I'm writing this on 10th of January, just over a week into a brand new year, and exactly 20 days after the austral summer solstice. The season is marching inevitably onwards. Each evening is ending a little earlier than its predecessor, and it seems as though the summer is already starting to creep away. This week's blog post marks another turning point; we're just beyond half way through our deployment. Despite our several weeks of residency so far, there's still a strangeness I feel to being here in Port Lockroy. As if, sometimes, the whole place, Antarctica that is, isn't quite real.
This week has been mostly business as usual, with several ship visits, a few yachts, and all the background work we do to keep things bobbing along smoothly. With high winds and rough conditions around the landing site cutting short the last ship visit before our day off short, we had plenty of time to complete all our jobs in the afternoon, and treat ourselves to a rare movie night. By the following day, our scheduled day off, the wind hadn't dropped very much, so our free time was spent catching up on sleep, writing journals, baking and cooking meals together, and watching another film.
After the wind blew through, the following days were soft and still. Low cloud like a felt blanket, the grey colour of an Antarctic tern, blocked out the peaks behind our natural harbour, and conditions like these are my favourite. With no imposing view to draw the eye upward and outward, focus concentrates on the near and middle distance, over rounded, ice-smoothed granite rocks, out into the silvery grey water. At the limit of visibility, sculpted chunks of bergy ice glow with a blue luminosity, as if lit from within. There's an ethereal quality to the whole scene.
As it thickens over the sea, the fog dampens immediate sound and emphasises the roaring stillness that lies behind. The raucous cacophony of the penguin and shag colonies become muffled long enough to pick out the saltwater signal of a whale taking a breath; one, two, humpbacks investigating the deep channel inside Lecuyer Point. The calving of ice from a glacial front, like distant thunder; no, too the rumble goes on too long, must be an avalanche down an obscured mountain face. The uncanny song of a Weddell seal, lounging on an ice floe in the back bay. It's a place of outrageous beauty, and worthy of every superlative given.
So what are our penguin friends doing now? In the last blog post I wrote, we'd just completed the first all-island count of the season, to establish the number of successful breeding gentoo pairs, and tally the number of eggs laid on the island. It had been a bit of a bittersweet moment for us, as our excitement at seeing the nesting penguins close up and discovering the eggs they were guarding, was tempered by raw data we gathered suggesting it hadn't been as good a year for the colony as the last.
This time we carried out the second all-island census, to determine the number of hatchling chicks, and, barring a heart-stopping 30 second data entry error, signs are looking much more positive for the season. Our results contribute to a long term data set held by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), which will show whether long term trends in the wider gentoo population can be determined.
Watching penguins around the island, getting to know them by nesting locations, and following the progress of a pair, it's very hard not to anthropomorphise them, and impose a unilateral emotional bond. Their swaying, unsteady gait, stumpy little legs and rounded tummy, and naïve inquisitiveness around us, seem to recall human toddlers, and invoke a secret desire to name them all. Through living among penguins for any length of time, events will unfurl that show any human connection here is tenuous.
There's a grotesque horror glimpsed among this avian comedy show: newly hatched chicks lie in nests constructed with the bones of a dead neighbour; penguins defecating on each other, from nests highest on the rock to those down below; snowy sheathbills swooping in to eat the debris. The apparent cruelties of predatory species, hungry skuas, southern giant petrels, leopard seals, that are too upsetting to document here. Witnessing the cycle of life and death in such awesome and dreadful proximity is part of the unique Antarctic experience too.
Today also marks an ending of another sort, for this morning was the last time that we'll be just a team of four. We're very excited to welcome back last season's base leader, Heidi, who will be with us for the rest of our time at Port Lockroy, and help keep us going through the busiest part of the season for ship visits, carrying out maintenance work, with wrapping things up at the end of our time, and preparing the base for an Antarctic winter without any residents.
We're interested to pick up any insights that Heidi gained during her season, and look forward to lots of fun together over the next few weeks. I'll leave it to Heidi to re-introduce herself to you in the blog next week, and just say how delighted we are to have her with us.
To round off our blog post this week, and inspired by the character Ricky Baker from the film Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which we watched on our movie night, we've attempted to express our feelings and emotions at this turning point in our Antarctic season in the form of haiku. I hope that you enjoy the efforts.
A haiku in celebration of a new member joining the 19/20 season Port Lockroy team to help out through the busiest part of the year, and of the return of Heidi, base leader in the 18/19 season, to Goudier Island (though she has also already been a visitor to Port Lockroy this season as part of the expedition crew of Ocean Atlantic).
A new team member arrived,
She's Heidi Ahveneinen.
Long name; not so tall.
A haiku written to commemorate the successful installation of new payment terminals in the Port Lockroy gift shop allowing for the use of various international bank cards, contactless payment types, and smart devices (though, as ever, AmEx is not accepted here).
Euro, pounds, dollars?
You can use your face to pay,
Embrace the future.
A haiku created to encourage all visitors to the Penguin Post Office on Goudier Island to adhere to bird watching guidelines as laid out by IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators), despite the fact that gentoo penguins themselves are not ones to respect rules.
Penguins don't want hugs.
Observe the wildlife guidelines,
They will poop on you.
A haiku written in response to another haiku penned to suggest that the work of the Port Lockroy Postmaster is never ending, however the original contained language which some readers may not find acceptable for publication in a fine blog such as this one, prompting the additional effort.
Cancelling first day covers
And philatelic requests
Keeps the postie busy.
A haiku composed in anticipation of an effortless and smooth delivery of cargo from a partner vessel containing a number of essential stock items for the running of the Port Lockroy gift shop for the remainder of the season, and ensuring the satisfaction of our many customers.
Boxes here, there, and everywhere.
Have you read my email?
A haiku created by the 19/20 seasonal team based at Port Lockroy to commemorate the 200th Anniversary of the first sightings of the Antarctic continent just three days apart by Fabien von Bellingshausen and Edward Bransfield in January 1820, and the exciting program of events for devised by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust for 2020 to bring Antarctica alive through the year.
Very hard to use in haiku
We tried our best, sorry.