The Free Time phenomenon 16/12/2019




Many visitors here to the Penguin Post Office ask us what we do in our free time (FREE TIME!?  I've heard about that phenomenon), how we manage without the features we're used to at home, such as fast internet, social media, Netflix subscriptions, and so on, and whether we ever get bored of it all.  I think they're keen to know if we're going a bit weird from the strangeness of the situation.  So, as well as giving an update about what we've done this past week or so, I'll try to give an insight into what's kept us entertained in our enforced digital detox.

The weather has continued to be fine, with (relatively) warm and sunny afternoons and light winds.  The conditions you might consider t-shirt worthy, but perhaps only, if like a couple of us on the team, you have a high percentage of Celtic blood and know to take advantage of any sunshine, despite temperatures.  In fact, on at least a couple of afternoons, Kit donned his shorts to dig snow by the landing site.

In addition to dealing with melting snow, reshaping various steps, paths, and penguin crossings, we've also hand-cancelled, packaged, and dispatched the second batch of post to leave the island and make its way around the world to our visitor's friends, families, and even Aunt Delores.  Altogether, the postbags weighed around 70kg, which with our best estimation takes the total number of postcards passing through the Post Office to date to around 20,000 (and at least one-tenth of those, approximately 2,000 postcards, were sent by the women participating in the Homeward Bound expedition alone).

Being the social butterflies that we are, we've been off the island for a breakfast date with the expedition team on Corinthian, and later the same day, for an evening barbecue with the team from Ocean Endeavour.  It was great to catch up with the ship that took us south from Ushuaia and hear what they'd been up to since our early morning flit over to another vessel.  And also really great to see the tower of ice cream piled up at the dessert station, and it took some persuading to prise Lauren and Lucy away and into our zodiac taxi at the end of the evening.

Looking back from the deck to the ship to our island, it seems surprisingly tiny, tucked into a bay backed with glacial cliffs and the sheer rock faces of Mount Luigi and the Seven Sisters.  I think I might start to see why ship-based tourists, calling at several destinations on their voyage, think that we're isolated and starved of contact with the outside world.

But first, what have our penguin neighbours up to?  We share Goudier Island with a group of gentoo penguins, around 1000 give or take a few, and on behalf of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), gather data on the size and distribution of the population, and breeding success over the season by counting the numbers of penguin nests, eggs, and hatching chicks.  The records we produce contribute to a long-term data set, illustrating the bigger picture of fluctuations and change in the penguin population on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Over the past weeks, I've been observing a sample colony on a regular basis, looking for the moment where most of the nests contain at least one egg.  We reached that point at the end of last week, so after giving the penguins a few days to catch up with themselves, we took an afternoon to conduct a census of the entire island; number of nests, number of eggs in each, and, sadly, whether any that look to have failed (although, there's still some time to nest yet, and it may be that the penguins were just taking their time, getting to know each other better, putting their careers ahead of children...)

The census method has dispelled any notion I might have held that penguins are cuddly and just want a big tummy rub (not that I would ever do that, but just in my imagination...).  I've been nipped, poked, scratched and slapped by the stinky wee things who think I'm there to steal their stones.  Not to mention their ability to fire projectile poop at their nearest neighbours, and not care one bit where it lands.

Lucy and I also had an opportunity to nip across the bay to Jougla Point to check out wildlife there, courtesy of the expedition team on Silver Explorer.  Though we can spot a proliferation of blue-eyed shags on their nests in the midst of the penguin colony from the kitchen window of our Nissen hut, at close range we can count the number of nests, and even managed to catch a glimpse of the first of their tiny chicks (baby shags, do do doo do...) peeking out from under the parents.  It won't be long before our island penguins have wee chickies of their own; a moment at which Lauren will literally dissolve with all the excitement.  We also got a great sighting of the young female elephant seal that hauled up onto the point to moult, as she basked in the mid-morning sun.

