Straight after breakfast this morning, we were called into the lounge for a briefing. There were two women from Port Lockroy.
This port used to be a whaling station back in the day and there are still chains near the entry, along with whale bones left lying in the water.
The port is open for 6 months and every year over 4,000 people apply for the 4 available positions. This year 4 women are there, performing a mix of scientific, postal and public relations jobs.
Every day they are visited by 2 cruise ships, so their only quiet times are early in the mornings and after dinner, where they sit and stamp that day’s amount of the 70,000 postcards that they receive over the course of the season.
I only sent two. Didn’t want to overwork them. I would’ve sent one to James from Ireland, seeing as we sent each other postcards from Pyongyang, but I didn’t have his address.
This time, instead of being split into two groups, we passengers were split into three. Over the course of the morning, we’d have a landing neat gentoo penguins, a zodiac cruise around the bay for around 45 minutes, and a trip to the actual base at Port Lockroy. Which order anyone got to do all of this was completely luck of the draw.
Naturally, this worked in my favour. Again.
In the early parts of the morning, the guides were very conscious of time. I jumped on a zodiac which happened to be doing the landing on Jougla Island first. When we made our way up the dug out snow staircase, Rose grabbed me, made me sit on a barrel and she put my snowshoes on. They were hustling people along – no mucking around!
I didn’t realise it at the time, but they had to ensure that all of us had seen Port Lockroy and were all back on the ship before the next cruise arrived.
You can see in the photo how the landing teams put everything on a tarp, which is sterilised after we get back on board. They are really very worried about avian flu coming down here from the northern hemisphere. It could decimate the bird populations here.
Then we were off, trudging our way along the path laid out by the red poles the guides had planted earlier.
It was a cracking morning. The sun was so bright that I had to keep reminding myself to wear my sunglasses. I didn’t want to experience snow blindness like Baptiste did a couple of days ago.
It wasn’t a particularly long walk, just across a flat patch and then up a small hill where there were a couple of penguin colonies, along with a wonderful view of the bay. I took it slowly though, conscious that this was my last day.
The Gentoos were making the “hee-haw” sound that had already become so familiar. The air was cool and the sky was brilliantly blue. The penguins, the sound of snowshoes on snow and the murmuring of people talking were the only sounds I could hear.
I stayed up here for what seemed like ages. It was unutterably beautiful. The penguins were busily doing their own thing, with the occasional bird swooping around.
At one point, down the hill near a penguin colony, a stupid group of Vietnamese people strayed off the path, just to get a photo opportunity holding up their flag. The guides were quickly onto it.
“It’s not the flag I object to,” said one of the guides when I mentioned it later. “It’s the crevasses that are in the area.”
With conditions so perfect, I guess it’s hard for some people to keep in mind that we’re not in a tame place. But seriously, if you want to come to one of the most untouched and isolated places on Earth, do your research! Stepping into a crevasse could kill you.
After a while, I snowshoed my way back down the hill and got into a zodiac. Turned out, this one was on a cruise. Our last one…
We were lucky enough to see two seals out sunning themselves. Zoom in on the second photo – the seal’s on the rocks.
I was sitting in the front of the zodiac again, and I was so glad the sea was calm. I could have my iPhone out all the time without being concerned about waves splashing.
We passed by colonies of Antarctic/Blue-Eyed Shags building their nests from seaweed. Every year they come back to the same place and build on top of the nest they had before. Right in the middle, you can see one nest getting precariously tall.
None of us wanted the cruise to end. We went further afar, looking at the amazingly sculpted icebergs and gazing at the glaciers spilling into the bay.
Eventually the call came for our group to go to the steps carved into the snow to reach the base at Port Lockroy.
I didn’t know it then, but this was to be extra special, especially for all of us who were on the last zodiacs to arrive.
Port Lockroy is home to thriving colonies of Gentoo penguins, who make robust use of the buildings on the base. This means that when the people who live on the base each October arrive, the penguins are already well established.
They live under the old post office, all around the storage shed and there’s even a colony that has parked itself directly under the flag pole.
This means that for the first time on this trip, the 5 metre rule couldn’t be adhered to. I took this video as I was queuing up to go into the post office. I couldn’t believe how close the penguins were coming to us.
