Antarctica may be remote, nationless and with no permanent human settlements but it does have the occasional imprint from human activity. In the last 100 years or so, whalers, explorers and scientists have all been lured to its shores despite the cold, isolated conditions.
Whilst the whalers have thankfully long-since ceased their brutal trade, scientists and explorers still visit, albeit in low numbers. Some of the scientists (maximum of four) stay at Port Lockroy – a small research station - which makes an interesting stop-off for visitors to the Antarctic Peninsula. Weather / ice conditions permitting, we include a visit to Port Lockroy on many of our Antarctic expeditions.
Port Lockroy was used as an operational base in World War II. After the war the buildings were used as a scientific research base until the 1960s when they fell into disrepair. In the 1990s they were renovated and turned into a post office and museum. The base has been recognised as being a historic site and has been classified and protected under the Antarctic Treaty. Each of the museum’s small rooms house a treasure trove of Antarctic exploration history including food rations, clothing and camping equipment. There is also an all-important weather station which was used to monitor barometric pressure and temperature throughout the year.
Passport Stamps and Post Office
If you are fond of seeing your collection of passport stamps and visas grow, then you shouldn’t miss stopping off at Port Lockroy. The most southerly post office in the world (and the only public post office on the Antarctic Peninsula!) will happily stamp your passport so you can have ultimate bragging rights about where you’ve been. You can buy souvenirs from the small shop and also send post - but don’t expect a speedy service! It may be a little cheesy, but if you’ve travelled so far, why not?
During the brief spring/summer season (November to February) Goudier Island (which the Port Lockroy base is built on) is home to Gentoo penguins. They come here to breed, building rudimentary nests using small stones. These can become much sought-after items and it’s not unusual for penguins to steal the odd stone or two from a neighbouring nest! A small team of scientists from the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust set up a research project to monitor the effect that tourists have on breeding penguins. The research has been on-going for over 16 years; the penguins which live to the front of the buildings are accessible to visitors whilst those behind are not. The scientists are monitoring whether there is any difference in breeding success between the two groups. The good news is that so far, there is no significant difference which indicates that tourist visits are not having a negative impact on penguins.
As well as Gentoo penguins, the islands around the Port Lockroy base are also home to other wildlife. Just a short Zodiac ride away, blue-eyed shags come to breed on an adjacent island. As with most Antarctic wildlife, they have little fear of humans. Pull up a suitable rock (keeping a respectful distance) and you can sit watching them feeding their chicks with nothing but the sound of occasional penguin squabbles to spoil your concentration.
By Louisa Richardson