Sunday, 20 November 2011

BAS Port Lockroy - forgotten gems

Given the short time this blog has been running, I'm going to apologise for cheating slightly already and going out of England (and indeed the shires) for this post.  Without wanting to get into the rights, wrongs or do-you-mind-if-we-dont's of the Antarctic Treaty, this place is technically in the British Antarctic Territory, and so is as British as Kent dammit...

When I was a young naval officer, I was lucky enough to spend six months in HMS ENDURANCE, our ice-breaker, resupply vessel and general White Ensign flier in the Antarctic.  While we were down in the ice, we were tasked to resupply the British Antarctic Survey station at Port Lockroy.  We were a bit blase about things like that, as we went to almost one station a day at some points (covering a wide variety of nationalities), and one laboratory is very much like another.  This one, however, was different - Port Lockroy is a museum.

Originally built as part of the Len Deighton style Operation_Tabarin, it later functioned as a BAS scientific base until the mid 1960s.  These days, it's run as a small museum of the way Britain used to do Antarctic science missions. 

Inside, the building is a gem, with each room fitted out with 1950s furniture and accessories.  The current staff during the Antarctic summer months numbers just three, all of whom live in a single bunkroom at the back of the building, maintaining the fabric of the building, and stamping the passports of the small number of tourists and adventurers who are lucky enough to find themselves knocking on the door.

Although extremely remote, Port Lockroy is now a popular fixture on the itenerary of the growing number of Antarctic tourist vessels, so the staff do have the opportunity to see some friendly faces reasonably regularly.  Situated on an island less than the size of a football pitch, with no boat or helicopter, it can get quite lonely when there are no tourists about.

I'm not sure what I think about Antarctic tourism if I'm totally honest.  Certainly, were it not for the traffic down there it is likely that Port Lockroy would have gone the way of Port Foster at Deception Island and fallen into ruin, but at the same time Antarctica is still pretty untouched, and the numbers visiting have gone through the roof in the past decade. There is a place for responsible tourism, but not if it harms the delicate balance of the ecosystem.  The growth of adventure tourism, and the unsuitability of some of the vessels used, particularly at the luxury travel end of the market, means that it is probably only a matter of time before there is a serious incident.

Actually, Port Lockroy has provided BAS with the opportunity to study the effect of human presence on the local residents, because the island is home to a large breeding colony of Gentoo Penguins.  Through the simple expedient of placing half of the island off limits to humans (a triumph of self-denial if you are one of the three spending half your year on the aforementioned football pitch), they are able to study what results interaction (or lack of it) has on the wildlife.  There are still plenty of penguins to go around for the curious though!

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