Penguins and Postcards in Port Lockroy, Antarctica

June 25, 2013 by

Animal Encounters, Antarctica, Travel Advice & Inspiration

In my excitement I ended up with two stamps – the first, placed by the kayak expedition leader on my ship, the second one stamped myself in the British Antarctica Research Center at Port Lockroy. Now, my passport holds two blue ovals, each with the same date and map coordinates, each displaying an indigo blue Gentoo penguin.

The day I arrived, the sky was bright blue. The little island stunk viciously of penguin. The shop was full of my shipmates buying chocolate and souvenirs that were made in China. I bought postcards, mailing a handful to friends and family in the US, though regrettably, I did not mail one to myself. It was not until I was standing in front of my own postcard, stuck to a friend’s refrigerator, that I realized I had made this mistake.

Almost every ship that sails from Ushuaia to Antarctica makes the stop – conditions permitting — at Port Lockroy. The zodiac lands, you stumble ashore, and you weave your way between the penguins to the little museum at the top of this pile of rocks. I visited in late February and large areas around the visitor’s center were roped off. When I asked the resident penguin wrangler, one of four women living at Port Lockroy from season open to close, if I could go down on the beach, she requested I remain up near the building complex so as not to disturb the chicks.

Port Lockroy penguins

Port Lockroy penguins

I obeyed, but it seemed silly, I was surrounded by penguins in all states of development. And they did not mind disturbing me, in fact, as I was walking back to the zodiac behind one waddling tuxedo, the bird gave up on his destination and belly flopped on the trail in front of me. Humans are welcome in Port Lockroy, but it’s clear exactly who runs the show.

It is hard to imagine the tiny research station locked in snow, but that’s what happens when the crew is unloaded at the beginning of the season. Their first task is to dig, they must uncover access to the shelters where they’ll pass the season. Once dug out, they get to work on other tasks – manning the shop, speaking to the passengers on visiting ships, and counting penguins. There is a lot of penguin counting; the health of the island’s dirty formal occupants says much about the health of the planet in general.

Port Lockroy penguins

Port Lockroy penguins

There are no showers at Port Lockroy; the crew takes turns boarding the visiting ships for fancy meals and running hot water and a break from the squawking that fills the air. While I was on the island, I saw humans everywhere, but I couldn’t help but imagine what it’s like to be there after the visitors depart. And to imagine what it was like before visitors were a regular occurrence.

Inside the station the walls are a shiny blue, a weird choice as it’s almost the color of the surrounding icebergs where they hit the water. There are a few fading paintings of movie starlets — is that Liz Taylor? – and a lab with carefully labeled objects. There’s a radio room that holds archaic electronics with big knobs, and in the former bunk room, there’s a big table where you can scribble a few words to your friends to the north of you – that’s all of them, surely.

The station has had several lives. The natural harbor was first used by whaling ships, then by the British military. In the 1960s, it became a research station, but it feels of an older time, perhaps because it is so remote. Now, in addition to being a penguin monitoring location, its primary use is for tourism.

In numbers, the station mails approximately 70,000 postcards a year. 350 visitors are allowed per day, but the groups must be no larger than 60 people at a time. This feels like plenty as the area is so small and places where humans can roam freely are limited. The station is occupied from November to March, and in the 2012-2013 season, approximately 18,000 visitors passed through, all greeted by the annual crew of four hardy individuals. The penguin chick count for the island was a little under 800, a number that is hard to imagine standing in the midst of, yet when you visit Port Lockroy, that is exactly what you do.  You stand in your wellies, surrounded by hundreds of penguins. You are required by wildlife guidelines to stay 15 feet – three meters – away from the critters, but that is virtually impossible on the island, so dense is it with penguins. And the penguins themselves have no interest in observing the rules.

Port Lockroy penguins

Port Lockroy penguins

It would be wrong to say that visiting Port Lockroy is a highlight of travel to Antarctica because every single day spent in this magical last place is punctuated with highlights. But meeting the crew at Port Lockroy sparks your imagination for the human efforts to explore Antarctica. Even today, when there is Goretex and satellite radio and regular visits from the cruise lines that visit the tiny station, it takes an endurance of character to inhabit this remote place.

Nearly all of the money I spent at Port Lockroy was on postage – postcards and, for me, two sheets of British Antarctica Territory stamps as souvenirs. My memory of Port Lockroy is sharp, but the stamps, when I hold them in my hands, remind me of how very far away and precious a place it is.

Photos courtesy of Pam Mandel.

Take a tour to see penguins in Antarctica

– Pam Mandel

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