Published: December 2007 Wings of the Albatross
On the Wings of the Albatross
By Carl Safina

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.

Graceful as angels and tough as leather, all albatrosses—about two dozen species—spend months and sometimes years beyond sight of land, able to take the most hellacious punishment the ocean can hurl. While living in the windiest regions on Earth, they seem to inhabit another plane of existence. Writing home from the South Atlantic to his new wife, Grace, in 1912, American ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy exulted, "I now belong to a higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross!"

The places of albatrosses are beyond the inhabited limits of humanity, on spare, elemental islands that feel like the center of a waterbound planet. Yet humans touch them in all their haunts. As a result, almost all albatross populations have declined significantly in recent decades. I sought out the densest, most populous remaining albatross colonies in the world. Everywhere, I encountered threats to the birds, but also people working to blunt those threats. To restore their numbers, we need to offer albatrosses a new truce. Otherwise, they'll have to find another world, and even albatross wings can't get them there.

At 51° south latitude, the bare shoulders of the Falklands' Steeple Jason Island shrug gracefully toward a coast wreathed with emerald, head-high tussock grass. Walk around the island's north end and behold a living spectacle: Black-browed albatrosses so crowd the ledges and shoreline, the birds are the shoreline. This main colony runs two and a half miles (four kilometers).

The birds' softball-size heads are slashed with signature black brow stripes above dark eyes. Their four-inch (100 millimeters) bills are airbrushed tones from pastel mustard to translucent pink to a rosy blush at the hooked tip. Dusky-billed adolescents that have lived at sea four or five years are back on solid land for the first time. It's the season for courtship. The youngest ones are trying out moves, like 14-year-olds at the mall. Long-term relationships appear unlikely. But valuable social skills accrue. Like Kabuki dancers, they show off in exaggerated movements, turning preening into choreography, fanning tails, cooing, mutually extending their necks and laying bills together. They accentuate flawless wings, healthy plumage, and attentive grooming the way young teenagers accentuate skin and vigor, displaying precisely those body parts that indicate fertility.

Many of the adolescents seem decidedly undecided about which they fancy. But fickleness is actually a critical assessment for a momentous decision: A bird's choice of mate largely determines whether its chick survives. Raising a chick requires both parents, so courtship often spans two years. Those in advanced courtship sit long intervals in close contact, tenderly preening each other's heads and necks. This reinforces reliability and mutual care. Thus they begin a lifelong bond that will keep the wheel of life in motion.

Each sweep of vision takes in hundreds of commuting birds—but scarcely a flapping wing. Wind powers this mass-transit system. Many hurtle downwind; those going upwind weave into the air currents, catching the crosswind and sailing upward with their bellies windward, then turning downward into the breeze. Masterfully playing these two great forces of wind and gravity, they make near-effortless progress.

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.

Moore checks leg bands and applies new ones so gently that each bird remains sitting tight on its egg. The birds nibble his fingers with their sharp-hooked bills. The birds impart to these lonely slopes a magic disproportionate to the facts of the grass, the distant ocean, and a few big birds.

Despite Campbell's isolation, rats arrived with seal hunters in the 1800s; would-be farmers arrived around 1900. Everything they brought—grasses, sheep, cattle, fires, dogs—was bad for albatrosses. They called albatross eggs "good to eat too, bigger than a goose egg." When the settlers left, around 1930, perhaps as few as 650 pairs of royals remained. Rats devastated nearly everything else. Since the Department of Conservation's 2001 rat eradication, smaller seabirds, snipes, Campbell Island teal, insects, and flowering herbs are returning from offshore islets. Southern royal albatross numbers rose to about 13,000 breeding pairs by the mid-1990s. But something has held them to that level. In a lovely nest an abandoned one-pound egg indicates a lost partner, plus a mate forced by hunger to abandon its effort. Cause unknown.

Albatrosses' siren-like beauty has tempted me to some of the loveliest and loneliest places on the planet—and today into a punishing gale. Its gusts threaten our planned six-hour hike to the island's north end and its dense colonies of Campbell and grey-headed albatrosses. In these latitudes, wind can sweep right around the bottom of the world, then come in body blows to punch you off your feet. Gusts repeatedly flatten us. Against one blast I plant my walking stick yet am catapulted right over it. Never has hiking left me so beat up. But albatrosses love wind, and I love albatrosses, so. . . .

