The old British base of Port Lockroy, Antarctica. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Antarctic adventure

From the submarine service to the world’s southernmost sub-post office, A S H Smyth interviews Sally Owen, a Falklands-based dentist who also helps to conserve the historic sites of Antarctica

“I have a story that may interest you,” a friend from the UK wrote to me about two weeks ago. “There’s a dentist in the Falklands who’s about to take a British Antarctic Survey ship to Port Lockroy, to do some maintenance on the historic bases.”

Sod the story, I thought. I want that lady’s job!

But so it was I found myself on a blustery Saturday morning, trying to conduct an interview in the half-shelter of a hedge, my phone braced against my coffee flask, across a distanced pair of ropes on the front lawn of a local hotel. Because even though Sally Owen (British, 56) already lives full-time in Stanley, she nonetheless not only has to quarantine before embarking on her trip – having only recently returned from holidaying in the UK (necessitating further quarantine – but has to do so in a “secure location”.

SO: “Obviously BAS have very strict rules to get down to Antarctica, so I couldn’t quarantine in my own house: they want everyone to be the same, which is fair, isn’t it? You don’t want to be the one to introduce Covid to Antarctica – especially given the complications if you got that into a winter base or something.”

AS: “At the risk of a silly question, how many people will there really be for you to give it to?”

SO: “Well, where I’m ultimately going, there’ll be nobody. But I’ll be meeting lots of people on the ship, as well as travelling through Rothera Base [the BAS main station, and capital of the British Antarctic Territory, only just inside the Antarctic Circle: pop. 100 in summer] on the way. BAS are going on a trip down the peninsula to Adelaide Island; but I’m travelling on behalf of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, and we’ve just been lucky enough to have been offered a ride, really. Because we’re a really small charity, the way we usually get down there is we use the cruise ships during the normal season. But this year obviously there hasn’t been a season.”

AS: “And to some extent that’s actually why you’re going?”

SO: “Yes, in a normal year we’d send a team for the whole summer – about five people. UKAHT’s job is to preserve the UK’s Antarctic scientific and cultural heritage, and they have responsibility for six historic sites there, the main one being Port Lockroy, Britain’s first permanent Antarctic research base [est. 1944 – cough cough]. It’s quite an amazing place, and there’d be a lot of tourists visiting: maybe 15-16,000. We’d be there for four or five months, and during that time, as well as running the historic site, we’d be doing things like maintenance on the buildings, charging up all our batteries from the solar panels, and making sure the buildings are secure for the [unmanned] winter. And we’d also have our conservation team in some of the sites – a separate set of people – making sure everything is safe, really, and every year undertaking specific projects. So everyone’s a bit concerned that nobody’s been, basically. I think a couple of private superyachts have been into Port Lockroy; but that’s about it.”

AS: “How did you end up working in Antarctica?”

SO: “I qualified from Leeds, then did some House Officer jobs, and I was doing maxillofacial surgery – which has been quite useful because I’ve always worked in remote places, so it’s handy if you can take out wisdom teeth, mend fractured jaws, and all that sort of stuff. And then I joined the Army on a five-year short service commission, which included a two-year exchange to the Navy. So I went away and did dentistry at sea on the naval ships. I was also a dentist with the submarine service – though you couldn’t actually do a deployment on a submarine back then because it was male-only. And then I was in Germany with the Army for a while.

Then in 1996-98 I became the dentist for British Antarctic Survey, on the RRS Bransfield. I sailed from Grimsby to the Falkland Islands, via Montevideo, and then to Antarctica – a bit like something out of a Victorian novel: gin and tonic and all that. And then the following season I did the same; but the great thing was that, even though I was the dentist, and had my surgery on the ship (I did the medical cover as well, actually), I got to travel round to all the active research stations. Most people, when they travel to Antarctica, go to just the one destination, and then they go home. But I spent two seasons going round all the sites in Antarctica. I’ve even been to Halley – the proper white-ice one off the coast of the continent [which has to be rebuilt or moved every ten years, before it calves into the sea].”

