Antarctica Tour: "Civilization!" -- A Visit to Port Lockroy

By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale

20 January 2012

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A taste of civilization and some "retail therapy" awaited at Port Lockroy. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Jim’s View: The Ortelius had raised her anchor early and headed north to our next destination – Port Lockroy, home to a British Research Station (and gift shop), a Gentoo Penguin colony, and a small group of nesting Antarctic Shags. After a short briefing by base personnel, we headed ashore. 

I headed to the shag colony as I knew people would want to photograph them since this was a nesting species that we hadn’t yet visited. I found them at the edge of the Gentoo colony – all appeared to be quite healthy with most nests sporting two large downy chicks. It was amazing to watch the feeding sessions since the chick’s entire head and neck are in the adult’s mouth anxiously grabbing at food. If that’s the way it’s done, I’m glad I’m not a Shag! 

Close by, whale bones were on display – a sign of a tumultuous past. A Jacques Cousteau team had aligned bones from different whales to form the backbone, ribs, and skeleton of a whale. I was on Zodiac duty the remainder of the morning – shuttling folks to and from the two landing sites and back to the ship. For some reason, this landing is always one of the muddiest and guano encrusted sites that we visit and this year was no different. I needed 15 minutes to clean off my waders before getting into the Zodiac and others needed the same. It was difficult to leave no trace. I think we all arrived back on the Ortelius with very clean boots and more tales to tell. 

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Shag chicks getting breakfast at Port Lockroy. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

After a rushed lunch, we headed to the bow or to the bridge, dependent on our tolerance for the cold, to enjoy more awe inspiring scenery. We encountered two different passenger cruise ships – the only ones we saw near the peninsula this year. We poked our way through some glorious scenery and eventually headed north along the Gerlache. Our goal was Useful Island and its colony of Chinstrap Penguins. We had never landed there before so this was truly an expedition schedule. 

As we neared the island, a pod of Orcas was spotted three miles ahead of the ship. Word was spread and for the next hour or so, we enjoyed an incredible Orca show, the likes of which I had never seen before. Estimates ran from 50-100 individuals which included huge males, many females and immature whales and several calves. Many times, the Orcas came right alongside the ship and photographers were hanging over the edge to capture these once in a lifetime images. It was amazing to be completely surrounded by these graceful creatures that occupy the top of the Antarctic food chain. A large flock of Wilson’s Storm Petrel nearby may have been an indication that these Orcas had made an earlier kill. We slowly pulled away from the Orcas and continued our way to Useful Island and our intended landing. 

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As we made our way to Useful Island, we were surrounded by Orcas, including two that came right up to the boat. The photographers aboard scrambled back forth from one side of the boat to the other in order to get the best angles. (Photos by Ann Nightingale)

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What followed was 45 minutes of the staff attempting to find a relatively comfortable route to the top of the island and the colony of Chinstraps. Unfortunately, it would not come to be – a rather perilous landing site, deep snow, and icy terrain prevented us from reaching the top – I fell through the snow up to my thigh and was temporarily stuck – I used my tripod as a makeshift shovel to dig my foot out! The only thing we had going for us was the weather and that eventually even that turned against us. A breeze kicked up which caused the cool weather to turn cold. The decision to suspend the landing attempt was met with overall agreement. Instead, Zodiac cruising around the island and its icebergs were available for folks who chose to do so. Dinner was especially good tonight since I had expended a lot of energy and was pretty tired. Tonight, we journeyed north along the Gerlache.

Ann's View: Civilization was on the agenda today. We awoke later than usual, anchored off Port Lockroy, a British base which now houses a museum, gift shop and post office. The need for retail therapy was obvious among many of the passengers, who would soon be jostling for positions to be first on the Zodiacs. Two representatives of the base came aboard to give us a briefing on the site, which was built in 1904 and used for military purposes during World War II. It is now home to a Gentoo colony and a few people who maintain the historic site for Britain. 

