Wandering Albatross courtingPOETRY IN MOTION

In Praise of the Wandering Albatross

In this special supplement to his article in the June issue of AFLOAT, Bruce Stannard provides further details on the extraordinary history of the magnificent Wandering Albatross – Diomedea exulans.

The name albatross is derived from the Arabic word for pelican, al-qadous, which is in turn derived from the Greek word kados, a reference to the leather scoop on ancient water wheels and its similarity to the pelican’s pouch-like bill. Spanish and Portuguese sailors corrupted this name for pelican to algatraz or alcatraz and in the sixteenth century, Mediterranean mariners venturing into the Atlantic and the Caribbean, used it to describe the enormous seabirds never before sighted by Europeans.

In 1593, the Elizabethan privateer, Sir Richard Hawkins, sailed his ship the Dainty into the stormy high latitudes of the South Atlantic and there became the first English mariner to observe and describe the albatross. “During this storme,” he wrote, “certain great fowles as big as swannes, soared about us… and from the poynt of one wing to the poynt of the other, both stretched out, was about two fathoms (3.7 metres or 12 feet). In his circumnavigation between 1719 and 1722, George Shelvocke was impressed by “the largest sort of sea-fowls … extending their wings 12 or 13 feet.” He called them Albitroses.

Wandering AlbatrossIn 1758, the Wandering Albatross was first introduced to Western science when it was named Diomedea exulans by the Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus selected the name Diomedea from one of the most prominent figures in classical Greek mythology. In Homer’s Iliad, Diomedes served with Odysseus and Palamedes as commanders of the Greek army that sailed with Agamemnon to lay siege to Troy and recover the abducted Helen. Diomedes later offended the goddess Athene who expressed her displeasure by conjuring up a ferocious storm at sea to wreck his fleet.

In one version of the legend she turned him and all his men into large white birds.

Thus the epithet exulans which comes from the same ancient Greek word that lives on in modern English as exile, meaning homeless or wanderer.

The Wandering Albatross acquired its profound spiritual presence in English literature thanks largely to its appearance in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a harrowing tale of murder, penance and redemption, first published in 1798. Coleridge’s friend and fellow poet, William Wordsworth, had been reading George Shelvocke’s account of his circumnavigation (1719-1722) in which he described how one of his melancholy and superstitious officers shot a “disconsolate” albatross in a misguided attempt to encourage fair winds. His action had the opposite effect and brought on contrary, tempestuous winds so severe that it took them six weeks to sight the coast of Chile. In 1797, Wordsworth related the incident to Coleridge, thus providing the seed of inspiration for one of the most famous poems in the English language.

Wandering AlbatrossColeridge used his poetic license to create not a storm but a windless calm in which the ship lies helplessly stranded under “a hot and copper sky,” beneath “the bloody Sun.” Eventually, afflicted by horrible thirst – “Water, water, every where,/ Nor any drop to drink…/ And every tongue, through utter drought,/ Was withered at the root…/ With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,/ We could not laugh or wail” – everyone on the ship, except the Mariner, dies. He is compelled to wear the corpse of the albatross around his neck as evidence of his crime against Nature. “Thus,” as the award-winning American writer Carl Safina points out, “by its authorship of the wind the bird plays a critical role in atmospheric nature and human survival, which is unrecognised and unappreciated until the bird is killed, whereupon all share the unforeseen consequences of its destruction.” The idea of the connection of all living beings through God became one of the major themes of Coleridge’s work. “Every thing has a Life of its own,” he wrote in 1817, “and we are all one Life.”

In Safina’s lyrical book Eye of the Albatross, he gives us an astute description of an albatross as “a great symphony of flesh, perception, bone and feathers, composed of long movements and set to ever-changing rhythms of light, wind, water. The almost overwhelming musicality of an albatross in air derives not just from the bird itself but from the contrapuntal suite of action and inaction from which the creature composes flight. It drifts in an atmosphere of high speed, but itself remains immobile – an immense bird holding stock-still yet shooting through the wind.  Just as individual notes become music by relationship to other notes, the bird’s stillness becomes movement by context. Following your travelling ship with ease, watching you, circling from stern to prow and back at will, it flies with scarcely a flinch, skimming wave upon wave, mile after mile.”

To watch a great Wandering Albatross’s placid mastery of a gale is to enjoy the exquisite privilege of seeing poetry in motion. They make it look so effortless, so easy. A Wandering Albatross’s heart actually beats slower during flight than it does when the bird is sitting on the sea or on its nest. In scientific terms, scientists say the albatross has “the lowest cost of flight yet measured.” And therein lies one of the extraordinary secrets of its success in the air. For days on end, albatrosses don’t need to flap their wings like other birds. In fact they really don’t need to hold their wings out at all. Using a wing-lock at the shoulder and an elbow lock for rigidity, they snap them into the unfolded position like open switchblades.

Albatrosses spend 95 per cent of their lives at sea and most of that is spent in the air. Theirs is a fluid world of wind and wild waters where everything is in perpetual motion. According to Carl Safina, “land is little more than a necessary inconvenience for breeding.” There are only six known Wandering Albatross breeding sites in the world. Australia’s Macquarie Island, half way between Tasmania and Antarctica, is one of them. There, only 10 breeding pairs remain.

“When they do breed,” Safina writes, “albatrosses haunt only the most removed islands, hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles from any continent. And even at the most isolated island groups, albatrosses often choose to nest on the tiniest offshore islets, as though they can’t tolerate too much land. When need compels them to return to a remote isle to feed a famished chick, an albatross may make round-trip foraging treks of several thousand miles, sleeping aloft, foraging in darkness and daylight, searching out food for a single offspring (a large ravenous chick may wait two weeks for a meal). And so they span long stretches of space and time, distant from any shore, seldom within sight of a coast, embedded in the breeze. Doing so they cover distances equivalent to flying around the earth at the equator three times every year. A 50-year-old albatross has flown, at minimum, 3.7 million miles.”

Everything about the Wandering Albatross is bathed in superlatives. Wanderers wield the largest wings in nature: well over 11ft tip-to-tip and in many cases over 12ft. The biggest yet recorded had an astonishing wingspan of 15ft. They weigh up to 26lbs – twice the weight of the biggest eagles. Wanderer chicks grow to as much as 33lbs – far larger than the adults that feed them – before losing weight prior to fledging.

Wanderers take up to 13 years before they are ready to mate and even then, their elaborate courtship and “engagement” often takes a further two years. Their single egg, which can weigh over a pound, requires more than two months of incubation. Mates take shifts on the nest. If a mate dies, as so many do through longline fishing practices, a Wanderer may sit on an egg for two months, losing a third of its body weight before hunger drives it to sea. The death of a mate costs the survivor one to four breeding cycles because a new courtship takes years to establish a new pair-bond.

The oldest albatross found and probably the oldest know marked bird, was a Royal Albatross, still living at over 60 years of age. Some believe that the maximum albatross life span may approach the century mark. No one yet knows, because they haven’t been studied that long.

Scientists who spend their lives studying Wandering Albatrosses speak of the rare privilege of being in the company of these magnificent creatures. They often describe their experience with one word: serenity. The eminent ornithologist, Dr Frank Gill, who has studied birds throughout the world, remembered this from a day observing nesting Wanderers. “There was such wisdom in those beautiful eyes that have seen so many years,” he wrote. “In all my lifetime of experience with birds, no moment was ever so moving.”                  

For further reading see Albatrosses by Terrence Lindsey in the CSIRO’s Natural History series and Eye of the Albatross by Carl Safina which is by far the best and most detailed book on the subject.

Photo credits: DPIPWE Albatross Conservation Program