AS: “And what led to your interest in the conservation side of things?”

SO: “Well, what was particularly interesting in 1996 was that BAS were doing a survey of all the old historic sites, most of which were just abandoned, and a mess. But with the Antarctic Treaty coming in [1991/1998: environmental protocols], we were basically told ‘you either preserve these as historic sites, or you clear up the mess.’ Because at all these sites, the scientists hadn’t taken anything away with them, they just left it, because of the logistics of moving things back out. There wasn’t so much of a concern about the environment back then, and there were so few people down there I suppose they thought it didn’t really matter.

BAS decided to preserve Port Lockroy, and they did up Bransfield House, named after the ship that the men of Operation Tabarin [a secret British WWII mission to Antarctica], who built the hut and lived in it, had left England in. (Bransfield himself had been a ship’s captain: the first to see the Trinity Peninsula, in 1820.) So I saw Port Lockroy actually being conserved during that season. It’s really amazing seeing such a historic building, and what they do to it. We were there about six weeks, and there were four old Antarctica hands from the sledging days, with a strong tradition of working on projects like that. And then I got to see all the other bases, while they were deciding what to do with them. And this all before Antarctic tourism took off – before anyone else had been, really.

One of the most interesting things we did was bring out one of the small huts, called the Recluse Hut – and that’s now in the museum here in Stanley. In fact, UKAHT paid for it to be rebuilt in the Antarctic Room there. By pure coincidence, my boyfriend was the one who ended up rebuilding it.”

AS: “What brought you to Stanley?”

SO: “When I left BAS, I wanted to get a job down here. Obviously I’d visited by that time, and I knew there was a dental job – and I’ve always tried to combine my work with travel. I’m almost kind of a specialist ‘remote dentist’ – that’s all I’ve done, really – and I was just lucky enough that the job came up here in 2000.”

AS: “Is there only the one dentist in the Falklands?”

SO: “Two, actually. And when I first came down, we used to fly round Camp [all of the Falklands that isn’t the capital]. There weren’t the roads then – not that long ago the doctors used to go about on horseback – so we had to travel around with mobile kit. You’d turn up and go into somebody’s porch, or use the social club. It was a really great experience, and a wonderful way to see everything.”

AS: “How did you come to be involved with UKAHT?”

SO: “While I was here, I was obviously still interested in Antarctica and its buildings, but I didn’t get to go to there for a while. But by the 2006/7 season, because BAS had restored Port Lockroy, there was quite a lot more interest from the cruise ships in coming through and seeing everything. BAS didn’t really want to do historic buildings – they’re scientists, and they don’t want to be running a museum – so the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust had been created, as a sort of subcontracted organisation to look after it. They decided to put together a small team to go to Port Lockroy, to open up the museum and the post office, and just sort of see how things go. There was no budget, basically. But I was already here, and a friend of mine was going, and they were really looking for somebody who’d been to Antarctica before: they didn’t want to risk taking somebody down there for six months who didn’t like it!

The Trust was still in development, really, and this was the first proper season. They had had a couple of people there before, but this was the first time they had the manned post office – because that was what the tour operators had said they wanted. I was there for quite a long time, because we went down early on in the season, to set up and get things ready for the tourists. We had a little bit of a shop as well, selling T-shirts and postcards and that sort of thing. It was an amazing experience, but it was extremely basic. We actually lived in the historic building, in the bunkroom there, and we didn’t have running water, heating or electricity. So in fact it was more primitive than when the men were there originally, because they had nice coal fires! We slept in their bunks – which were themselves part of the museum – all in one room, and then we had a little area where we did our cooking. We had jerry cans of water, from the ship, and old Tilley lamps for light; and we had a special licence to empty our toilet into the sea.”

AS: “I have to ask, who’s in charge of administering Antarctic toilet licences?”

SO: “Those things are all done through your respective foreign ministries, but everything in Antarctica is so strictly regulated. You have to get permits to go even on a private yacht, through IAATO [the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators]. Obviously, occasionally there are naughty people who just sail to Antarctica [are there?!], but they would get reported everywhere, back to their governments. Everyone who’s in Antarctica wants to look after Antarctica: you should go there and come back as an Antarctic ambassador, ultimately.”

