.

Our ship visits always prove interesting and we always get a positive reaction from passengers. Many people visit our little station, a few are famous, some are rich and some influential. In the Antarctic they are all treated the same and we often don't know we have a VIP guest until we read the visitors' book afterwards.

Making friends from around the world, plus the total lack of pollution and of course the crazy penguins is why I love living and working in the Antarctic.

Very best wishes to all at home.

Amanda Lynnes and Pete Milner