A house for Christmas among the penguins

A group of four British women recently arrived on a remote Antarctic island to tend to its population of tourists and passing penguins. As they prepare for Christmas at the end of the world, they tell BBC News how they are settling into their new home.

When Clare Ballantyne reached the place she would call home for the next five months, she found it buried under meters of snow. “We warmed up very quickly by digging a lot,” she laughs.

Clare was chosen along with three other women – Mairi Hilton, Lucy Bruzzone and Natalie Corbett – to look after the remote port of Port Lockroy, some 911 miles south of the Falkland Islands.

They beat thousands of other applicants to run the base during the Antarctic summer for the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust.

Once a British military base and research station, it now consists of a post office, museum and gift shop. The team welcomes passing cruise ships and monitors the island’s population of around 1,000 gentoo penguins.

Talking to the women is extremely difficult, but Clare and Mairi – the team’s wildlife monitor – managed to tell me about their experience over a spotty satellite phone line.

“We were digging access to the buildings, making sure the solar panels were unlocked from the snow and they were all working, that we had enough water and gas, and we made sure we were safe to stay on the island,” says Clare. .

The Royal Navy had been called in to help the team and repair the roof of the museum, which had been damaged under the weight of the snow. Clare remembers when the sailors left and the team was left alone on the island, surrounded only by penguins and icebergs floating silently in the channel. “It was just amazing,” she says.

(LR): Lucy Bruzzone, Mairi Hilton, Clare Ballantyne and Natalie Corbett beat 4,000 other candidates to lead Port Lockroy

Clare’s job as a postmaster is to send postcards sent by tourists visiting countries around the world. “Mail I send from here takes about four weeks to get to the UK,” she tells me. “I’m really excited to be at the start of the journey where the courier leaves.”

As 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 said. “We have breakfast, and go down to dig the landing site where the guests arrive.

“We have a cruise ship in the morning. The tourists come to visit the museum, the shop and see the penguins. Then we have lunch and a second group of tourists arrives in the afternoon until about 6 p.m. In the evening, we eat dinner, we watch the penguins and we do any other necessary tasks,” she adds.

Port Lockroy is Antarctica’s most popular tourist destination, with around 18,000 visitors each year. But it’s a symbiotic relationship: the team relies heavily on help from passing ships.

“We don’t have running water, so we get our drinking water from cruise ships,” Mairi says, “and we also have 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,” adds Clare.

As there is no internet connection at Port Lockroy, the main way for the team to be in contact with their families and keep up with events in the outside world is through the use of Wi-Fi on the ships. And although the team has advanced first aid training, if they need to see a doctor, they can find one aboard a visiting ship.

But it’s not always that simple. They say the unpredictability of Antarctic weather means 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.”

Yet despite the challenges, they are still in awe of their surroundings. “Every morning when you climb the snowy steps of the building, the mountains and the icebergs in the canal around 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 loud as I expected,” Mairi says. “They’re great neighbors and really funny to watch.”

The team’s main task in wildlife monitoring is to count the eggs that are usually laid at this time of year. But Mairi says changing weather conditions appear to have delayed the breeding season.

“There’s a lot of snow and we don’t have fast sea ice in the bay either, which is unusual. Penguin eggs won’t survive if laid in snow, so if we continue to having these warmer, milder winters, it’s not going to be good for our penguins here.”

Clare and Mairi say they haven’t had much free time yet, but they try to savor every moment they spend on the island. So I ask them if they are planning anything special for their very unusual Christmas.

“We’re taking the day off,” Mairi says. “Some of us are going to make Christmas pudding, hash pies and gingerbread cookies. We’re just going to relax and have Christmas dinner and do a lot of things that you would usually do at home – but in Antarctica.”

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