AS: “And in the intervening 14 years…?”

SO: “Since I was living in Stanley I used to help BAS/UKAHT quite a bit, being their unofficial, unpaid agent. So if they needed a special screwdriver or something I would go to the shops here, then try to find somebody on a cruise ship that I might know, and ask them if they could drop it off for us. And then in both 2017/18 and 2018/19 I was asked to go down for about six or seven weeks, just to help out. After Christmas is the really busy period, with tour ships coming in daily. All the sites have massive regulations on how you do the landing, how long you’re allowed to dock there, how many visitors you can have ashore, wildlife, and so on. It’s all really controlled, and they have a slot per ship: quite often you’ll have a morning and an afternoon slot, so it’s a lot of ships. That’s from maybe mid-November through to early March. And that’s what it would normally be like around now, if it wasn’t for Covid.

But I’ve just been lucky really. And UKAHT is a charity, so obviously this way they don’t have to pay for extra flights: I can just get on the ship here. I’m paid for the weeks that I’m away, it’s not volunteer work; but I’m not doing it to earn money.”

AS: “It sounds like there’s an element of making one’s own luck, here…”

SO: “Yes. Though my big break was to get that BAS dental job, because that is really quite a sought-after position. But I think because I’d done the Army and I’d got my surgery and quite a lot of medical-type knowledge, and was a sort of outdoorsy, keen person… You look for these sorts of things in life, don’t you? I’ve always taken time off, done things, travelled. I’ve been to Nepal and India and all those sorts of places, because you can work your whole life, can’t you, but you can’t take it with you. And that’s what I love about the Falklands: you can go and be a penguin guide, become a tourist driver, join in the local events, things you wouldn’t normally get to do.”

AS: “I’d assume that was exactly the type of person they’d be looking for – someone who’d be reasonably expected to be able to cope with certain situations.”

SO: “Yeah, though it is surprising. In my first year, we went down to Halley, and one guy sailed all the way down and when he got there he found he didn’t want to do it. I think that’s why they’ve found it’s probably better to employ people: volunteers might get there and say, ‘Actually, I don’t really feel like doing this today.’ It’s all about your expectations, isn’t it, really? In 1996 when I first went down there, there wasn’t the Internet, I didn’t really know anything about Antarctica. I had a book, I knew where Antarctica was – y’know, at the bottom of the globe – but I really didn’t have much information, because there wasn’t much. It’s interesting, isn’t it? I was reflecting on it yesterday; how totally naïve I was. I can’t believe I went just not knowing. Whereas now, when I’m going on these projects, obviously I’ve looked it all up on the Internet in advance.”

AS: “So what’s the schedule look like for the coming trip?”

SO: “I’m going away for about three weeks. It’s all operational for BAS, though, so while that’s sort of the idea, with Antarctica it’s very difficult to plan anything that exactly. You can never guarantee where you are going to end up, or even if you’ll be able to get into the bases. The weather might be too bad to make a landing; or someone might get ill and we’d have to take them out immediately. But yes: the plan is for three weeks.

We’re going to be at Port Lockroy for two very full days. I’ll be making some emergency repairs, and then there a lot of other little jobs to be sorted out. I have to charge up the batteries using the new solar panels that’ve been put on there, which is a quite exciting project, nice and green and everything. And I’ll be briefly opening the post office and collecting the mail. (Those cancels could be quite valuable, I suppose – though there aren’t going to be many sent in two days!) But the main, critical task I’ve got is basically to make sure the buildings are going to be secure for winter. Because if there’s a broken window, or somebody’s left the door open, the whole thing could be not there next year! The weather’s that extreme, it’ll just fill up with snow.

And then we’re going to two other sites, to do some survey work, to see what’s happening to them.

