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FOUR SEASONS: CALLING ALL PENGUIN LOVERS

Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 27 March 2010

ARE you looking for a job with a difference? Do you get on well with other people? Really? Even when you’re trapped in a confined space with them for days on end? Do you like long-distance travel? Do you like the cold? Do you like penguins? If you answered yes to some or all of the above, you should probably visit the website of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust (www.ukaht.org) right-now-this-minute and fill in an application for a position at Port Lockroy in the British Antarctic Territory, once a weather station, now the world’s most southerly post office and also home to a very large and vocal colony of gentoo penguins.

Every year between November and March, UKAHT sends a small team to this remote, inhospitable spot to perform a dizzying range of tasks, from receiving passengers from visiting cruise ships to carrying out research into the health of the local penguin population. And, of course, sorting mail.

The money raised at the post office and at the attached museum and gift shop goes towards the upkeep of the base at Port Lockroy itself as well as a number of other huts of historical interest in the area, notably Scott’s hut at Cape Evans and Shackleton’s former digs at Cape Royds, where a stash of 100 year-old whisky bottles was recently discovered.

Claire Murphy, a zoology graduate who hails from Dunfermline, has just returned to the UK after a stint as part of a four-woman team running Port Lockroy and it sounds like she had a blast – although she’s keen to stress that the experience was also the challenge of a lifetime.

“We were four women living in one room, marooned on a tiny wee island in Antarctica, about an acre in size,” she says. “We had no boat, but it wasn’t really an issue as we were kept so busy. We were lucky in that we all got on really well with each other, and as we were in contact with so many other people (from cruise ships] there was no time for any feelings of cabin fever. If I needed some ‘me time’ I would occasionally take 20 minutes while dinner was being prepared to find a quiet place on a rock and reflect – weather and visitors permitting, obviously.”

The four members of the Port Lockroy team were all given different areas of responsibility, but inevitably there was a lot of overlap. Because of her zoology background, Murphy was tasked with monitoring the gentoos as well as managing the gift shop, but she also found herself repainting the base, compiling inventories and cataloguing museum artefacts.

Port Lockroy may not be able to boast romantic links with Scott or Shackleton, but it has an interesting history. Discovered by the French Antarctic Expedition of 1903, the natural harbour was named after Edouard Lockroy, a French politician who helped secure government support for the venture. Towards the end of the Second World War a British base was established as part of Operation Tabarin, which aimed to deny safe havens to the German Navy. In 1996, after a period as an atmospheric research station, Port Lockroy was turned into a post office and museum. Now it is a popular stop on the Antarctic tourist trail: last season it had 15,000 visitors, mostly from cruise ships.

With so many people tramping around on such a small island the potential for environmental damage is considerable, so part of UKAHT’s remit is to manage access. For the last 14 years it has been running a study into the impact of visitors to the site on behalf of the British Antarctic Survey – the penguin count Murphy was working on – and at the same time it regulates the number of ships visiting the area and imposes strict guidelines on tourists once they come ashore.

So far, the results of the survey seem to show that tourism has a slight positive effect on penguin numbers, possibly because the invading hordes of snap-happy holidaymakers act as a deterrent to skuas, their natural predators. Bad news for skuas, I suppose, but then I’m sure they’ll be the subject of another study in due course – perhaps even one conducted by Murphy.

“With regards to the future, I would love to work another season at Port Lockroy,” she says. “When I worked in the Kalahari desert I was told, ‘Once you have lived in the Kalahari it gets into your blood and you will always come back.’ This may be true, but the pull that Antarctica has is even stronger. It really is a different world out there.”

The deadline for the 2010/11 season is this Wednesday so either send your CV in now or go for that other Antarctic-based, penguin-related job you’ve had your eye on.

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