Published: December 2007

Wings of the Albatross

Albatross Feature

On the Wings of the Albatross

By Carl Safina
Photograph by Frans Lanting

An albatross is the grandest living flying machine on Earth. An albatross is bone, feathers, muscle, and the wind. An albatross is its own taut longbow, the breeze its bowstring, propelling its projectile body. An albatross is an art deco bird, striking of pattern, clean of line, epic in travels, heroically faithful. A parent albatross may fly more than 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) to deliver one meal to its chick. Wielding the longest wings in nature—up to eleven and a half feet (3.5 meters)—albatrosses can glide hundreds of miles without flapping, crossing ocean basins, circumnavigating the globe. A 50-year-old albatross has flown, at least, 3.7 million miles (6 million kilometers).

If people know the albatross at all, most harbor vague impressions of an ungainly, burdensome creature, derived from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1798 poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Turns out, Coleridge never saw an albatross. Also turns out, most people haven't read the poem. In the poem, the albatross benevolently fills the ship's sails with wind and aids its progress. When the mariner impulsively kills the albatross, horror grips the crew; they punish the mariner by making him wear the great corpse around his neck.

But let's not burden albatrosses with our metaphors. Doing so, we fail to see the real birds, which connect us to what's happening in the seas in ways many of us can scarcely imagine.

If you could travel millions of miles fueled by clean, self-renewing, zero-emissions energy, you'd be an albatross. Strictly speaking, albatrosses are mediocre fliers—but excellent gliders. They can lock their wings in the open position like switchblades, the bird merely piloting the glider it inhabits. Catching the wind in their wings and sailing upward, then harnessing gravity while planing seaward, they travel in long undulations. Most birds struggle to overcome wind; albatrosses exploit it.

What differentiates an albatross from, say, a gull, is not just architecture but also state of mind, a brain that is master navigator of so exquisite a body. Swap the software, install a gull brain at the helm of an albatross, and the great vital sailing craft would never dream of daring the distances that an albatross routinely conquers. Gulls hug the shores and proclaim themselves monarchs of dock pilings. Albatrosses cross oceans for breakfast and deign to touch shore only when it involves sex. Land is an inconvenient necessity for breeding.

Granted, on land—where they seldom are—albatrosses walk with a spatula-footed, head-wagging waddle. Walking isn't their thing; no one will ever film March of the Albatrosses. But oh, when they unfurl those wings and leave gravity to the rest of us, they become magnificent beyond the reach of words.

Continue »
email a friend iconprinter friendly icon   |