• Email
  • Print

Living on the Wind

In January 1832 Charles Darwin found himself off Cape Horn aboard the Beagle in the midst of a ferocious storm. “The sight of such a coast,” he would later say of parts of the region, “is enough to make a landsman dream for a week about death, peril, and shipwreck.”* Yet so ardent was the young naturalist’s curiosity that even when tempest-tossed he found his attention focused on a bird. “Whilst we were heavily labouring, it was curious to see how the Albatross with its widely expanded wings, glided right up the wind,” wrote the man who would later teach the world that such superb adaptation is the result of millions of years of evolutionary change.

While evolution has allowed albatrosses to find rest even in the midst of a storm, it has paradoxically left them unable to endure a calm and sunny sea. That is so because they are gliders par excellence, whose breast muscles are so reduced that they cannot fly like other birds, but must, like ships of old, have a breeze to make headway. Their extreme adaptation means that albatrosses spend more of their life aloft than almost any other kind of fowl. They even sleep on the wing. We know this because a dozing bird occasionally runs into a boat that it has been following. They are also very long-lived, though just how long is not known with certainty because banding programs (in which they are given individual leg bands and thus can be recognized upon recapture) have not been running long enough to follow their life cycle from beginning to end. Some birds, however, are still traveling the globe with vigor at age sixty, leading researchers to postulate that the average albatross will travel more than 3.7 million miles in a lifetime—enough to circle the world at the equator around 180 times. So routine are the long-distance flights of these great birds that parents have been known to complete a global circumnavigation just to provide a feed for a chick.

All are large but the largest of all, the Wandering albatross, is a true giant, weighing twenty-six pounds, or twice as much as a Bald eagle. Yet they glide so effortlessly on their eleven-foot wingspan that they expend more energy when resting on the sea than when aloft. Only when the wind fails, or when they wish to feed or breed, do albatrosses alight willingly.

Most of us will never see an albatross, for twenty of the twenty-four recognized populations (scientists disagree over precisely how many species exist) inhabit the great Southern Ocean. There they ride the roaring forties and screaming sixties, feeding in the rich sub-Antarctic seas on a surprising variety of foods—almost anything, it seems, that they can fit down their gullet. Just four kinds are found in the North Pacific, but they include the most endangered and the most abundant of all. Indeed so numerous is the North Pacific Laysan albatross that its breeding colony on Midway Atoll, which is part of the northwest Hawaiian Islands and thus part of the United States, is the largest albatross breeding colony on Earth.

It is these enigmatic and wondrous birds that Carl Safina sets out to explain to us in Eye of the Alba-tross. Specifically he follows one bird, a Laysan albatross called Amelia, through her year-long breeding cycle. The quest is a difficult one, for so widely do albatrosses travel that it is impractical to actually observe them in their wanderings. Safina must therefore rely on radio telemetry, a technique that involves placing a transmitter on the bird, the signal from which is picked up by a satellite, thus informing its earth-bound observers of its whereabouts.

Albatrosses remain loyal to their place of birth, and Amelia’s nesting ground is on Tern Island in French Frigate Shoals, another of the northwest Hawaiian Islands. The place is home to over six million nesting seabirds, which seem to use every speck of this remote thirty-seven-acre islet, two thirds of which was created by the US military during World War II. The island is also a seasonal home to several teams of young, enthusiastic, and mostly volunteer biologists. Some have come to the island to study nesting seabirds, while others are interested in the island’s endangered seals and turtles.

As Safina tells it, each team has its own peculiar regimen, not to mention personality, which curiously matches that of their target species. The members of the turtle study group, for instance, sleep all day, emerging only at night to observe the huge reptiles as they haul themselves ashore to nest. Somehow they seem to be a hardy, somewhat clinical lot, who happily biopsy the tumors (possibly pollution-caused) that have recently begun to plague the beasts. Those studying the seabirds, in contrast, are denizens of the daylight who tenderly delight in the fluffy chicks. Safina is a fine observer of people and animals alike, and his prose has the rhythms of documentary film. Here his writing reveals a deep empathy and affection for the keen young biologists, as it does with most of the creatures he encounters.

The life of the albatross as it unfolds in this book is astonishing, offering unexpected parallels with our own human lives. Like most human beings, albatrosses choose their mates carefully. In a custom uncannily similar to the traditional European period of “engagement,” they court for two or more years before finally committing to each other and breeding. Their extended courtship consists of elaborate, prolonged episodes of “dancing” and mutually affectionate preening that is the avian counterpart of the human caress. Yet, as too often occurs in our own species, these little intimacies largely cease when the pair settle down to raise a family. Even copulation tends to be brief, for the life of the parent birds is dominated by the all-consuming pursuit of the resources needed to bring up the young. Among albatrosses the quest involves endless shift-work, the birds taking turns to leave the nest in order to forage over the vast ocean. Brief meetings at home base—often of just a few seconds’ duration—must suffice to keep the pair’s bond strong. It takes eleven months of such dedicated cooperation to raise the single chick, and such is the effort involved that the pair will rest for two or more years before breeding again.

