A surprising high point of the trip was our visit to Port Lockroy, a former British military base that has been restored and now operates as a museum. It is located in a sheltered harbor off the coast of Wiencke Island, discovered in the 1800s. Norwegian whalers established a floating factory here in 1911, and whaling remained at Port Lockroy until 1931.
Photo by Andrew Harper
Late in World War II, the British constructed three bases on the Antarctic Peninsula. Port Lockroy was designated “Base A.” Following its brief wartime service, Base A became an important center for scientific work and study until 1962. Then, the scientists moved to more up-to-date stations and Port Lockroy was closed.
In 1996, under the auspices of the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust, Base A was restored as a museum that faithfully shows what life was like in the original outpost. I have to think that the inhabitants must have been as struck by the awesome setting as I was, with its huge glaciers spilling down into the dark gray sea from snowcapped mountains emblazoned by the early morning sun.
The base and its principal structure, Bransfield House, sits on Goudier Island, an easy landing by Zodiac. Inside the snug Bransfield House, the past came alive. There was a bath, with a tub upended to make space when not in use. And on the shelves were tubes of toothpaste in original containers. I especially enjoyed seeing the kitchen, with its big coal-fired stove and a full range of supplies in original containers. Apparently the staff ate well, but for variety would resort to penguin eggs. I will rely on reports that they taste good, but better scrambled than fried, as the cooked “white” remains translucent. Not surprisingly, room was found for a bar in the living room. Nearby, a gramophone provided entertainment for the Saturday “drinks night.” Murals of the Hollywood stars Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe and Ava Gardner had been painted on the wall of each bunk by the diesel mechanic, Evan Watson.
None of us came to Antarctica to shop, but we found opportunity in the gift boutique. The shop also serves as a post office — an official branch of the Royal Mail — that processes more than 70,000 postcards a year dropped off by visitors. First-day issues are in demand by stamp collectors the world over, as is the Port Lockroy postmark, so a postcard home can serve as a good souvenir. A portion of the funds goes to support the work of the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust.
To make the trip complete, Goudier Island and adjacent Jougla Point are home to gentoo penguins and large numbers of blue-eyed shags, both of which species ignored us. (A long-term study shows that the human activities have had little impact on the penguins.) We also spotted the occasional tern, opportunistic skuas looking to snatch penguin chicks and sheathbills who nest under the front door to Bransfield House. On Jougla Point, I lingered over a re-created whale skeleton made of bones from several different animals laid out by an unknown person by the shore; a plump Weddell seal resting nearby stayed so still, I initially mistook it for a rock.