One is Detaille, which is really exciting: we haven’t been there since, I think, 2012/13. The story of that place is quite interesting, because it was a big base where they did meteorology and survey work and geology, and it was only open for three years [1956-59], and at the end of the third year they couldn’t get the ship in to resupply the base with all the winter supplies, so basically the men had an hour to grab all their gear and all their scientific kit, and then they had to sledge to meet the ship some 30 miles away, and that was how the base was left. So it’s really as it was when the men abandoned it: a kind of time-machine, it’s really superb. We’re hoping to do the initial survey of that this year, so we can start the plans to get our conservation team in and then actually do some work on the building.

And the other place we’re hoping to get is somewhere called Blaiklock Island. There’s a very small, garden-shed-sized hut on there, which was actually a sledging depot. They used to go on long sledging journeys from Horseshoe base, and the ice was quite bad around there so sometimes they couldn’t get back, and they used Blaiklock as a refuge, or sometimes as an advance base camp as they were going out. We’ve never been there. Our conservation team manager has seen it from a ship, through a pair of binoculars – or that’s what he claims, anyhow – and we’ve only got one picture of it. So we’re really hoping to get in there, and that’s going to be really exciting, because we don’t even know what’s inside the building, or anything even about the interior at all.”

AS: “Who was the last person who was there?”

SO: “I think someone from BAS was there in about 2010. That’s where the photograph came from. Apparently they did try to get round there earlier on this season, but the ship couldn’t get in. What I think’s quite interesting about going to Blaiklock is that, when the men went there in the 1950s, they went there by dogsled and skis, over the sea ice. Obviously we’re going on a boat, in the summer. It’s odd that we’re approaching it in such a different way.”

AS: “… and potentially still not getting there?”

SO: “Yeah. You don’t really know. It could be that I go down to Antarctica and not get in anywhere. It happens, because the ice is so variable. [She points out at Stanley’s natural harbour] This could be the harbour one day with no ice when you go to bed: and the next day it’s basically land. You don’t see it move – it just sort of creeps up on you.”

AS: “With the fullest of respect to your dental-surgical skills, etc., what are the limits on your capabilities here, or your remit?”

SO: “Well, the ship’s carpenter is going to be giving me some help; but I’ve had quite strict briefings on emergency repairs, because obviously it’s a historic building, so you can’t just get a board and bang in a few nails or screws. You’ve got to be quite sympathetic – but obviously you’ve also got to assess the risks in what you do. If a door’s blown off, you’re going to do less harm by sticking just anything over it than by leaving the door off and it ruining the whole building over the course of the winter. But there are little details, like you don’t countersink the screws, and if there’s an existing screw-hole we make sure to use that. It’s all very gentle. If a window is broken, we have shutters on them, which are made to protect it from the winter; but we might, for example, look for some existing way to screw that shut. It’s just a matter of common sense and risk-assessment. But I’m not a heritage carpenter, or anything like that, and we’re only going to be there for a day or two, so we’re just doing emergency stuff really.

And everything I do, even if I just mend a small hole, I’ve got to take photographs before, a photograph of me mending the hole, a photograph of me putting something in the hole – and then I have to write a report and justify why I did it. We’re talking several thousand photographs. At Port Lockroy we’ve used some special paints and been experimenting with how we fix the felt to the roof, so we’re going to take some photos there to see what’s working or not. And at Detaille, when we survey the building, you take one big overview, then all the close-ups, the 45º angles, every room, every window, every bit of roof – and that’s regardless of whether or not you fix anything. We’re getting those so UKAHT can see the degradation of the buildings, for planning – and then there’s also quite a big debris field, of artefacts just where they’ve been left, because it’s not yet been restored.”

AS: “Where there’s debris, do you leave it, document it, what?”

SO: “I’ll photograph the debris – I’m not allowed to move it, because that’s how it is, really, part of the history – but if I were to find a nice paper document, for example, I’d have to assess the risk of leaving it there and it blowing away. So then I would take a photograph in situ, and then I’d put my gloves on and very carefully, with whatever tools are available, move it inside, or wherever I thought would be the best place. But I wouldn’t take it away from the site, unless it was something really amazing, like something signed by Captain Scott: that I would probably refer to UKAHT! And then I’d write my report on where I found it, my justification on why I moved it, etc. But normally we’d have conservators from the Scott Polar Research Institute come down and do the proper stuff. This is just really a Covid-year fact-finding mission.”

