The Post Office at the end of the World – Port Lockroy

As I write this, the fourth Homeward Bound cohort – 100 women from 33 countries – are exploring the Antarctic Peninsula as they work toward empowering themselves and each other to take on leadership roles in this world as it undergoes rapid transformation. Since my own journey to Antarctica last January, I’ve been posting stories here about our trip. The past few weeks I’ve been prompted to relive my experience by updates from Homeward Bound and friends in my HB cohort. I realized I still have a few photos and stories to share from our journey. Today, let me take you to the post office.

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Penguins and people clustering around the museum, gift shop and post-office at Port Lockroy.

If you’re old enough, you might remember the days when you would go out to your mailbox in the afternoon and get a thrill of delight from finding a postcard from an old friend. On the back, they would write notes – some long, some short (you know, like the notes you see on Facebook or Instagram, but it was special in that it was for you alone). I miss those days.

I loved receiving postcards, but as a traveler, it was sometimes a pain to write them all out – not to mention dealing with the challenges of navigating a foreign postal system. But sending off a postcard was like sending off a snippet of our lives. (For those of you under 30, you could think of postcards as an archaic form of social networking.)

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The Gentoo penguin rookery near Port Lockroy was a treasure trove of spectacular misty mountain views and adorable Gentoo chicks.

There sits a post-office at the end of the world. It’s the place I imagined my letters to Santa would wind up when I was a kid: a cabin with meandering corridors in the midst of a snowy landscape where mist drapes across rugged mountains in the distance. (When I was small, it didn’t quite occur to me that the North Pole, where Santa is supposed to live, has no mountains.)

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I wonder if the penguins think much of the ships that come and go from Port Lockroy every day in the Antarctic summer. Our ship, the MV Ushuaia, sits in the background here.

Port Lockroy is a designated historic site operated by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust on an island along the Antarctic Peninsula. It was originally established as a British base during World War II, then served as a research station until 1962. In the 1990’s, it was renovated and turned into a museum, gift-shop and post-office to serve the growing number of tourists on the Antarctic Peninsula. For about four months each year, it receives two cruise ships a day, each hosting somewhere between 80 and 150 people. There are four women who tend to the station and the science at the penguin rookery on nearby Wiencke Island, where the British Antarctic Survey is studying the impact of tourism on penguin colonies.

IMG_8648The harbor of Port Lockroy was used for whaling in the early 20th century, and you’ll still find whale bones scattered about. We arrived here on January 15, 2019, one of the stops on our Homeward Bound journey along the Antarctic peninsula. This was a stop many had been looking forward to for a long time – one of the few gift shops in Antarctica. (Yes, Antarctica actually has more than one. Some research stations also have gift shops.)

The space in the shop and museum at Port Lockroy is quite small, so we divvied up into two groups: one group started at the shop and museum on the tiny Goudier Island in the harbor, the other started at the Gentoo penguin rookery.

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I think we happened to catch the Gentoo chicks at their cutest phase. Like all the other penguins we had seen, they really didn’t care too much about the flicker of our cameras – they just waddled about their business while we tried to stay well out of their way.

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Most Gentoos have two chicks, which increases the chance that at least one will survive. Eggs are usually laid in late October, hatch in late November or early December, and chicks stay in the nest for the first 3-4 weeks. By January, they’re starting to hobble around a bit, and penguin parents have to work extra hard to keep their chicks fed. That’s about the stage we found them in. Although, some of our naturalists commented that these chicks seemed a bit small for mid-January, and it’s possible that this was a second clutch.

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The Gentoos are one of the more adaptable penguin species. Unlike the Adelie penguins, they can subsist on a slightly more varied diet. As Antarctic waters have been warming, the Adelies have suffered from reductions in krill, their primary food source, while the Gentoos have been expanding their range further southward with warming waters.

After a stroll along the edge of the Gentoo rookery, we were ferried to the tiny museum and shop on Goudier Island. It was here that everyone raced to stamp their postcards and send them off during our short hour on the island. Most of us had taken heed from the previous Homeward Bounders and had our postcards ready to go, so that all they needed was a stamp – which you could purchase for $1 USD in the shop. (It truly was snail mail – most cards sent on that day in January arrived at their destinations sometime in March).

I was drawn in by the historical displays of meteorological instruments. While weather has not been recorded continuously at this site since it was established, there was at least some consistent observation going back as far as the 1940’s. Most atmospheric work at Lockroy focused on studies of the ionosphere to determine the best frequencies for long-distance transmissions.

One thing I wish I done was thought to send a postcard to my own house. I sent out only a few, to family and friends. But I’ve never actually received a postcard from Antarctica, and I realized I missed my opportunity to send a message to myself across time and across the globe.

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I suppose this has made me rethink social media posts versus old-fashioned postcards. Postcards are snippets of life that we trade with each other. For example, have you ever found a postcard written to you by someone you’ve loved and lost? It’s like you’re holding a little bit of their spirit in your hand – you have something that’s captured the unique way they dotted their i’s or looped their y’s, or the slant of their writing as they perched the card on a small cafe table or park bench somewhere. What if in sending someone a snippet of your life you are also sending a snippet of your soul? I’m not sure it works the same way when you type letters into your phone and send them off to the ether of social media. Think about it, the next time you pick up a postcard.

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The evening after our Port Lockroy visit, the sky cleared, and the sun which would sit for hours on the horizon late in the evening, gave the mountains a gold-colored glow.

If you’d like to read another post I wrote about Port Lockroy, you can find it at the Homeward Bound blog.

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