One hundred years ago, the so-called Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration was at its height. Men like Scott, Shackleton, Mawson and others forgotten to time, opened up the great Southern continent for science, exploration and adventure. Their exploits were consumed voraciously by the popular press, the adoring public following their every step as these incredible men, apparently impervious to hardship and deprivation, forged deeper and deeper into the harsh frozen realm in search of glory in the name of the great British Empire.
The Great War stifled many plans and left a world bruised and battered but Antarctic exploration continued, albeit subdued. In the Second World War, Britain was afraid its hard won Southern interests may be threatened and the secret Operation Tabarin was organised in 1943 to patrol and report on any enemy movements in the region around the Antarctic Peninsula. Bases at Deception Island, Hope Bay and Port Lockroy were expanded and manned by naval personnel who had no idea where they were headed. Issued sunglasses on their departure from Britain, they surmised their destination would be warm and tropical. Wrong.
Further bases were added and this effort gradually transformed into the current multi-national presence we see today. Visitors aboard Antarctic cruise vessels frequently visit these sites. Some are maintained while are others have been left to “benign neglect”. One in particular, Port Lockroy (on Goudier Island 64º49’S, 63º30’W) celebrates one hundred years since its establishment, first as a whaling outpost, then 'Base A' as part of Tabarin in 1944.
Abandoned in 1962, but restored and preserved since 1996, Port Lockroy is now the most visited site on the Peninsula with visitor numbers hitting a peak of 17,000 in a recent year. As many as 30 vessels visit the 'living museum' in the course of a season (between November to March) and the little post office handles around 17,000 items of specially marked items of mail. The gift shop carries everything from postcards and books to fridge magnets and fleecies. One passenger from a private charter spent $12,000 in a single visit, so the little outpost certainly pays its way.
Once the preserve of the male-only British Antarctic Survey, Port Lockroy is currently manned, if that is the correct term, by a team of five, four of whom are women. Their duties include occasional surveys of the healthy Gentoo penguin colony and serving the stream of guests hungry for genuine Antarctic souvenirs. An additional Nissen hut has been built to enhance crew comfort, but otherwise the structure is faithful to its original design, complete with recreated radio room, kitchen and common areas.
“Anyone from any country can apply to work here for a season,” says Ylva Grams the current base commander and officer of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, a not-for-profit charity set up to maintain the historic bases.”We're only supplied once a year, but also rely on help from the many cruise ships to bring additional items and ferry staff.”
Fancy a stint at an Antarctic base? Why not apply for a position on Port Lockroy? Visit the web site for information on the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust and its work.
Roderick Eime visited Port Lockroy in November 2011 aboard Ponant's L'Austral. He regularly reports on expedition cruising at his blog: Expedition Cruising