Bowermaster’s Adventures: Finding civilization in Antarctica

Port Lockroy If there is a human population center along the Antarctic Peninsula, this is it. While there may be hundreds of thousands of penguins, tens of thousands of seals, whales and sea birds that call this remote stretch home, few people do.

But at the height of the austral summer season — December-February — more people congregate in the protected harbor here at the former ‘Camp A’ of the British Antarctic Survey than anywhere else for many thousands of miles, if temporarily. (The next most populated place in Antarctica would be the American base at McMurdo, home to 1,200 scientists and support crew during the summer months, but located on the opposite side of the continent.)

The former refuge hut has been turned into a mini-museum and gift shop, demanding a mostly volunteer staff to run it and keep the small island relatively tidy (it is surrounded by breeding Gentoo penguins, everywhere …) for the tourist boats that arrive, often twice a day.

When we go ashore at Goudier Island we find an all-women staff of four plus a visiting guide from one of the tourist ships who’s spending ten days here helping out. The two men are here temporarily, installing video cameras around the hut so the penguin colonies can be monitored remotely during the eight months no humans live here.

I had a slightly selfish interest for pulling into Lockroy; a pair of kayaks I’d asked to be dropped off by the National Geographic Explorer had been stashed alongside the residents’ Quonset hut a few weeks ago. We find them, bright red and yellow polyurethane wrapped in plastic badly deteriorated by the ozone-free sun that shines brightly here during the summer thanks to the still-present hole in the atmosphere that grows over the deep, deep south this time of year.The even-more-temporary residents of Lockroy are those that arrive by private sailboat, a growing phenomenon, seeking well-known shelter from Antarctica’s fiercest winds. Twenty years ago, it would be rare to see a sailboat here, maybe one or two during a complete summer season. Today there are almost always five or six boats at anchor in this bay alone.

Skip Novak, the owner of the Pelagic Australis that I’ve chartered, has been coming to the Peninsula by small boat since 1988 and is one of a the charter members in a very small (3 or 4?) club of pioneers. He is on board with us and regales us nightly with stories of those early days when they used to tap into the fuel deposits left behind at abandoned science bases, debauched nights in Ushuaia’s lone strip club (the Tropicana, still there) at trip’s end and the always odd and colorful characters who initially came here in small boats against the advice of virtually everyone.

We anchor at Lockroy for three nights, filming in the iceberg-studded bays nearby, diving under icebergs and photographing the whalebones left on the sea floor by rapacious oil barons of a century ago. During those days a half-dozen sailboats anchor nearby:

An Italian couple on their private boat pull in, crewed by a staff of six sailors. The report from its skipper, who used to work for Skip, is that they are already bored by the penguins and ice and will most likely cut an anticipated 30 day trip short by two weeks. A Brit in a plastic sailboat carrying four friends comes and goes from the anchorage on day trips. Daily they return with a slightly fearful look in their eye and worried tone in their details; their boat is certainly not cut out for bashing through ice and this season there is a lot of still-frozen sea ice out there in the passes.

Another small plastic boat, the Paradise,operates out of Ushuaia and specializes in bringing (mostly French) climbers to the Peninsula. In my 20 years coming to this part of the world, on top of the general tourist boom the biggest change has been that the adventuring crowd has finally found ways of getting here. The result is lots of skiers and climbers are chartering small boats and spending their days exploring new peaks and routes. While most of the biggest mountains along the Peninsula have been previously climbed (the tallest is Mt. Francais, at nearly 9,256 feet) there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of smaller ones no one has ever stood atop or ski traversed.

But the number of sailboats we see is down from a few years ago; then we pulled into Lockroy and there were ten boats. Similarly general tourist visits are down; four years ago Lockroy had a record 18,000 visitors by cruise boats, this year they anticipate 13,000. The record high for visitors to the Peninsula was more than 35,000 in 2008; this year it will be just over 20,000. Global economic woes are an explanation for the drop, as is the elimination of most of the giant cruise boat visits thanks to a change in law ruling out the heavy fuels they use from operating along the Peninsula.

One boat we’re keeping our eyes out for left Ushuaia a couple days before we did, stacked with nine British special forces soldiers down here for “drills.” We’d run into a similar group a few years ago — similarly 8 men and 1 woman — and they’d welcomed us into various anchorages along the Peninsula with bagpipes, proper British tea and good Scotch.

More traditionally for Antarctica we meet up with a handful of boats being run by second-generation sailors, who have inherited a passion for the place by essentially growing up here … both a job and lineage no one could have imagined just fifty years ago when the international treaty that governs the continent was written. The word “tourism” is never mentioned in that original agreement.