Since the cargo drop a couple of weeks ago, I've been working away in the boatshed to open boxes of provisions, stow them away, and bundle up any packaging waste for removal from the island.  It's another one of those extra things we have to do in our daily routines here that take up much more time than it would do at home, where I'd just pop into my local grocery store and pick up the things I need from the shelves.

I'm finding it's a satisfying job, and gives me a bit of quiet time to reflect, after the bustle of dealing with a ship visit and helping visitors discover the museum, then exit through the gift shop.  I've been ascribing personality traits to the vegetables in the provision store solely based on the stackability of the tins;

Potatoes - Ah, potatoes.  So strong and reliable; really solid.  No nonsense vegetables that could carry the whole meal.  They're the tin of vegetables you could turn to in a crisis; when it all hits the wall.  The potatoes have got your back on this.

Tomatoes - You knew that they're passionate and creative, but living with that flighty, artistic temperament?  Just so unpredictable.  You just never know where you are with the stack of tomatoes, and it could all turn out to be a bit dangerous.

Spinach - Opinions are divided on the tinned spinach; is it weedy and insipid, or was Popeye right all along?  Under stress they come through, proof you should never judge a book by its cover (or the stackability of a tin by the boring picture on the outside).

Red Kidney Beans - Despite sharing a manufacturer with the tomatoes, which might lead you to believe that they have a similar unreliable personality (stackable quality), these are the tins that will prove you wrong.  Don't underestimate the kidney bean; they'll be there for you when the going gets tough.

Button Mushrooms - Though they may be small, they are mighty, and will emerge from the darkness to hold up well in all situations. 

Rhubarb - Most people would probably overlook good old rhubarb, perhaps even think that it's a bit dull and boring.  Well, those folks have no idea about the secret life it leads.  The excitement, the unpredictability.  Time with a stack of tins of rhubarb will liven up anyone's day.

Back outside the boatshed, the bay filled up with sea ice again, making landing tricky for our scheduled visiting ship one day.  A couple of yachts had sought refuge in the back of the bay, so we hosted them instead, though very nearly ended up with a few extra members of the team as the ice closed in tighter.  The conditions left Sophie and Lizzie quite concerned, as they're due to leave the island in less than 24 hours, to give them time to travel back home to the UK and New Zealand respectively, in time for Christmas.  We're keeping our fingers crossed for them.

The undoubted highlight of this week has been our long-awaited day off.  After 16 back-to-back days of work, often with 7 am starts and 10 pm finishes, we finally reached our scheduled day off.  No ship visits to prepare for.  A long lie-in in the morning.  Late lazy breakfasts.  Walks around the island, watching for minke whales in the Neumayer Channel and seals lounging on the ice at the back of Goudier Island.  Writing postcards and catching up journals from the last few days.

At low tide, we pottered about on the shore between Goudier Island and Bill's Island, poking into rock pools along the tideline, watching fish scoot between rocks, and shags duck-diving down into the water to catch them.  As a marine biologist, this is one of my favourite ways to spend time, and I took my sketchbook to try to record my observations.  The colours of the shag's feet and the ice cliffs at the back of the bay.  The length of the nematode worm and the diameter of the isopods hiding in pools.  The snap and crackle sound of a melting iceberg (and what it tasted like when I licked it).  FOR SCIENCE, OK? 

The following day it was back to work as usual; stocking up the shop, greeting all the guests coming ashore, and cancelling the day's post.  Plus all the behind-the-scenes work that fills our time; preparing the landing site, marking paths for visitors, scrubbing guano off the decking outside the buildings, refilling buckets for washing boots, bundling scrap cardboard, and packing and weighing all our waste for removal by ship.  And of course, continuing to unpack boxes and stack tins of provisions for the rest of the season.  How could we possibly be bored?  Or have time to watch Netflix?  And I definitely think we're not getting weird from our relative isolation.

The next work-free day in our schedule will be Christmas Day.  And we're dreaming of that morning lie-in already.



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