By Laura MacNeil
I have so many wonderful memories of my time in Antarctica: lying in my bunk in our Nissen hut home, hearing the rumbling of the glaciers calving around us and the tapping of the sheathbills feet as they ran back and forth on our tin roof; discovering the first gentoo chick had hatched on midwinter’s day and our island being freed from the surrounding ice for the first time; the sound and smell of the gentoo penguins braying around us; ice flowing in and out of the bay around the island on beautiful clear blue-sky days and penguin chicks catching snowflakes in their beaks.
From Nov 2017- Mar 2017 I was able to experience almost 4 months living on tiny Goudier Island, Port Lockroy on the Antarctic Peninsula, working for the United Kingdom Antarctica Heritage Trust (UKAHT). I had seen the job on Explorers Connect in 2015 and after an unsuccessful application that year, I kept my eyes open and when the position was again advertised in 2016, I applied and was successful.
I had been fascinated with Antarctica since I was about 18, having read Sara Wheeler’s “Terra Incognita”. Over the years my interest grew, as did my Antarctic library. I kept an eye on Explorers Connect for any appropriate opportunities but so many of the jobs in Antarctica required a scientific background and this was not my area of experience. Therefore, when I saw the UKAHT advert to work in the “Penguin Post Office”, looking after the historical British Base A museum and welcoming cruise visitors to Port Lockroy, I knew this was something I could do. I’d worked in tourism for over 10 years and had recently completed a MSc in Library and Information Studies. My tourism and customer service experience meant that dealing with cruise ship visitors was something I was well prepared for and my new Library qualification would prove helpful in the cataloguing of artefacts in the museum.
After submitting the application form, I was successful in making the shortlist of 12 people who were invited to a 2-day long selection process. The selection involved a mixture of teambuilding tasks, paired activities and individual activities. We all had to participate in a variety of practical and problem-solving tasks, as well as written tests and an interview. This process allowed the team at UKAHT to choose the group they felt best suited the roles and the unique challenges that life on such a small island in a team of 4 would involve. A few days after selection I was informed that I was successful and would be joining the team for the 2016-17 season, after some intensive training.
Port Lockroy is a designated Historic Site and Monument under the Antarctic Treaty. Base A was established on Goudier Island, within the harbour of Port Lockroy, in 1944 and was the first permanent British base in Antarctica. It closed in 1962 and fell into disrepair until it was renovated in 1996. Since 2006 the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust have run the base as a living museum. The Trust use the funds generated from the museum shop and post office to fund their restoration work at Port Lockroy and other sites around the Antarctic Peninsula.
UKAHT send a team every summer season, who have a number of responsibilities to carry out. We welcomed cruise ship and yacht visitors to the site. We carried out maintenance on the historic buildings, conducted an artefact survey on some items in the museum, feeding our findings back to the Scot Polar Research Institute (SPRI) in Cambridge, and finally we had to count the penguins. There is a resident gentoo penguin colony on Goudier Island and UKAHT have been involved in a longitudinal study to monitor any effects of tourism on the breeding success of the penguins. This study helps inform the best way to manage tourism on the island to ensure the least disruption to the birds.
Although counting the eggs and chicks was probably a favourite job for us all we had many other daily chores which were necessary for living in such an environment. Our accommodation was in a Nissen hut, restored on the site of one of the original buildings. This was very comfortable. We had a wind turbine and solar panels for power with a gas heater for when we felt the cold. Being there in the Antarctic summer meant that the temperatures varied from about -10 to 10 degrees C, although the wind could cause it to feel colder. We had email provision through satellite phone but could only receive text, no pictures or social media. We also had no running water. We were supplied with drinking water from visiting ships and were able to use the ship facilities to have a shower. On the occasions when surrounding ice meant that ships were unable to reach the island, we had to be very frugal with our water supplies and occasionally collected the glacier ice to supplement our water -and of course no showers! Each day we shared a rota of tasks – cook, clean, base diary and “gash”. As cook you could stretch your imagination for uses of the various tinned and dried goods we had. Cleaning involved keeping living quarters free from penguin guano and generally tidy. In the base diary we recorded the weather, any notable wildlife sightings and the activities of the day. “Gash” was the duty of emptying our waste every day, not the most pleasant task but the scenery made it more enjoyable!
All in all, it was a wonderful experience! Living on a tiny island, approximately the size of a football field, for 4 months with only 3 other women was certainly a once in a lifetime experience. We were fortunate to become close friends and a tight team. The Antarctic scenery was constantly a delight, as was the opportunity to witness the gentoos build their nests, lay their eggs and watch as the chicks hatched and gradually fledged.
Coming back to civilisation was a bit of a shock – lots of people and smells other than penguin guano!
Since returning I’ve been trying to hatch plans of what my next big adventure might be. I’ll keep my eye on Explorers Connect again. I would love to make it to the Arctic and until that happens, I’m planning on climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in 2018 so hopefully training for that will keep me occupied for a while.