Hundreds of people around the world are applying for a coveted job to run the world’s most remote post office. The position is based in Antarctica, and one of the key specifications is the ability to count penguins.
The post office doubles as a museum and is managed by the U.K. Antarctic Heritage Trust. Each year, the British charity hires four postmasters to live on the island from November to March.
Although employees each have unique roles, they are collectively responsible for maintaining the historic site and catering to the thousands of tourists who come by boat during the season. The staff is also in charge of wildlife monitoring — which includes tallying penguins — and environmental data collection.
Applicants are warned it’s not a glamorous job. Employees must live without running water, Internet or cellphone service for five months. The team resides together in a small lodge, where they sleep in bunk beds and share a single bathroom and camping toilet. Visiting ships will offer showers when they stop by.
“Living there is quite hard work,” explained Camilla Nichol, the chief executive of the trust. “You might be working 12-hour days. There’s not much time for rest and relaxation.”
Still, the job is widely sought-after. The charity — which preserves and protects several historic sites and artifacts in Antarctica — gets hundreds of applications annually for the postmaster position. One year, more than 2,500 candidates applied.
“We get people of all ages from all over the world,” Nichol said, adding that candidates “from all walks of life” apply for the six-month contract. “We are looking for people who are fit and resilient and really love meeting people and visitors.”
Applicants for the four positions — which include base leader, shop manager and two general assistants — must be eligible to work in the United Kingdom, and the application deadline is April 25. Successful candidates will do a week of training in Cambridge, then head to Antarctica in October, where they will remain until March 2023.
Depending on the specific role, salaries range from about $1,600 per month to $2,300. Each contract spans six months, which includes one month of training before the Antarctic excursion.
Given the coronavirus pandemic, the site has been closed off to visitors for the past two years, “so there’s a real return to Antarctica this season,” Nichol said. “We’re very excited about that.”
Applicants are often drawn to Port Lockroy, both for its history and its scientific significance. Port Lockroy, which is also known as “Base A,” was established in 1944 as part of a top-secret mission during World War II by the British government called Operation Tabarin, intended to reinforce British sovereignty over the region and establish a permanent presence in Antarctica.
In 1945, the post office — which processes about 80,000 pieces of mail per season, all written by tourists — was the original founding place of the British Antarctic Survey, a polar research institute. The island emerged as an important atmospheric science research hub for nearly two decades.
Port Lockroy transitioned to become a historic site and monument in 1995, and after restoration efforts, the museum was established in 1996, surrounded by dramatic glacier scenery.
About 18,000 tourists — about half of whom come from the United States — travel to Port Lockroy each season on cruise ships and yachts to marvel at the sights and learn about the history.
Seasonal postmasters must acquire a solid understanding of Port Lockroy’s past to guide and educate tourists. According to the job description, they should also be prepared for a “physically and mentally challenging” experience.
“Living takes a bit more work over there,” said Lucy Dorman, who was a base leader at Port Lockroy during the 2019-2020 season. “There’s lot of carrying things around.”
Not only do staff haul “boxes, buckets and jerrycans through the snow or over slippery rocks most days,” Dorman said, but they are also responsible for keeping the site clean, which includes spending “a lot of time brushing penguin poop off rocks.”
Dorman originally applied for the 2016-2017 season, after friends and family read about the position online and encouraged her to apply. At the time, she was guiding dogsledding expeditions in Canada.
The five-month position at Port Lockroy intrigued her for several reasons. Mainly, she was excited by the rare opportunity to spend a sustained period in a wildlife area, and to embrace a slower, less hectic way of living. Plus, as someone who studied science for numerous years, Dorman was eager to immerse herself in Port Lockroy’s scientific history.
Dorman was stunned and delighted to have been selected for the position, she said, adding that the application process involved several steps, including a medical screening, as well as a week-long group gathering with shortlisted applicants to ensure a strong team dynamic.
“The most important thing is to pick people who will get along,” Dorman said. “During the training week, you get a sense of everybody’s habits and quirks.”
“You’ve got to get along, because you can’t get away from each other very easily,” Nichol echoed. “We’re looking for a team; four people who can live and work together.”
Upon arriving on the island, Dorman and her fellow postmasters quickly realized that “it’s not all snow and penguins,” she said, adding that staff chronicle their experiences in a seasonal blog. “There’s a lot of hard work.”
Even though the job can be challenging at times, “there’s a real sense of community,” she continued. “That sort of togetherness and what you can achieve in a short period of time is very rewarding.”
Dorman — who returned to Port Lockroy as a base leader during the 2019-2020 season — cherished the chance to meet thousands of visitors from around the world and share the significance of the site with them.
“For many of the people, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and to be able to be part of that is quite special,” she said.
She said she considered tracking the penguin presence on the island as a job perk, despite the fact that “most people are probably not so aware of how smelly they are.”
“You just get used to it,” she said. “You give way to the penguins. It’s a privilege to spend time close to wildlife.”
As part of a long-term study on the breeding cycle of penguins that live on the island, the team keeps careful count of the number of breeding pairs, the nests they make, the eggs that are laid and the chicks that hatch — with the goal of tracking potential population growth or decline. They work with the British Antarctic Survey on the ongoing research project.
While many prospective postmasters are initially intrigued by the penguins, the total experience offers “a different perspective on the world, and a new perspective on your role in the planet,” Nichol said.
“You can watch the sun go down and hear the glacier ice melting,” she added. “It’s an extraordinary place.”
A previous version of this story said Goudier Island is British-owned. No single country owns Antarctica; rather, a group of countries govern it collectively.