When we reach the north cliffs under skies thickened with clouds, thousands of large birds glide through sun shafts between the low-crouching heavens and the pewter sea. The air carries their raucous braying and the not-unpleasant scent of guano. Mud-pedestal nests packed pecking-distance apart are topped by month-old chicks that sit upright like foot-tall snowmen. I watch as adults arrive to feed them. Parent albatrosses convert food into high-density oil with a caloric content that's been compared to diesel fuel. When a parent arrives, it and the chick excitedly position their bills crosswise. Then the adult squirts a stream of oil as if filling a tank. An adult may spend 15 minutes ashore feeding its youngster a meal that's a third the chick's body weight, then leave again for another trek of several weeks and thousands of miles. Between feedings, the chick converts oil into bone, flesh, and feathers. The chick grows so much between visits that adults recognize them not by sight, but by voice or scent.

I linger for hours, drinking in the action and spectacle, knowing that while the scene seems eternal, my own wanderings urge me onward. I too have miles to go across the deep.

It's graduation day at Midway Atoll, near the northwestern end of the Hawaiian archipelago. With only 2.3 square miles (6 square kilometers) of land, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge hosts the world's largest albatross colony—nearly half a million pairs. (In 1909, responding to Japanese plume hunters killing albatrosses by the tens of thousands, President Theodore Roosevelt declared many of the surrounding islands a bird reservation—enforced by gunship—and saved North Pacific albatrosses from extinction.) Some islands still lie silent of albatross voice. But at Midway, now refuge headquarters, it's albatrosses, albatrosses everywhere: under the trees, all over the lawns, in doorways, on steps, at the dining hall doors.

First light unveils a shore thronged with hundreds of thousands of young albatrosses poised momentously between hatchlinghood and their flying lives. At this critical transition, many are on the knife-edge of life and death. Corpses of goose-size chicks litter the island. A few have wing deformities, likely from eating lead paint flaked from buildings. Hideously, the body cavities of many dead chicks contain cigarette lighters and other discarded plastic their parents swallowed at sea and fed to them. Some have starved. Others succumbed to heat.

Yet survivors dominate. They're big youngsters sporting downy remnants around their heads like lion's manes or Mohawks. Whenever a breeze sweeps through, these juveniles begin flapping. If it's very windy, entire fields of albatrosses wave their wings in the air, testing them. Eventually the birds will begin running the beaches until the slap, slap, slap sound of running feet ends with hard-earned airborne silence. Initial flights are short. Above the laboring juveniles sail adults whose effortless speed and grace indicate a concept perfected.

Yet today there's not a bee's buzz of breeze to loft them. Well, if the wind won't take them, their feet will. Hungering for the horizon, the birds simply walk into the water, wings hoisted like sails, paddling across the lagoon. For hours, more venture across the turquoise calm until an albatross armada stretches out of sight.

Each breathless dawn sees wave after wave of young albatrosses step out of the vegetation and paddle away. About 13,000 are leaving daily. It is March of the Albatrosses!

Where are they going? Biologist John Klavitter pilots our boat over the lagoon. Scanning with binoculars, we realize that at the point where the lagoon's mirror breaks into a million shimmering shards of sunlight sit albatrosses by the tens of thousands. The water is soupy with birds. While thousands sit bobbing, hundreds are trying the sea breeze. Their youthful excitement is infectious. But most of the birds seem afraid to cross the surf. Some fly straight at the ocean, then U-turn over the breakers and veer back into the lagoon.

It's high drama in slow motion. If they stay, they starve. Doldrums are costly. All the paddling and flapping has debited their energy accounts. But enough young albatrosses are flying outside the reef, over the deep cobalt swells, to show that birds are slowly suffusing into the open North Pacific, their true home. They've earned their wings.

For the next couple of months, the crucial task is finding food enough to survive. Studies in the Indian Ocean suggest young albatrosses suffer about 40 percent mortality in the first two months post-fledging. How they learn to forage—do they watch experienced older birds?—no one knows. We do know that while albatrosses eat mostly squid, they often gather around fishing boats, waiting for food in the form of scraps, guts—and baited hooks.

