A letterbox, a handful of intrepid staff and two thousand Gentoo penguins.
The Antarctic is a strange, otherworldly place: a desolate continent of ice, snow, rock and tussock, where glaciers ‘calve’, and the only sounds are the wind and the crackle of ‘bergy bits’ — the local name for small icebergs.
But even here, things are normal enough that you can post a letter, if you know where to go.
Inspired by the last time I followed the autofill yellow brick road, I’ve been making note of other intriguing queries that I stumble across in the course of my usual googling.
This time, some questing soul — hopefully not already standing on the ice with a handful of postcards, wants to know — Where can I find a postbox in Antarctica?
The answer is pretty straightforward, involves some rather punky-looking penguins, stalwart postal workers, and a dogleg to the Falkland Islands. What’s not to like? So where can you find a postbox in Antarctica?
There are many international bases in Antarctica, most with their own postal systems. For the visiting tourist, though, there’s only one place you can send postcards to your friends and family back home: the Penguin Post Office.
The Penguin post office is located at Port Lockroy, a bay on Goudier Island, part of the Palmer Archipelago, about 700 miles (just over 1100km) south of Argentina and Chile. It’s the Antarctic’s most popular tourist destination.
There, at what’s known as ‘Base A’, you’ll find the long low station building, painted black with red and white window frames, six older huts harking back to the station’s early years, a Nissen hut used as the volunteer’s living quarters and outside, relics from its former life as a whaling station.
The station building is now a museum detailing the base’s history, plus post office cum gift shop, where tourists coming ashore from cruise ships and yachts during the Antarctic summer season can post gifts, letters and cards back home, when the weather and levels of ice allow.
The museum consists of the old military research base, with kitchen, barracks and radio room as they would have been in the years before it was abandoned and fell into disrepair.
It chronicles the port’s rich history, named by explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot for the sponsor of his 1903–5 expedition. From 1911 to 1931 the bay was mainly used as a base for whaling factory ships, to process catches made further out to sea. ‘Base A’ was established by the British in 1944 as a military outpost, the first permanent base in Antarctica, then used as a research station until 1962, when it was closed. Restored in 1996, it’s been run as the post office and museum since 2006, and is designated an historic site and monument under the Antarctic Treaty.
Although deserted for most of the year, in the Austral (Southern Hemisphere) summer the outpost is run by a small group of volunteers, selected by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust. Competition for the voluntary roles runs hot — in 2019 a team of five were chosen from a pool of 200 applicants — but it is by no means a cushy number.
The volunteers must be prepared to cope with very basic conditions. They live and work on a tiny islet the size of a football field and operate day to day with no running water or mains electricity, and only one gas heater to be shared in their living quarters. The Trust sends a single consignment of food for the season, most of it tinned and dried. Variety comes in the form of fresh fruit and eggs from visiting ships, or invitations on board for a meal, and sometimes a much appreciated shower.
The volunteers must look after the post office, museum and gift shop, carry out maintenance and restoration work on the station and surrounding huts, and collect data for the British Antarctic Survey, which tracks visitor impact on the local penguin population. The preservation project runs on the proceeds from the gift shop, a ‘friends’ programme, and sales of the British Antarctic Territory stamps sold at the Penguin Post Office.
Every November the volunteers arrive to prepare the base to welcome the approximately 18,000 tourists who arrive on the 120-plus cruise ships and smaller vessels that visit over the November to March summer season. Visits usually last between two and three and a half hours.
Almost 500 kg of mail is processed each season, over 60,000 postcards, and there can be more than 1000 of them to be franked with the special Antarctic Post Office penguin on a busy day.
For those tourists interested in wildlife, the base is home to a colony of around 2000 Gentoo penguins, who return every summer to reconnect with their life-partner, to build nests and raise their young.
The penguins seem unfazed by the tourists and volunteers, unless someone blocks their right of way along the ‘penguin highways’ from the nesting area to the sea. They are an endless source of amusement; stealing each other’s stones for their nests, bowing and calling, and during the summer, when there is perpetual light, the sound of penguins can be heard around the clock.
Chicks appear in December, growing quickly in height and coat thickness to prepare for the cold months ahead. They chase down their parents to be fed, building strength to fend for themselves, and slowly master the art of swimming and fishing, so that when the Penguin Post Office closes with the coming winter, they can head for the deep waters of the Antarctic to feast on krill, fish and squid.
But back to the process that gets your postcard from ‘Base A’ to B, so to speak.
You simply buy a stamp, and drop your postcard in the mailbox — it costs USD$1 to send a postcard to anywhere in the world. The post is hand franked by staff, weighed and then sent on a ship to the Falklands — timeframes weather and ice dependent.
The Falkland Islands’ Stanley Post Office sends the mail on a weekly Royal Air Force flight to the UK, where it enters the general British postal system to be distributed around the world.
The fastest postcard can travel from Port Lockroy to Cambridge in the U.K. in a fortnight, but many postcards take up to four months to reach their destinations. The cut-off date for sending postcards from the Penguins Post Office is around Valentine’s Day; any later and you run the risk of your mail overwintering in the Antarctic.
The Penguin Post Office has a 4.5 star rating out of 5 on Trip Advisor, with most visitors rating it excellent. One traveller quipped: ‘Only the Brits could come up with this…Posted cards for friends not sure when they will arrive.’ Another was very impressed with the service, despite friends receiving their postcards four months after their return from holiday. Their hot tip was to not overprepare and buy stamps in Argentina, because the Post Office only uses their own.
Yet another traveller recommended prewriting your postcards and get the ship to drop them off for you so you don’t have to wait in line for postage and can enjoy the trip ashore. They also recommended bringing your own postcards, although some tour directors are kind enough to gift their groups postcards to use.
There’s always got to be one, though, doesn’t there? A Danish visitor — obviously underwhelmed by the majesty of their surroundings — noted, ‘ It is really nothing special, except that it is on Antarctica. Of course it is fun to send a postcard to your family and friends from Antarctica, but the place in itself is boring.’
As to be expected, the Penguin Post Office has not been immune to the global disruptions to tourism, and their situation has become so dire that legendary explorer Ranulph Fiennes is calling for action.
With Covid destroying the 2020 summer season, no call was put out for volunteers this past November. Without the funds generated from the post office, museum and gift shop (the minimum spend on visiting the base is usually USD$10), the UKAHT are looking at a potential shortfall of one million pounds towards the restoration and maintenance of ‘Base A’, with the risk of irreparable damage to the historic site a very real possibility, due to the summer hiatus.
Sir Ranulph told The Guardian in November last year, “It’s hugely important that these sites, which signify the best of human endeavour, are maintained and that the UKAHT continues its work.”
To support their efforts, the Trust is asking for support, either through donations, or by purchasing a penguin mug from their online shop.
Hopefully November 2021 will see a change in the post office’s fortunes, and another team will be able to set off in time to meet the penguins as they make their way ashore, humans and birds ready for a busy summer on the ice.