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Field Notes
Photograph by Frans Lanting
Carl Safina
Interview by Amanda MacEvitt
You have recently written a book on albatrosses, what attracted you to these birds in the first place?

As a teenage fisherman, I watched and followed terns to find fish. Later I studied terns for my Ph.D. During those studies I came to see and love other seabirds. Albatrosses are the biggest, so they get your attention. I tend to like big marine animals anyway—giant tuna, sharks, sea turtles; I've written about all these in my books. Maybe that's partly a guy thing, I don't know. But when I saw the first satellite tracks of a tagged albatross at a bird conference in 1991, I was blown away by the distances. We're talking round-trips of up to a month and 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) just to get one meal for a chick waiting hungrily in a nest on a remote island. I realized they are the perfect vehicle for what I write about—how the ocean is changing and what it means for wildlife and for people. My book, Eye of the Albatross, was the result.

Do you have a particularly favorite species of albatross?

I love the light-mantled sooty, and the grey-headed and some others for their delicate pastels and air-brushed markings. I love the short-tailed for surviving the slaughter of five million individuals for feathers, seeming extinct for nearly two decades, and then having six survivors suddenly reappear at their island after staying away at sea all those years. I love them all for their graceful flight and toughness in taking battering winds and storms in stride. Favorite? Maybe the wanderer for its name and size. Maybe the southern royal for looking so huge and bright and sounding like a jet plane when it roars in just over your head.

Did anything dangerous happen while you were working on this story?

On Campbell Island in New Zealand's subantarctic, we had to hike all day to get to the main colony of nesting Campbell albatrosses on the sea cliffs at one end of the island. Those latitudes are famous for ferocious winds—which is why albatrosses are there. The wind was so incredibly strong that day; it kept knocking us to the ground. Many times, we were flattened by gusts. Once, when I was planted against a sustained gust with my walking stick, a sudden added blast pole-vaulted me and my 50-pound (23 kilograms) pack right over it. I crawled on all fours, with my pack on, to get my stick and struggle up again. The wind was actually scaring me. I felt like the gusts were just punching us. For a little while, I thought, 'No way.' But eventually we realized if we just kept going we'd probably get there. And we did. And it was worth the trouble.

You spoke to some very dedicated scientists in pursuit of this story, was there one who stood out?

Graham Robertson. He's done an incredible amount to document, publicize, raise money for, and solve albatross conservation problems. He's been at sea with fishermen from various countries for weeks at a time under terrible and dangerous conditions, and has been a major force in bringing albatrosses to the attention of conservationists and the world. He was very helpful to me with information, generous with his time on the phone and email, and very supportive of the story project. We were hoping to include him, but in the end he does not appear in the story. I'd like to salute him here.

To which of the wild and wonderful places you visited for this story would you most like to return?

That's like asking someone to name their favorite child. Each was wonderful in its way. But two stand out among those we visited for this story: Campbell Island for its raw power and majesty and the incredible southern royal albatrosses there. Midway Atoll for its stunning beauty and its brimming vitality and diversity of seabirds, dolphins, turtles, and brightly colored reef fishes (and gentle breezes).

Where would you recommend as the best place to experience these amazing birds?

Pelagic birding trips out of Monterey, California are probably the best way to see albatrosses without leaving the continental U.S. (See Kaikoura, New Zealand offers fantastic access to a diversity of albatross species a very short, easy distance from shore ( Trips to the islands south of New Zealand (we went with Heritage Expeditions), to the Antarctic Peninsula across Drake Passage and to South Georgia Island, or to the Galápagos Islands (with, for instance, Lindblad Expeditions, which is a National Geographic partner and supporter of my work) will all get you to the big birds. If Midway Atoll reopens to the public, it's not to be missed.

What was the most dangerous area that you visited?

The car ride to the New York airport was the most dangerous part of all my travels.

Is there hope for albatrosses, considering what's going on in the oceans?

The biggest problems facing albatrosses these days is fishing gear. In my opinion, over just the last few years the problem has been technically solved. Ten years ago we did not know how to keep albatrosses from being killed in fishing gear. Now we do. Some large important fisheries now require fishermen to use gear that safeguards albatrosses. But in some major regions implementation of those solutions is still lacking, especially in Southern Hemisphere tuna fisheries and the large amount of illegal fishing for toothfish (marketed as Chilean seabass) that still goes on. If we applied what we've learned to all fisheries in the range of albatrosses, the birds would not be at risk from fishing gear. That's where the conservation frontier is now.

If one loves seafood and albatrosses, how can a person indulge without guilt?

Several groups have information evaluating seafood sustainability. I wrote the first such guide, and seafood pocket-guides and detailed evaluations of different seafoods are available for download from the group I founded, Blue Ocean Institute. Also, Blue Ocean Institute recently launched FishPhone, the nation's first sustainable seafood text messaging service, and, a mobile phone formatted webpage designed to provide easy navigation and download capability for environmentally-conscious and tech-savvy cell phone and PDA users. FishPhone helps restaurant patrons, supermarket shoppers and chefs make healthy, informed, and sustainable choices when deciding which fish is right for them—and the environment. At the seafood counter or while contemplating a restaurant menu, consumers can text 30644 with the message FISH and the name of the fish in question, and within seconds FishPhone will text back with Blue Ocean's environmental assessment. (Standard text messaging rates apply.)