The same engine of air that motorizes the birds delivers weather systems ashore in great passions of glorious sunshine, stinging hail squalls, and snow-laced gales. You might see blue sky to the horizon and in a few minutes be enveloped in horizontally driven rain under a drop curtain of blue-gray cloud that seems infinite—until a few minutes later when the sun again bursts through. Whirling williwaws blast sheets of water off the ocean, sending shattered shards of spray. Fifty-mile-an-hour (80 kilometers) gusts take your breath away. The birds experience it with a stoicism unavailable to humans; they have no cover and must find refuge within themselves.
But strong as they are, Falklands albatrosses run into trouble with fishing boats off Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. Knowledge of their decline shadows the rhapsody I feel. In the softening light on my last Steeple Jason evening, I slowly perch next to a bird. It bows as if we're to start courting. I extend my hand. It reaches out, gently nibbling my finger. Mimicking what I'd seen courting birds do, I slide my finger alongside its bill and stroke its cheek.
Albatrosses live on thin margins. Working hard to wrest a living from the sea, they cannot amass enough energy to lay more than one egg in a breeding season. Royal albatrosses require a year to raise a chick, an effort that leaves adults so depleted they skip a year of breeding to molt and regain weight.
Campbell Island, where the southern royal albatross nests, lies 400 miles (600 kilometers) south of New Zealand, a place of mountainous waves and monstrous birds. New Zealand is Albatross Central, and over the crests and troughs sail white-capped, Salvin's, Buller's, royal, and wandering albatrosses, plus giant petrels, shearwaters, and companionable pintado petrels, whose markings make them look like flying dominoes. High cliffs and explosive surf guard Campbell Island's loneliness. A chilly wind blows perpetually. The list of species breeding here underscores New Zealand's albatross primacy: the Campbell albatross (found only here), grey-headed and light-mantled sooty albatrosses, a few antipodean wanderers and black-brows.
Campbell Island has no vehicles. Time and distance shift to the rhythm of your legs. The most direct route to the birds entails a 45-minute walk over a 500-foot (150 meters) ridge. Peter Moore, a biologist at New Zealand's Department of Conservation, and I find the great birds in a broad valley. Across the wide distance, my mind undercalibrates their size, until one swoops close and Moore is suddenly dwarfed by a bird whose wings are far longer than the tallest person on Earth. No bird has longer wings than a southern royal albatross. At eleven and a half feet (3.5 meters) tip-to-tip, they shred the air around them, whooshing like small jets. On the ground the birds look like huge porcelain statues.
At the moment, they're incubating eggs. Most doze upon grassy nests, their heads tucked into snowy underwings, the dense feathers on their backs blowing in the wind.