Antarctic post office: A home for Christmas among the penguins – BBC


A group of four British women recently arrived on a remote Antarctic island to look after its population of passing tourists and penguins. As they prepare for Christmas at the bottom of the world, they tell BBC News how they're settling into their new home.
When Clare Ballantyne reached the place she was going to call home for the next five months, she found it buried under metres of snow. "We warmed up very quickly by digging a lot," she says with a chuckle.
Clare was chosen along with three other women – Mairi Hilton, Lucy Bruzzone and Natalie Corbett – to look after the remote harbour of Port Lockroy, some 911 miles south of the Falkland Islands.
They beat thousands of other applicants to run the base through the Antarctic summer for the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust.
Once a British military base and research station, nowadays it consists of a post office, a museum and a gift shop. The team plays host to passing cruise ships and keeps an eye on the island's population of around 1,000 gentoo penguins.
Speaking to the women is extremely difficult, but Clare and Mairi – the team's wildlife monitor – have managed to tell me about their experience over a patchy satellite phone line.
"We were digging out access to the buildings, making sure that the solar panels were unlocked from snow and they were all working, that we had sufficient water and gas, and made sure that we were safe to stay on the island," Clare says.
The Royal Navy had been called in to help the team and fix the roof of the museum, which had been damaged under the weight of the snow. Clare recalls the moment the sailors left and the team remained on the island on their own, surrounded only by penguins and icebergs silently floating in the channel. "It was just incredible," she says.
Clare's job, as the postmaster, is to mail postcards sent by visiting tourists to countries all around the world. "The mail I send from here takes about four weeks to reach the UK," she tells me. "I'm really excited that I'm at the start of the journey where the mail goes off."
By the time I speak with Clare and Mairi, they have already spent several weeks in Port Lockroy and the team has settled into a well-oiled routine. "We get up at 7am," Mairi says. "We have breakfast, and go down to dig out the landing site where the guests arrive.
"We have one cruise ship in the morning. Tourists come and visit the museum, the shop and see the penguins. Then we have lunch and a second group of tourists arrive in the afternoon until about 6pm. In the evening we have dinner, we monitor the penguins and we do any other task that's needed," she adds.
Port Lockroy is the most popular tourist destination in Antarctica, with around 18,000 visitors each year. But it's a symbiotic relationship: the team relies heavily on assistance given by passing ships.
"We don't have any running water, so we get our drinking water from cruise ships," Mairi says, "and we also get showers there."
"We get fresh fruit and vegetables and bread from the ships that come to visit. The crews take very good care of us," Clare adds.
Since there's no internet connection in Port Lockroy, the main way for the team to be in touch with their families and keep up with events in the outside world is by using the wi-fi on the ships. And although the team has received advanced first-aid training, should they need to see a doctor, they can find one on board a visiting vessel.
But it's not always that straightforward. They say the unpredictability of Antarctic weather means that the team could suddenly remain isolated for days.
"You never know what the day is going to bring," Clare says. "You don't know if you're going to have a ship in the morning, if you're going to have a storm. You have to be very flexible."
Still, despite the challenges, they are still in awe of their surroundings. "Every morning when you walk up the snowy steps of the building, the mountains, and the icebergs in the channel that surrounds us, it's just beautiful and seeing the penguins puts a smile on your face," Clare says.
I ask them what it's like to be the only four humans among hundreds of resident penguins. "They're not as noisy as I expected," Mairi says. "They're very good neighbours and they're really funny to watch."
The team's main task when it comes to monitoring the wildlife is to count the eggs that are usually laid at this time of year. But Mairi says the changing weather conditions seem to have delayed the breeding season.
"There's lots of snow and we also don't have any fast sea ice in the bay, which is unusual. The penguins' eggs won't survive if they're laid in snow, so if we keep getting these warmer, milder winters, that's not going to be good for our penguins here."
Clare and Mairi say they haven't had much free time yet, but they're trying to savour every single moment they spend on the island. So I ask them if they're planning anything special for their very unusual Christmas.
"We are taking the day off," Mairi says. "Some of us are going to do a Christmas pudding, some mince pies and gingerbread biscuits. We'll just relax and have a Christmas dinner and do lots of things you'd usually do at home – but in Antarctica."
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