When we first arrived, I was charmed to see the penguins nesting under the old building, but I was more focused on getting inside and looking around.
The museum is set up as if it was the 1950s.
It was very utilitarian.
There was a stamp that we could get for our passports with ‘ Port Lockroy’ on it. I’d already got the ‘Ushuaia’ and ‘Antarctica’ stamps from the tourist office in Ushuaia, which may or may not make some countries’ immigration people dislike me, so I thought I may as well get the whole set while I was at it.
I had a quick look at the museum, but it was outside where the real magic lay.
Remember how I said that the guides were really conscious of time with this landing?
Now that we were on the last round, that urgency melted away. We were there for well over an hour and a half.
Ninety minutes in a place where the penguins were literally all around us. What a way to finish the landings!
And, as I said, they were so close.
It was crazy. I’d be standing, looking at penguins coming back to the base along their penguin highways, when I’d hear a quiet little “shuffle, shuffle “ noise coming up behind me.
I’d turn, and there would be a penguin literally 1 foot behind me, making his way back to the bay.
It was incredible.
They were totally focused on building their nests, with many birds waddling along clutching a pebble with their beaks.
They were all around us, walking, ( and tripping and falling), while we were marvelling at our incredible luck to be here at this place and time. What an absolutely precious hour and a half that was.
As the guides with the other groups dropped their zodiac groups back on the ship, they’d come across to the base.
Every time someone asked if it was time to go back to the zodiacs, they’d say, “There’s no rush…”
Liga and I looked at each other. We didn’t need to be told twice!
I took more videos here than I did on the rest of the trip combined. By now, the sound of the Gentoos was utterly familiar, as well as their waddling gait and optimism in the face of everything.
But this was the last time I’ll be here with them. I didn’t want to miss a thing.
Just before we finally left, a bird stole an egg. I was at the wrong angle to take a shot of the actual theft, but as we were walking back to the zodiacs I snapped THIS SHOT.
The sheathbills sneak in, peck a hole in the egg and come back later to eat the insides. If you zoom in you can see the hole in the egg. It’s sad. The penguins only lay two eggs.
But of course, the skuas and sheathbills also have families to raise. Plus the egg would taste a lot better than the sheathbills’ normal food – penguin poo.
As we were enjoying lunch that was definitely tastier than penguin poo or penguin eggs, the ship began to move out of the bay. We were on our way home. Two days at sea, crossing the Drake Passage, and then we’d be back at Ushuaia.
At the briefing that night before dinner, Pippa asked if we wanted to get the weather forecast for the Drake. Would it be a shake or a lake?
She put up a picture of the weather chart.
“Of course, seeing as it’s you guys, the weather forecast for our entire crossing is blue,” she said, and started to laugh as we all cheered.
She pointed to the lower left-hand corner of the chart.
“You can see here that there’s a purple monster blizzard heading this way, but this will affect the group that’s coming after you. Your group has been truly blessed with unprecedented good weather.”
She went on to say, “ The one landing we had where it was grey and snowing, I had a few of you asking if it was safe to go out.” She laughed. “ It was safe. That’s considered great weather for landings in Antarctica.
“ The last group we had was a 21-day cruise including the Falkland and South Georgia Islands. The weather was so bad that they only had ONE landing for the entire trip. You guys have been incredibly lucky.”
Wow. I already knew from Morgan that the trip I was originally meant to go on last year had pretty bad weather, but this was on another plane of terrible. I sat there thanking all of the gods that my tour company picked this out of all possible weeks to go.
Ross, the guide from Cornwall, then announced the photo competition. There were 3 categories: Landscape, Wildlife and Fun. People had a few hours to enter, then the whole ship would vote, with the 3 favourites from each category ending up in the finals to be announced on the last night of the cruise.
There was no way I was entering. I was actually pretty pleased with how well my iPhone 6 performed, but it’s no match for the latest iPhones and wildly expensive cameras and lenses that lots of people were using. I was definitely sitting this one out.
We stayed up late in the lounge, talking, reading and the card players doing their thing. SamFrank joined us as we were talking to an American guy who was in the military. He, (SamFrank), mentioned that he was a colonel in the special forces.
From memory, SamFrank is a captain, a colonel and a general in the FBI and Special Forces who is also a dance instructor, presumably in his spare time.
The plot thickens.