A summer in Antarctica

Mairi Hilton (MSc 2014, MRes 2016) was chosen by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT), along with three others, from a pool of over 4,000 applicants to run a remote research station, post office and gift shop on a tiny island in Antarctica. Here, in extracts from her diary, Mairi describes her adventures as wildlife monitor of the group, surveying colonies of gentoo penguins through five months of near-constant daylight. 

Mairi Hilton and penguins

Jumping in with both feet: Mairi out surveying gentoo penguins at Port Lockroy. (Photo: courtesy of Mairi Hilton)

10 November 2022
This afternoon, we set foot on Antarctica for the first time. We landed at Half Moon Bay, where a colony of chinstrap penguins live, and a few gentoos as well. They’re so amazing, I can’t quite believe we’re actually seeing them in the wild.

12 November 2022
Today is the day! Our luxury life onboard MS Roald Amundsen came to an end, and we arrived at Port Lockroy [the UKAHT’s Antarctic base] to a crazy amount of snow. The rest of the team have been here for four days digging, but still the buildings are almost covered. 

"We were dropped off around midnight and the sky was incredible – glowing red with the sunset, even though it was still bright. It looked amazing with the dramatic backdrop of the Seven Sisters mountains.

20 November 2022
A question that seems to intrigue a lot of people is what we eat down here. Images of spam and tins of baked beans might come to mind, but in actual fact, we are eating very well, and alongside staples such as pasta, rice and cereal, our diet is supplemented almost daily with fresh food from cruise ships that bring visitors to the island*. This includes fresh fruit and vegetables, yoghurt, eggs, lots of cheese and, much to the team’s delight, pancakes and pastries! 

7 December 2022
Port Lockroy is the closest thing to paradise in the sunshine. The sky is the bluest blue you can imagine, and the sea mirrors the most perfect reflections of the mountains around us. It’s so beautiful it could break your heart, but the comfort of knowing this place exists could bring solace on the darkest days. So glad I came here and have the privilege of experiencing what must be one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

"Little icebergs were washing around at one landing site, and making a noise like popping candy as they melted in the sun. Spectacular.

18 December 2022
Another busy day with two ship visits. But more importantly, we saw orca today! They were out in the bay during the afternoon visit. We abandoned our posts and ran outside to watch, as the zodiacs all went racing off after them. Very exciting – it’s been an excellent week for wildlife.

6 January 2023
The sun has been shining for the last few days, even getting up to a balmy ten degrees. The guano swamps have dried up, so the penguins [some of whom feature in Mairi's video below!] are now sitting on nice dry nests. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that in the next few days, we’ll see some eggs turn to fluffy grey chicks and we’ll hear some peeping coming from the nests.

Antarctic penguins 

12 January 2023
We have baby penguins – nine of them! Feel like a proud parent that they have managed against the odds and the bad weather. Natalie and I did the whole island penguin count for the first half of the day, and any hint of scientist in me just disappeared. They were so cute and small that we both cried … then cried again telling Clare and Lucy about them!

15 January 2023
We saw so many whales today – minke and humpback out in the bay, popping their heads up to feed. So incredible – sometimes I still can’t believe we work in Antarctica and can just look out of the window and see whales!

"What a privilege to be here and to be alive. I can see now why they say Antarctica changes people. It’s awe-inspiring.

27 January 2023
A chick took some steps out of the nest for the first time today. They’re like little chubby Buddhas, with huge bellies and tiny heads, and their feet are enormous. They’re all out of proportion, but it makes them much cuter – they’re absolutely adorable.

7 February 2023
A busy day of many tasks as we had no ship visits booked. Clare and I went on a walk after lunch to do our beach debris survey, and didn’t really find any, which is good. We put away two of the artefact sledges today. Can’t believe we are already starting jobs to shut down the base. Was such a beautiful day today, makes you want to stay forever on days like this.

22 February 2023
The penguin chicks have an interesting feeding strategy at this stage. The adult will run off, with the chick in close pursuit, only stopping every now and then to feed it. This makes for good entertainment as we watch disgruntled chicks clumsily running after their parent, unsure as to why they suddenly have to work so hard! This is actually a strategy deployed by the parents to make sure that both chicks get enough food.

12 March 2023
We left Port Lockroy. Ocean Adventurer [polar expedition ship] picked us up at 7am, so we had to be awake at 5.30am, a bit overwhelmed by the amount we had to take in and prepare before departure. We feel very much at home here and can’t imagine life away from the ice, sea and weather – roads, politics and social media feel very far away! Shed a few tears at the end – sad that it’s over, but will always remember it as one of the best times ever. So grateful for the experience.
*The team hosted an average of 125 visitors per day from cruise ships, resulting in 93,000 postcards being sent from the Port Lockroy post office over the season.

This article was first published June 2023.

Mairi Hilton and the team in Antarctica

Mairi (left) and the rest of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust team at home in their Nissen hut. (Photo: courtesy of Mairi Hilton)

Exterior of the base at Port Lockroy

Mairi's home for five months at Port Lockroy, Goudier Island, Antarctica. (Photo: Mairi Hilton)

A colony of penguins

Some of the gentoo penguins that Mairi was tasked with monitoring during her stay. (Photo: Mairi Hilton)

The museum at the Port Lockroy base in Antarctica

Artefacts of past Antarctic missions in Port Lockroy's museum. (Photo: Mairi Hilton)

A leopard seal takes a nap

A leopard seal on the ice – potentially aggressive despite the 'smile'. (Photo: Mairi Hilton)

The exterior of the Port Lockroy base

The Port Lockroy site was established during World War II as part of an undercover British operation to secure permanent Antarctic bases. (Photo: Mairi Hilton)

A pair of sheathbills in the snow

Synchronised sheathbills – the only land bird native to the Antarctic continent. (Photo: Mairi Hilton)

Mairi Hilton and the team in Antarctica

Mairi (right) and her colleague had to dig their way to work at times. (Photo: Clare Ballantyne)

View of Antarctica

Spectacular summer views in all directions from Port Lockroy. (Photo: Mairi Hilton)