Meet the Four Women Who Will Run Antarctica’s ‘Penguin Post Office’

Selected from 6,000 applicants, the workers will spend five months counting penguins and sending mail from the seventh continent

Penguin
In addition to sorting mail and manning the gift shop, the women will help keep an eye on the 1,500 penguins who live at Port Lockroy. Georg Botz via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

They won’t have a flushing toilet or running water. And their black-and-white “coworkers” will be pretty stinky. But four lucky women from the United Kingdom will have the experience of a lifetime while running Antarctica’s “Penguin Post Office” this winter.

The women—Clare Ballantyne, Mairi Hilton, Natalie Corbett and Lucy Bruzzone—will spend November through March running the Port Lockroy post office, museum and gift shop, a gig that also involves keeping tabs on a colony of 1,500 gentoo penguins.

They’ll be thousands of miles from the creature comforts of home, showering only on visiting ships, using a bucket for a toilet and sleeping in bunk beds. With limited internet access, their primary method of communicating with the outside world will be via snail mail.

Nevertheless, the women say they’re eager to get started in their new roles on Goudier Island, which sits off the coast of the seventh continent.

Penguins and the post office
Penguins surround the post office at Port Lockroy, a British outpost on Goudier Island. Rob Oo via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0

Clare Ballantyne, a 23-year-old from Lincolnshire, England, who will serve as the Port Lockroy postmaster, is most looking forward to “taking in the cacophony and pungent smell of the penguins, the backdrop of the glaciers and Fief mountains and being able to call [Goudier Island] home for the next few months,” she says in a statement, as reported by CBS News’ Caitlin O’Kane.

In her new position, Ballantyne will be responsible for sending roughly 70,000 pieces of mail to more than 100 countries from the world’s southernmost post office. She recently completed a master’s degree in earth sciences at Oxford University.

Her colleague, Lucy Bruzzone, got the coveted job of base leader, a position that entails coordinating ship visits, working with expedition leaders and managing the Port Lockroy team. Bruzzone, 40, has experience living in the Arctic after spending three months exploring Svalbard, a Norwegian-governed archipelago not far from the North Pole. She’s also worked as a program director at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

With a background in retail and entrepreneurship, 31-year-old Natalie Corbett will manage the site’s gift shop. She got married in June, so she plans to treat the five-month post as a bit of a solo honeymoon. Mairi Hilton, meanwhile, will serve as wildlife monitor, a job that involves counting the island’s penguin population and checking on the birds’ nests and new hatchlings. Hilton, a 30-year-old from Bo’ness, Scotland, recently completed a doctorate in conservation biology and has participated in several research expeditions.

The British established Port Lockroy in 1944 as part of a top-secret WWII mission known as Operation Tabarin. Today, the historic site sees roughly 18,000 annual visitors and tourists, who arrive on cruise ships run by operators such as Hurtigruten, Oceanwide Expeditions and Ponant.

Penguins on Antarctica
Today's travelers mostly reach Antarctica via cruise ship. Courtesy of Yuri Matisse Choufour / Hurtigruten Expeditions

Despite the harsh working conditions, more than 6,000 people expressed interest in the jobs posted by the U.K. Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT) in April, per the BBC. That’s more than double the number of applicants from previous years.

The trust has been recruiting for the positions nearly every year since 2006, when it took over the isolated post office from the British Antarctic Survey. But the Covid-19 pandemic forced the organization to close the remote outpost for the last two-and-a-half years, which might explain the sudden uptick in interest.

After sifting through thousands of applications, the trust’s staffers interviewed qualified applicants over Zoom. Then, they narrowed down their selections to 12 people and brought the prospective new hires together for a day of interviews, tests, activities and presentations.

The trust didn’t set out to choose four women for the positions, it just worked out that way. They were looking for individuals who could succeed in each role, as well as handle Antarctica’s harsh living and working conditions, per the New York TimesSaskia Solomon.

Now, the four women are preparing to undergo training in remote first aid and penguin behavior. But they won’t be flying totally solo when they eventually reach Antarctica: Vicky Inglis, who previously worked on the island, will join them for 10 weeks to help them get acclimated.

One of the most rewarding parts of the experience for Inglis was becoming immersed in her surroundings and noticing “small details and changes” in everything from the weather to the way the ice moves to the amount of light the island receives, she told WNYC’s “The Takeaway” earlier this year.

“You get very in tune with everything that's going on around you,” Inglis said.