“The Most Legendary of Birds”

“And a good south wind sprung up behind,
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner’s hollo!”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: 1798

The 19th of June sees the inauguration of a very special day that will be held on an annual basis from 2020: World Albatross Day. Under the auspices of ACAP, a group formed as a result of the 2001 signed Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels that now meets annually, it was decided to declare the 19th of June 2020 as the first recognised World Albatross Day. At Waterfront Charters we could not be happier: these magnificent birds are so entrenched in sea lore and so much part of the world we live in that conserving and protecting the species is an absolute must in our lives. Albatrosses are phenomenal; the thought that all 22 species of albatross are recognised as under threat by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is frightening, and action to prevent further loss is critical.

Humans are, as always, responsible for this state of affairs, but we have had some help from other species too. Apart from historically harvesting albatrosses in horrific numbers for their feathers (in 1909 alone, over 300,000 albatrosses were killed on Midway Island and Laysan Island for their plumes), we have introduced (accidentally or otherwise) new species to nesting areas. Rats, house mice and feral cats attack eggs, chicks and nesting adults, and given that it takes around a year for an albatross pair to create and hatch a single egg, each loss is a tragedy. The 2020 theme adopted by ACAP is ‘Eradicating island pests’, with special focus on Gough, Tristan da Cunha and Marion Islands. But equally big – if not bigger – threats to the albatross are, as always, pollution and fishing. Pollution is something we have addressed often on this forum, and albatrosses feeding in polluted areas are as much at threat as any other sea creature. Fishing in particular takes a terrible toll; longline fishermen trail baited hooks behind their boats on lines many kilometres long – over 2500 hooks is not uncommon – and the albatrosses, attracted by the bait, take the hook. We don’t have to spell out the result. Dead albatrosses join the throwaway grouping known as ‘incidental catches’ taken by longlines that includes turtles, sharks, dolphins and other seabirds. What price human nutrition? ACAP are fighting hard to raise awareness, and we are right behind them in their efforts. South Africa is at the forefront of this initiative, and we indebted to Michelle Risi, a seabird researcher currently based on Gough Island monitoring Critically Endangered Tristan Albatrosses Diomedea dabbenena, who had made the original proposal for a World Albatross Day to ACAP.

Albatrosses are special creatures, and have been regarded by seamen for centuries with admiration and not a little awe. The diomedea referenced above has a wingspan of over 340 cm, or 11 feet 3 inches in Old speak. Even the tallest of rugby locks can only boast a 210 cm wingspan, nowhere close to a soaring diomedea. They (albatrosses, not rugby locks) also have technological aspects that humans only recently managed to emulate: the hooked albatross bill is composed of several horny plates, and along the sides are the two ‘tubes’ which allow the albatrosses to measure their exact airspeed in flight – the nostrils are analogous to the pitot tubes in modern aircraft. An albatross needs to know its exact speed so that it can perform dynamic soaring. This is an exact science and is defined as ‘a flying technique used to gain energy by repeatedly crossing the boundary between air masses of different velocity.’ If you know a glider pilot, ask him to explain how tricky this can be. Albatrosses have worked out the technique to a fine art: they can soar and glide over 1000kms in a day without raising their heart rate much above their resting basal rate. They have special tendons in their shoulders that lock the wing in place when fully extended, another energy saving aspect for the muscles used in flying. It’s no surprise that aerospace engineers have been studying albatrosses closely, and much of the underlying engineering of modern-day drones can be traced to the natural perfection of the albatross.

There is much more that can be said and discovered about ‘this most legendary of birds’. It’s well worth reading up on what they are, what they can do and just why they must be protected. A lot of common knowledge has obviously been gleaned from the Samuel Taylor Coleridge epic ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, some of it true, a lot of it fable. A lot of sailors did kill albatrosses for their meat without fearing the wrath of sea-demons, but many others saw albatrosses as the souls of dead mariners and treated them with respect, freeing trapped birds and admiring them when they settled on a mast for a mid-ocean rest. As stated above, at Waterfront Charters we regard all seabirds as species to be admired and protected, but admit to having a deep admiration for all the incredible attributes the albatrosses are blessed with. We support ACAP wholeheartedly, and when our cruises resume again we will be more than happy to regale guests with albatross stories, fables and yarns! Keep an eye on our website for information regarding the timing of our return to the open sea. We can’t wait.