If you kill an albatross you are not forced to wear it, nor will it doom your ship. But nowadays every albatross has humanity around its neck. "There are optimists and there are worriers," says Beth Flint, a biologist at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. "My job is to worry about albatrosses. A hundred thousand drown in fishing gear every year. They're the world's most threatened family of birds."

The Falklands' black-browed albatrosses have lost about 38,000 pairs in the past decade. Nic Huin, a soft-spoken, heavy-smoking French scientist with Falklands Conservation, calculates they've been declining one percent annually. Among the throngs, that one percent doesn't seem like much—until you realize 38,000 pairs is nearly one adult bird every two hours. One percent is like a giant invisible eraser that could, over time, wipe away every bird in view.

In 1988, Australian conservation biologist Nigel Brothers first linked fishing boats with the albatross declines scientists were reporting. The birds trail boats deploying longlines—up to 50 or so miles (80 kilometers) long—with thousands of baited hooks. If hooked while trying to steal the bait before the line sinks, they drown. Albatrosses also crowd behind vessels dragging trawl nets, where slicing cables can strike their long wings. Free lunch it isn't; albatrosses get killed faster than they can breed.

Brothers has worked on the problem with fishermen, surviving fire at sea and a vessel sinking. "Fishing is hard, monotonous work; thousands of hooks baited, deployed, and hauled per day," he says. "If fishermen have to do something extra to save a bird or a turtle—if they don't have an easy option that costs nothing—it won't happen. You have to make conservation easy." They have. Brothers and Eric Gilman, of the Blue Ocean Institute, are collaborating with fishermen to simply add weight to the lines and set them from the side of the boat instead of from the back. With side-setting, baits sink beneath the hull, out of birds' reach. Other measures include dyeing bait dark blue and setting lines at night.

The result: Over the past ten years the Hawaiian fleet's kill of all seabirds dropped 97 percent. "But Hawaii's efforts won't be enough," Brothers says. He's seeking worldwide standards for longlines. Weighting lines would probably fix 80 percent of the problem.

There's progress elsewhere, too. In Falklands waters, a single boat might kill as many as 140 birds in one day—until recently. Now long-liners and trawl netters must use bird-avoidance measures such as "streamer lines" and "bird curtains," which dangle from the boat and prevent birds from getting at baited hooks or colliding with net cables. Over the past few years, bird kills there dropped 99 percent for long-liners. In much of the vast circumpolar Southern Ocean, longline bird kills in areas managed under the 24-nation Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) declined from 6,589 in 1997 to just two in 2006.

These numbers don't account for many boats fishing illegally, or in areas not covered under CCAMLR. Albatrosses circumnavigating the world still interact with many boats unconcerned about birds or law. Some fishermen have even been known to catch albatrosses for food.

What the successes do show is what's now possible. Groups such as Southern Seabird Solutions, BirdLife International, and Brazil's Projeto Albatroz are also working hard with fishermen to close the gaps.

But fishermen aren't the only ones who can improve things. Seafood lovers' choices decide what fish will get caught and what fishing methods will find market favor. Consumers can help by being selective. For instance, because Patagonian toothfish ("Chilean sea bass") is heavily fished and some is caught illegally, most conservation groups recommend avoiding this fish, since it's hard to tell where it's coming from. But South Georgia's Chilean sea bass fishery is well managed, and the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) now rates it as sustainable after managers there tackled the seabird problem. (In the U.S. you can find it at Whole Foods Market and elsewhere—just be sure you see the MSC logo on the package.)

Sean Martin, whose Honolulu company Pacific Ocean Producers operates and services fishing vessels, says, "If environmentalists publicize a problem, the whole industry gets a bad reputation. So if we develop a way of keeping birds off our bait and we're doing it profitably, other countries take note. We can go to a fisheries conference and say, 'Look folks, we're doing all this stuff and we're still making money, and keeping the environmentalists' heat off us all.' "

Albatrosses helped save Ernest Shackleton during his heroic lifeboat trek to South Georgia Island to summon rescue for his stranded crew. The first thing they did upon landing was to stew some fledglings. Albatrosses now need us to save them. Albatrosses can wander to the ends of the Earth. Each of us can help ensure they never go farther than that.