The planet's coolest jobs: Antarctic base workers
For most of us, the world's southernmost point seems like a pretty hostile place, but for a certain four women, it's home. Each year, Hannah, Hannalore, Sophie and Julia spend five months living and working in Port Lockroy, a British base in Antarctica that also serves as a museum, shop and post office. With Hannalore as Base Leader, this team works hard to preserve the port, welcoming visiting ships and, best of all, watching over the native colony of gentoo penguins. We caught up with the team to find out what it's like to live on the very edge of the world.
What is an Antarctic Base Worker?
Hannalore: We work for the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT), which is a small charity based in Cambridge in the UK. It looks after six historical sites along the Antarctic Peninsula, of which Port Lockroy is the most visited. My team and I work to keep Antarctic history alive, sharing it with visitors from all over the world. Back in the UK, the UKAHT visit schools to educate younger generations about our work on the Antarctic Peninsula.
What’s it like living in the Antarctic?
Hannah: It's very cool living here, literally! We live on a tiny island the size of a football pitch, but share it with about 2000 gentoo penguins and their chicks, as well as other birds. Although we are here mainly in the summer there’s still lots of snow, which slowly melts throughout the season. We are surrounded by beautiful snowy mountains and glaciers and clear blue water, so we're not at a loss for fantastic scenery.
Tell us a little bit about your typical day
Hannalore: Life here is different every day and depends on weather and ice conditions, as well as the visiting ships’ schedules. Port Lockroy is one of the most visited places in Antarctica, with one to three ships visiting a day. Between ship visits we have other duties to attend to. These include maintenance jobs, sending postcards from the post office, checking conditions on the historical items in the museum and monitoring the penguin colonies and other wildlife. There is always something to do at Port Lockroy!
How did you become an Antarctic Base Worker?
Julia: I’ve always been fascinated by the polar regions and have visited the Antarctic on a small passenger ship twice, stopping in at Port Lockroy both times. On the second visit I asked the team about working and living on the base. Up for the challenge, I applied that year, but didn’t have any experience in tourism or customer services. Undeterred I started guiding on whale and dolphin watching boats and small passenger ships, reapplied to work for the UKAHT and got the job!
Hannah: I was working on a round-the-world cruise ship seven years ago and we sailed through Antarctica. I fell in love with the natural beauty here and started researching how I could come back and work here. I finally got the job after three years of applications.
What’s the coolest thing about your job?
Hannah: As part of my role as Deputy Sub-Post Mistress I spend a lot of time stamping people’s postcards. It makes me happy to think of the joy over 70,000 people per year get when they receive a postcard from Antarctica, and the most southerly post office in the world!
Sophie: The most amazing thing about my job is being able to live and work with my feathery friends, the gentoo penguins. There are over 2000 of them on our little island, and they are fascinating to observe. I can’t tell them apart yet, but I am starting to get familiar with their different behaviours – and soon the team and I will get to watch the new season's chicks grow up!
How do you look after the gentoo penguins?
Sophie: As they’re wild we largely leave them be, but as we share their home and have many people visiting us, we have to make sure the penguins are not disturbed when they are resting or waddling their way back to their nests. To help them, we mark specific routes for visitors to walk on so that they don’t use the penguins’ highways. Part of our job is also to count the penguin colony when after they've laid their eggs, then again when the chicks are born and when the chicks are old enough to venture beyond the nest. The information collected will help scientists know if the breeding season has been a successful one or not. So far so good this year!
What other Antarctic wildlife have you seen?
Hannah: Skuas and snowy sheathbills are birds that nest on our island, so we see them every day. We see visiting crabeater and weddell seals most days, which venture onto the ice for a snooze. It's so quiet here that you can hear them breathing if you're close enough. If we are lucky we may see a leopard seal, Antarctic terns, Wilson's storm petrels and southern giant petrels too.
What do you miss most about home when living in the Antarctic?
Sophie: The thing I miss most about home is the variety of smells when you walk outside; the freshly cut grass, the roses in gardens, the rain in the forest, baked bread from the bakery or exotic foods from restaurants. In Antarctica, the snow and the rocks don’t really smell of anything, well except penguin poo!
What do you miss the most about the Antarctic when you’re home?
Julia: I miss the penguins most of all, but also the peace and quiet. There's no traffic here at all, only two ships visiting each day. In the Antarctic, people are always happy and smiling as they’re on holiday and not rushing around constantly using their mobile phones. It's good to get away from all the hustle and bustle, enjoy a simple life without technology and take in the beauty of the natural world.