If you know anything about us, you’ll know that we love a challenge. When the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust (our neighbours in Cambridge) approached us about selling our satchels in their Post Office in Port Lockroy, at the very tip of the Antarctic – we jumped at the chance.
A site which was originally built as a UK military base in the Second World War, then used as a scientific research base up until the Cold War, Port Lockroy has seen thousands upon thousands of incredible people visit over the last 100 years, from scientists and whalers to explorers and sailors. Today, under the care of UKAHT, Base A at Port Lockroy has been reopened as a historic museum, gift shop and Post Office.
If that didn’t already sound like an incredible story, each summer, the site is also home to around a colony of 3000 Gentoo penguins. Along with the rich history of Base A, this is another reason why so many people make the expedition to Port Lockroy.
The site is run by a team of four who have been handpicked from over 2000 applicants for their unique set of skills to help them survive over the winter (Antarctic summer) in the coldest, windiest and driest place on earth. Each season, the team see up to 18,000 visitors to the site. Their job is to run the day to day operation of the gift shop and Post Office but also to promote the work of UKAHT on the Peninsula and give visitors a taste of base life from the early days of British occupation. We interviewed the Port Lockroy team just before Christmas, after two months of their working season at Base A.
“I’ve wanted to work in Antarctica for many years. My professional background is in arts and cultural development and there are not many roles in Antarctica using these skills, so to work in a job focused on conserving a significant historic site and engaging people in the cultural history of Antarctica is a dream come true.”
ON THE RECRUITMENT PROCESS:
“Twelve of us who made the shortlist were invited to a two-day selection process consisting of a combination of individual, small group and whole group tasks that tested a range of physical, analytical, communication and social skills. The tasks and activities are all based on the kinds of work and the types of skills needed for living and working at Port Lockroy. Having now spent time working here we have come up with a few more ideas for tasks and challenges to test the new candidates next year!”
ON PREPARING FOR FOUR MONTHS IN THE ANTARCTIC:
“To prepare for the job we did lots of reading about the work and roles we each were responsible for and about the history and stories of Base A and Operation Tabarin; we spent time researching and buying the right clothing, especially warm base layers, socks and gloves; lastly we informed our friends and family we’d have very little contact, and tidying up our personal affairs – paying bills and arranging forwarding addresses etc.”
ON THE DAILY ROUTINE AT PORT LOCKROY:
“There is no regular daily routine! It varies depending on how many ships are visiting and also what the weather is doing. When we have ship visits we prepare the landing site to ensure the snow step route onto the island is stable; we clean the entrance way to the museum so that it is guano-free; we fire up the generator to supply power to the electronic tills; we open up the museum and when guests arrive we bring the museum to life with stories of times past. We serve and help customers inside the shop and post office. Outside we tell people about the geographical and historic features they can see and the wildlife found on the island including the penguin monitoring work we do.
After ships leave we clean the museum, restock the shop, settle the tills and leave thing ready for the next visit. We then have the mammoth job of ‘cancelling’ the mail – this is stamping the postmark on all the postcards that have been posted. This week we cancelled over 6,000 postcards!
On ship-free days if the weather is fine we work on the outdoor maintenance of the buildings; and on windy or wet weather days we work inside on surveying and cataloguing the conditions of a list of artifacts inside the museum.
In and amongst these busy days we also do our daily domestic duties.”
ON WORKING WITH THE PENGUINS:
“We share a small island with 548 breeding pairs of penguins. We work around them and we give them right of way. We make a count in a small sub-colony every two days and three times in the season we do a full island count: to monitor the number of nests, eggs and chicks.
“One day we were restocking the shop, taking boxes from storage at the Boatshed where there are a number of penguin nests. One penguin came up to me and dropped a stone at my feet. Penguins collect stones and give them as gifts to their partners when building nests, so I think it was a sign that I looked and smelt a lot like a penguin!”
ON MAKING THE BEST OF THE WORST JOB:
“We have very many tasks and jobs to do, which are all varied. On a daily basis the team share and rotate between 4 domestic duties: cooking, writing the base diary, cleaning and gash (emptying the toilet bucket).Emptying the bucket may sound like the worst job but actually this task means that some time is spent outside in the late evening enjoying the colours in the sky and the reflections of the mountains in the water. You can stop for a moment and listen to the sounds of nature: the chirping of the Blue-eyed Shag chicks, the call of the Antarctic Terns; the braying of the Penguins; and the thunder of the glaciers – it’s sounds like a rainforest! Last week a Blue-eyed Shag flew down and landed very close by to watch us as we went about our duties. It is very special to experience the sights and sounds of nature here.”
ON LEARNING NEW SKILLS
“The most surprising skill we’ve learned is how to wash the dishes using a very small amount of water. We have a limited water supply so we have to be frugal to make sure we do not waste what we have. We’ve all become very adept at conserving water.
ON THE THINGS THEY MISS THE MOST
“We miss having a hot shower every morning and face-to-face contact with friends and family.”
ON ARRIVING HOME
“The first things we’ll do when we get home; hug my partner; meet friends and family and regale them with Antarctic stories; have a haircut.”
ON APPLYING TO WORK AT PORT LOCKROY
“Do a lot a research about what life here might be like; look at the UKAT website; read the past Port Lockroy blogs; and go for it!”