Port Lockroy: Insights into our Antarctic Heritage

This is the first in a series of 2011-12 Antarctica Centennial Celebration articles dealing with historic sites on the White Continent and the efforts to restore and preserve them for posterity.

Flensing at Antarctic PeninsulaIn 1911, Port Lockroy was little known, aside from the whaling factory ships that were just discovering the large natural harbor as an ideal location for their work. A good supply of fresh glacial runoff was nearby, useful for processing the whales taken in the Antarctic Peninsula area. One hundred years later, reminders of that era can still be seen: old whalebones scattered on the rocky shore of Goudier Island, chains and eyebolts where the whalers moored.

But a visitor's attention today will more likely be drawn to the careful restoration of Bransfield House, the first permanent British government building at the Peninsula. Now overseen by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT), the building recreates the look and feel of the scientific station that it was in the late 50s and early 60s. In those days, meteorology and the analysis of the ionosphere were the outpost's main research, along with the study of the lichens, birds and mammals that made their homes here.

Port Lockroy has witnessed some other interesting twists and turns over the years, from those early whaling days right up to today, where it ranks as the most popular Peninsula site the with IAATO vessel operators and their passengers.

Whaling activities faded in the 1930s, but Lockroy proved of interest to the British war effort when a base was established here near the end of WWII. A frame structure was erected as part of Operation Tabarin, an expedition sent to cement British territorial claims, ensure that no foothold could be gained by the Axis and, more mundanely, to report the weather. In constructing what would become Bransfield House, the 14-man expedition even made use some of the planks from work platforms and rafts left by their predecessors.

Following the war, the expedition morphed into the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS) – today known as the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) – using the building as a research station until 1962, when it was abandoned and fell into disrepair. Recognizing Port Lockroy as historically significant, The Antarctic Treaty designated it as Antarctic Historic Site and Monument (HMS) No. 61 in 1995.

Restoration work to Bransfield House began a year later by BAS, with financial assistance from the British Antarctic Territory Government. It was the first historic monument on the Peninsula to receive such a makeover. Managed by BAS, the building was soon opened to visitors during the austral summer.

The site was turned over to UKAHT in 2006, with onsite seasonal staff acting as caretakers, visitor guides and postmasters. The last role is no mean feat, with some 70,000 cards posted each season to more than 100 countries. Proceeds from the post office and small gift shop support upkeep and continued conservation of Port Lockroy and other Historic Sites and Monuments on the Peninsula.

A strong partnership between the UKAHT and IAATO has also been a critical factor in Port Lockroy's vitality and popularity. With 144 landed visits and 12,654 visitors from IAATO-Member vessels during the 2010-11 season, close cooperation between the two organizations is a must.

UKAHT regulates the number of ships and visitors to Port Lockroy, and along with IAATO-Member expedition leaders and field staff, ensure that guests closely adhere to established Antarctic Treaty Site Guidelines. Only one ship may visit at a time, and no more than three per day. Visitors ashore are limited to 60 at any given time, with a guide accompanying each 20 guests.

For more than a decade, UKAHT has monitored the long-term impact of these visitors to the site and to the locale's gentoo penguin population through an ongoing environmental study. Results indicate there is no discernable impact from tourism to the colony's breeding success. This data augments scientists' growing body of knowledge about the regional environmental factors driving gentoo population dynamics, and contributes to an improved understanding of other human pressures on penguin populations.

IAATO Members and their guests contribute financially to the ongoing work of UKAHT, at Port Lockroy as well as other Antarctic sites. During the 2010-11 season alone, these contributions totaled nearly $12,000.

There's yet another dimension to the UKAHT-IAATO partnership, and that is the logistical assistance provided by IAATO-Member vessels. UKAHT Operations Manager Tudor Morgan notes, "Many IAATO operators assist us on a regular basis in taking staff in and out of Lockroy – Antarctic Shipping, Antarpply, Aurora, GAP Adventures, Hapag-Lloyd, Lindblad Expeditions,, Oceanwide and Quark. Even some of the IAATO yachts have lent a hand, such as the Hanse Explorer and Spirit of Sydney."

"In particular, IAATO Member Hurtigruten has been instrumental in taking our bulk cargo south each season: building materials for continued restoration, stores and food as well as merchandise for the shop," he added.

Jørn Henriksen, Antarctic Operations Coordinator with Hurtigruten, comments, "Cooperation between our company and BAS – and more recently UKAHT – has grown stronger ever since we began cruising to the Antarctic Peninsula in 2002. We feel it's important to give something back to the places that allow us to visit. UKAHT does a great job promoting and encouraging the public's interest in their Antarctic heritage, and this benefits our guests directly with enriched experiences."

Such encounters at Port Lockroy are decidedly different than they were 100 years ago. Through these first-hand experiences, travelers return home with a better perspective of Antarctic heritage, ongoing environmental research, and perhaps even a stamp or two. And that's probably a fair trade-off for leaving the whales behind.