A house for Christmas among the penguins

A group of four British women have recently arrived on a remote Antarctic island to care for its population of tourists and passing 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 to 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 says with a chuckle.

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 out thousands of other applicants to run the Antarctic summer base 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 hosts passing cruise ships and keeps tabs on the island’s population of around 1,000 gentoo penguins.

Talking to the women is extremely difficult, but Clare and Mairi, the wildlife observer on the team, managed to tell me about their experience over an irregular satellite phone line.

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

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

Lucy Bruzzone, Mairi Hilton, Clare Ballantyne and Natalie Corbett

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

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

As I speak to Clare and Mairi, they have already spent several weeks in Port Lockroy and the team have settled into a well oiled routine. “We get up at 7 in the morning,” Mairi says. “We have breakfast and go down to dig the landing site where the guests arrive.

“We have a cruise ship in the morning. Tourists come to visit the museum, shop and see the penguins. Then we have lunch and a second group of tourists comes in the afternoon until about 6pm. In the evening we have dinner, monitor the penguins and we carry out any other necessary tasks,” he adds.

Port Lockroy is the most popular tourist destination in Antarctica, with approximately 18,000 visitors each year. But it’s a symbiotic relationship: the team relies heavily on the assistance provided by passing ships.

“We don’t have running water, so we get drinking water from cruise ships,” says Mairi, “and we also take showers there.”

“We get fresh fruit and vegetables and bread from the ships that visit us. The crews take great care of us,” Clare adds.

Since there is no internet connection in Port Lockroy, the main way for the team to stay in touch with their families and keep abreast of events in the outside world is by using Wi-Fi on the ships. And although the team has received advanced first aid training, if they need to see a doctor, they can find one aboard a visiting vessel.

But it’s not always that simple. They say the unpredictability of Antarctic weather means the team could suddenly be isolated for days.

“You never know what the day will bring,” says Clare. “You don’t know if you’ll have a ship in the morning, if you’ll have a storm. You have to be very flexible.”

However, despite the challenges, they are still in awe of their surroundings. “Every morning when you walk up the snowy steps to the building, the mountains and icebergs in the channel surround us, it’s just wonderful and seeing the penguins makes you smile,” says Clare.

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 make great neighbors and are really fun to watch.”

The team’s main job when it comes to monitoring wildlife 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 also don’t have fast sea ice in the bay, which is unusual. Penguin eggs aren’t going to survive if they’re laid in snow, so if we continue to have these warmer, milder winters, it’s not going to be good for the our penguins here”.

Clare and Mairi say they don’t have much free time yet, but are trying to savor every single moment they spend on the island. So I ask them if they have anything special planned for their very unusual Christmas.

“We’re taking the day off,” Mairi says. “Some of us will make Christmas pudding and mince pies and gingerbread cookies. We’ll kick back and have a Christmas dinner and do a lot of things that you would usually do at home, but in Antarctica.”

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