Penguin Post – St Andrews in the Ice

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Port Lockroy and the local residents. Courtesy of Laura Martin.

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Laura Martin at the base

In recent years a number of our graduates have gone on to work at one of the most remote places on Earth.

Every year several out of thousands of applicants worldwide are selected by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust to work at ‘Base A’ at Port Lockroy, a historic site on the Antarctic Peninsula that was the first British base in Antarctica. Now it hosts a post office and museum and is populated by four people and two thousand penguins. In the last five years, four St Andrews graduates have worked here – including Laura MacNeil (MA 2002), who went in 2016-17, Laura Martin (BSc 2013) who went in 2015-16 and Amy Kincaid (BSc 2014) in 2014-15.  Our intern, Francis Newman, interviewed them to find out their stories.

The Antarctic continent – white, stormy, freezing – conjures up timeless mental image. Going there is the experience of a lifetime.

What could lead someone to such an extraordinary role? Laura Martin’s initial interest was sparked by an ice cream advert at the cinema showing scientists living and working in Antarctica. “From then on, there was always something inside of me that knew I had to get down there myself to experience what life was like.”

In a building that is familiar to us all, she finally realised how her dream could be realised. “Sitting in the library working on an essay that felt like it was never going to end, I read an article about Florence Barrow, a St Andrews graduate who had worked at Port Lockroy for an Antarctic summer season. All of a sudden I realised that Port Lockroy was the job for me and the gateway to Antarctica and nothing else seemed as important as getting the job down there.”

Amy Kincaid’s enthusiasm stemmed from a primary school project. “I think the photos of amazing sculpted blue icebergs caught my imagination,” she says.

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Home. Courtesy of Limewash/Laura MacNeil

Laura Martin says that the job seemed “like a brilliant and exciting challenge, living on an island the size of a football field with 2000 fluffy, smelly Gentoo penguins for neighbours… what was not to like!” Never before, she tells me, had she seen a job description which included ‘carrying heavy boxes whilst dodging penguins’ – “that pretty much sealed the deal for me!”

Laura MacNeil tells me more about what their responsibilities were. “Our duties included carrying out artefact surveys in the museum, working in the gift shop and Post Office and doing any maintenance required on the historic buildings. We also counted the Gentoo penguin colony as part of a longitudinal study to measure any tourism impact.”

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Courtesy of Laura Martin

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Courtesy of Laura Martin

The local residents – penguins – were obviously a key part of  their experience. Laura Martin explains the downside of living with their feathery companions.

At first, the smell was so bad that I thought that I’d made a terrible mistake and couldn’t possibly survive four months among the penguins. However our noses soon adjusted!

“I loved being able to see a whole summer season through, from watching the penguins arrive back to their nests – which were hidden under snow initially – to laughing at their mischievous nature. They would steal each other’s stones from nests to improve their own, and chase each other across the island if they were caught! Watching and listening to the greetings the partners would give each other was lovely and it was so exciting to spot the first few eggs – and even more exciting when the first chicks hatched just after Christmas!

“When the chicks were old enough to run around in little gangs (creches), you knew predators wouldn’t be far away so they would keep nice and tightly together and would waddle around at fast speeds that we would have to avoid!

“I felt really privileged to be able to experience a snapshot of the life cycle of Gentoo penguins and when inquisitive Chinstrap or Adelie penguins came to visit it would make our day to see them explore the island too.”

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Life in Port Lockroy had its advantages – and disadvantages. “We were extremely busy,” said Laura MacNeil. “The site is one of the most visited places on the Antarctic Peninsula and we welcomed in the region of 17,000 visitors over the course of our three and a half month stay. This meant that we had to balance welcoming ship visits with the other conservation and wildlife work that we had to carry out – we were certainly never bored!”

“We were also very remote and did not have running water or internet access. We became used to the relatively basic living conditions very quickly. We had a satellite phone and text-only e-mail. Contact with friends and family was therefore quite limited and I did miss that.”

Laura Martin, however, enjoyed the simplistic way of life. “Not having the internet was brilliant – I really didn’t miss it. To be able to write postcards to friends and family was a brilliant way to stay connected, and when a ship delivered mail to us it was so exciting to hear news from home the old fashioned way!”

They didn’t feel terribly lonely though, says Amy. “Although there were only four of us living on an island the size of a football pitch for four months with no means of escape, we didn’t feel too isolated from the outside world. With 18,000 visitors during that time, it’s pretty easy to have a chat and pick up bits of news. We got to know the ships’ crews quite well which was advantageous as they would bring us gifts of fresh fruit, veg and dairy – highly prized items when tins and dried food was the normal menu! ”

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Base A. Courtesy of Amy Kincaid.

Their time in St Andrews really shaped them for their experiences – and not necessarily in the ways that they had expected. Laura MacNeil studied French, German and Russian at St Andrews. “We received lots of French and German cruise ship visitors, so it was great to be able to converse with them and help them in their native language. Some of the ships’ crews were Russian so I could at least say hello!”

After their times in Antarctica, the three graduates went on to do very different things. Laura Martin travelled to South America as a way of readjusting to normal life “after living on an island with just three other people for four months.” After she did “get back home to reality” she went to work for a school in Switzerland, and now works in the Cairngorm National Park.

Laura MacNeil returned to studying, this time at the University of Strathclyde, where she pursued an MSc in Information and Library Studies. She now lives in Edinburgh and is looking to find a job in that field. Amy managed a cafe on Corrour Estate, started a felt making business and spent several months in Nepal and New Zealand. She’s now starting a postgraduate rural surveying course in Aberdeen.

Despite their experiences at the ends of the earth they all retain nostalgic memories of St Andrews – I ask them each what their favourite is. “I think one would be my first Raisin Sunday as an Academic Parent,” says Laura MacNeil I loved choosing outfits and dressing up my kids and accompanying them to the Quad for the foam fight. I think I enjoyed it more as an Academic parent than I had in my own first year!”

Laura Martin also loved the traditions. “St Andrews is so unique for having Raisin weekend, May Dip, pier jumping, the ceilidh in the castle and the soaking after your final exam – all of those stand out as lifelong memories for me.  I’ll also never grow old of the views from the beaches – it really is a magical place. “

For Amy Kincaid, it was shared experiences with friends. “Late night skinny dips in the North Sea, canoe club trips all over Scotland and the Alps, and shared housemate meals with a view of the sunset down Market Street.”

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Courtesy of Laura Martin.

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