AS: “What does getting around on the ground actually look like?”

SO: “From Stanley, it takes about three days to get to Port Lockroy, if you go directly. And then from Port Lockroy we go to Rothera, because when I got to Detaille and Blaiklock I can’t just wander off the ship and around Antarctic, so we’re actually getting help with that from BAS. I’ll be getting a field guide, to make sure the landing’s safe and I don’t fall down a crevasse, and then I think they’re going to fly some more people in. There’s quite a lot to do, because these surveys take a lot of time, and when we’re at Blaiklock and Detaille – because we want to put a field party in there later, with our conservation team – one of the other jobs the field guide can do is look into good camping spots, and all the rules and regulations of that, and how we’re going to do the landing when we bring the wood and all the other restoration materials ashore.

But anything could happen. And obviously we’re very grateful to BAS, because we’re joining their trip, and I’d assume there are separate BAS taskings that need to be done. They’re not just sailing up and down for us.”

AS: “A fortnight’s quarantine seems like an oddly anti-climactic way to prepare for such a potentially-demanding trip.”

SO: “I’m getting really excited about it now. I’ve been going through all the tasks in my head, because it’s quite a short length of time to do them, and obviously there’s all the health and safety, and who’s going to do what. Especially when you leave a base, because it’s not like when you leave your house for 10 minutes in Stanley [where people don’t, routinely, lock their doors]: you’ve got to be so careful of every single thing.

I feel quite a big responsibility doing this task, actually: if you forget to lock one door and the place gets invaded by penguins it does defeat the purpose of going, a little bit. So we have very formal kind of ops run-down for all the things we do: like when we leave a base, it tells you what to do in every single room, so you do it really methodically and in detail, in order to avoid any incidents. If you put a padlock on a door you’ve got to put a plastic bag round it, and that’s got to be taped on, otherwise it’ll just be rusted shut and damaged. We’ve got to test the gas supplies for the oven (there’s a high fire risk in Antarctic, because it’s a desert, basically), and all that will have to be banded up afterwards, vented; cupboards closed. If you just leave one thing out, it won’t be there when you come back. (When you go up on the plateau, remember, all the snow that lands never melts: so when I first went to Halley, the building was up on stilts, and what we had to do every year was jack up the building. Everyone would have a leg – I think there were about 20 legs, I don’t remember – and we had to jack it up about two foot, and obviously everyone has to jack at the same time, so they would shout “Jack!” and we would jack it up a bit and then we’d stop and they’d measure underneath to make sure it was level, and we used to draw lots to see who got the nice sunny positions, not standing underneath the building all day!)”

AS: “How public are your findings from the trip, and how soon are they made accessible?”

SO: “I’ll be taking all the photographs while we’re there, and then I’ve got to write the reports, and a lot of building-related stuff will go to the conservation team for their planning for what they’re going to do in their projects. But obviously Covid has delayed everything terribly, so we probably won’t do any of it next season: it’s so much planning, and a really small team, and then without our own ships, and limited tourism… I think even Port Lockroy is already agreed to be just existing UKAHT members going back. Normally every year we recruit a new team, but next year again I think is just going to be another short season. There’s just no sense recruiting new staff, training them all, paying them, and then finding that the season’s cancelled.”

AS: “How does one get this kind of job? Y’know… in case one were interested? It probably wouldn’t ever have occurred to a lot of people that these roles even exist.”