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Past visitors assembled this composite whale skeleton using bones found at Port Lockroy. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Only 50 people are allowed to visit at one time, so our group was split between Lockroy and nearby Jougla Point. I will admit that I wanted to be among the first to the gift shop. A cruise ship had cleared out most of the goods at the shop at Grytviken, and I wanted to make sure that I had some goodies to bring home with me, for myself and for others. I had been advised by several people that a stop at Port Lockroy was necessary, if only for the delicious chocolate that was sold there. Imagine my surprise to find that not only did they not have chocolate in stock, they told me they never had sold it. I sure wish I could remember who gave me that particular bit of advice! 

The prices were steep, but as the only game in town, we paid them and took lots of additional items back to the ship with us. The money raised helps support the station, so it’s all good. One of the neat features of the museum is a ship-to-ship mail service. People can leave mail posted to a bulletin board, to be picked up when another ship is later in port. I saw an envelope addressed to Rod and Marlene Planck, so brought it back with me. A naturalist from an Aurora cruise that had been there several weeks ago had left a card for them. They were both surprised and delighted to get their first letter from Port Lockroy. Some of the passengers on board were very prepared with address lists and some even with preprinted labels so that they could send postcards to their friends. Sorry, everyone—I was not that organized.  

Halfway through the morning, the groups switched locations, and I headed to Jougla Point, where Antarctic Shags nest, and there is a reconstructed Blue Whale skeleton. The shags had chicks of various ages, some newly hatched and some ready to fledge. It was strange to see such a range of ages in this small colony. 

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If one is lucky enough to get close to a Weddell Seal, they may hear it "sing." (Photo by Jim Danzenbaker)

A highlight for me was a Weddell Seal resting on some snow. As I got close to the snow, I started hearing strange sounds—first a descending high-pitched whistle, then a low rumbling (like I often get in my stomach). I heard it several times before realizing it was coming from the seal. It turns out the Weddell Seal is also known as the singing seal. Although the song is usually heard from the water, I had the good fortune to hear it on land.  

Good fortune continued as we headed through several channels on an afternoon of ship cruising. As we approached an unscheduled landing location, Jim spotted a pod of Orcas, and what turned out to be one of the most memorable events of the journey. For about forty-five minutes we were mesmerized by a pod of about fifty whales playing at the surface. We were surrounded by them, including a few that were clearly interested in the ship. The captain maneuvered the ship carefully between the groups of whales, but some came right up to the ship and even passed under it several times. Spouts, backs, flukes, and splashes were happening in all directions. No one minded the delay of the landing. Thousands of pictures were taken, and I suspect some of them will be excellent.  

The landing at Useful Island was to be an attempt to get us to a Chinstrap Penguin colony. The staff had to check it out first, as the Cheesemans have never landed there before. I took advantage of the delay to have a short nap. Somehow life and sleep became intertwined and I dreamt that the 5 p.m. landing had been cancelled due to high winds, so I decided to sleep a little more. When I woke up at 6 and looked out my porthole, the seas appeared reasonable, but I had missed the boats! I grabbed my gear and headed to the gangway just in case I could still get ashore, but met several staff coming the opposite way. The wind at the shore had indeed come up, and the landing had been called off. Four Zodiacs were out for a cruise, but it turns out I only half-missed this one. 

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You certainly can, you can book a psasage on a cargo ship from Galveston Tx to London (or elsewhere in England, remember England is a very small place compared to Texas) , BUT you will probably have to change ships somewhere like New York (or Savannah), it won’t be quick, it won’t be luxurious and you won’t have a huge amount of choice on departure dates. That said it can be a great adventure and how many people do something like this any more !This isn’t regular stuff, so you’ll have to find a specialist agency to book it for you. However there are a few firms around that do this, such as:(also has some interesting stories from travelers)orGood luckAnother option is to get to New York and catch a transatlantic liner to Southampton (2 hours on a train to London) not really a cruise’ as it goes straight there and back, but I’m guessing not what you are after.

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