SO: “I’m not someone who’s really into selling my ‘story’, to be quite honest; but it’s actually interesting how it’s progressed, that I saw the sites on the first trip when I went in ’96, and then I’ve just – fortuitously, really – gone back about once every 10 years and seen how the Trust’s developed. But yes: there are these things that you can do, and if you really want to do it… It’s open to the whole world to go to Port Lockroy: we don’t necessarily recruit only British people. We have people from all round the world apply, and quite a few people apply five or six times before they get it. You have to write a few things about why you want to go, and then there’s a week’s selection course in Cambridge, and then they pick people to make up the teams. One of the tasks is you have to do a presentation, and there are quite a lot of team-building tasks – moving this rock from here to there without touching the water, that sort of thing – because it’s not necessarily about choosing four individuals to go, it’s about choosing four team-members to go. Because you’ll all be so close, one small bunkroom to sleep in, doing absolutely everything together.

And then we do some training, which is the best part of two weeks, and we all get to live together in a rented house in Cambridge, which is sensible, so you can pick up if you really hate somebody before you go! We have reserves as well – because five months is a long time to be with somebody if you hate them. There was that incident last year or the year before, in Antarctica, where a Russian scientist was reading a book over the winter, and somebody told him the ending, and he knifed them. That sort of conflict would probably have been building up for quite a while. But we haven’t really had any issues like that, honestly! We’ve been putting out some releases on Twitter, and one lady asked me what sort of music we listen to. And honestly there is no time, you’re working constantly, and you’re a team, so if you sat in the corner and put your own music on, that’s just not really done.

In fact, it’s funny, you sort of end up cuddling each other permanently, because everywhere you go you end up taking team photographs, because all the various agencies need their publicity. I mean, it would be a really horrible five months if you didn’t all get on. Because we do a lot of ‘hosting’ of all these ships, and you get on board quite often at night, and the American tourists really love to meet you and talk about what you’re doing, and you can imagine, if you weren’t all happy and together, it would be so bad. But the people I’ve been down with, we’re all still friends, we have reunions, and it’s lovely. There is a kind of Antarctic family. And I think that’s an important part of it, really, having that special bond, because nowadays, in the UK anyway, you’re not usually going to get to live that closely with somebody without other external factors.”

AS: “I’m not allowed to give you anything to post, alas; but tell me a little more about the world’s most southerly post office. Can I assume that Port Lockroy is the only post office in Antarctica?

SO: “No, nearly all the bases in Antarctica have had post offices. Halley has one, Rothera has one; I think Signy and Bird Island have them. I think a fully registered post office is a requirement of flying the Union Jack in the Territory. We handle around 70,000 postcards a year, then we bring the whole lot from Port Lockroy to the post office here. Port Lockroy’s kind of a sub post office of the Stanley post office [does this mean the Falkland Islands’ single postcode also stretches to Antarctica…?], so they give us all our stamps and kit, even though they’re not Falklands stamps but British Antarctic Territory ones, so you can’t use them here!”

AS: “Realistically, this year the only other post will be from your BAS/UKAHT colleagues?”

SO: “Mainly. But I think there’ll be some left over from a few cruise ships that called at the end of the last Antarctic season. And I think a couple of yachts have dropped some stuff off. And then there’ll be 500 of mine…”

AS: “Two of your trustees, Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Alexandra Shackleton [the surname is not a coincidence] recently did an appeal to advertise the fact that the Trust is facing a shortfall from the money that would normally be coming from the post office and museum shop.”

SO: “Well, yes. Every museum in the world now has a shop or a tea shop or a post office – and we’ve got to earn money to maintain our sites. Obviously at the moment we’re not earning anything.”

AS: “Go on then: how much does it cost to send a postcard from Port Lockroy?”

SO: “Historically, a lot of our visitors were American, so for a long while it used to be $1. But actually, we changed our prices last year and went back to pounds. Now I think it’s £1.50 – which is still quite a bargain, really. And we had something really interesting happen last season – I don’t know if you’d seen it on our posts [I hadn’t] – but they sent a postcard from Antarctica to the International Space Station. The crew received it, and we got a photo of the Port Lockroy postmark in front of the window looking out over the space station and the Earth below. That was a letter, I think, so it cost £2.66 or something – but per mile it’s still a pretty decent rate: and once it got there it did another million miles or so in orbit.”

Sally Owen is currently somewhere in – or even on – Antarctica. You can follow her adventures on the UKAHT blog and on Twitter.

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