So difficult is the life of the parent albatross that in the year Safina studied Amelia, just eight out of every hundred breeding pairs of Laysan albatrosses at French Frigate Shoals successfully raised their young. Amelia and her unnamed mate were among the lucky ones whose chicks managed to avoid death by starvation, bad weather, or pollution. The death of a parent bird at sea is a particular catastrophe, for albatross chicks in single-parent nests have no chance at all of survival.

Even on fledging and taking to the air, the danger to young albatrosses does not abate. Their first flight is brief, typically involving a splash-down in the lagoon just beyond the nesting place. There, huge tiger sharks lie in wait, but rather like young human males in fast cars, the fledgling albatrosses seem intoxicated by the freedom of their newly discovered means of transport and are oblivious to the danger. They bob about in the shallows, blithely staring down the advancing sharks or giving them a cheeky peck on the snout as they plough past. Those that don’t catch on quickly to the danger that lurks below tend to disappear in a headlong rush of foam.

Albatrosses have been in decline ever since humans began sailing the seas and pillaging their breeding colonies. Two centuries ago, ten times as many—some twenty million pairs—soared the oceans as do so today. That was before Japanese feather-hunters almost completely exterminated the Short-tailed albatross. This species has been described by University of Alaska Professor Rick Steiner as “the most stunningly beautiful of all of the albatrosses” and is one of the largest. The great birds, with their golden heads and brilliant pink beaks tipped with turquoise and ringed black around the base, once nested by the millions off Japan. The island of Torishima was such a major breeding colony that an industry employing three hundred people grew up there. In 1889, 39.2 tons of feathers left the island, while between 1887 and 1902—the year that a volcanic eruption killed all three hundred albatross-pluckers while they slept—around five million birds were destroyed. Undeterred by the volcanic eruption, new settlers drawn by the feather bounty soon arrived, and they killed until there were seemingly no more birds left. By that time the Short-tailed albatross had long been exterminated elsewhere, and until 1951 the species was considered to be entirely extinct. In 1953 birdwatchers found that a couple of dozen birds had survived the massacres, and today perhaps two hundred pairs carry all hope for the species.

In the 1980s a new and deadly threat to albatrosses arose from long-line fishing. Safina estimates that 1.1 billion baited hooks annually tempt the seabirds to a watery death. At the very most there are only 10 million albatross (including 1.8 million breeding pairs) worldwide, and it seems that as many as 100,000 birds are dragged to the depths each year by the hooks intended for fish, but which the albatrosses swallow while the lines are near the surface. The toll is starting to show on some populations such as those in New Zealand, which have declined between 50 and 80 percent in the last few years.

The truly awful thing about the destruction of albatrosses by the long-line fishery is that, as has been recently demonstrated by the US fishing fleet, it is entirely avoidable. Safina goes to sea aboard the Alaska-based Masonic to see how it’s done. Beginning with Safina’s first, accidental encounter with university-educated skipper Mark Lundsten (whom Safina finds shopping for poetry in the Harvard Coop), what he discovers is surprising. Most of the crew really seem to care about albatrosses, and in a simple operation that does not unduly complicate the fishing, they deploy long rubber lines and buoys that deter the birds until the baits sink out of reach. As a result, in the year during which Safina sailed with the Masonic, the vessel did not hook a single bird of any kind. Were all fishing folk equally motivated, the problem would be solved.

Yet even as the threat from long-lining looks set to abate, another deadly menace has arisen. Today the seas abound with plastic waste, and as Safina takes a walk through the great albatross breeding ground on Midway Atoll, he sees where some of it ends up. The ground is littered with balls of tangled plastic, each marking the spot where a chick has died, possibly weakened by the refuse that once filled their crops, the sac-like enlargements of their gullets where food is stored before digestion. No one has yet demonstrated how dangerous the plastic is to the birds, but the sheer volume of it clogging those young crops is disturbing. The propensity of birds to ingest floating objects coated with flying-fish eggs (in the past mostly pumice or plant matter) may make albatrosses particularly vulnerable to this hazard. Perhaps the most unforgettable image with which Safina leaves us is of an adult albatross attempting to feed its young from food stored in its own crop but prevented from doing so by a toothbrush obstructing its gullet. Its painful efforts to disgorge the object are an unforgivable indictment of anyone who has ever disposed of rubbish in the sea.

In Eye of the Albatross Safina tries to understand albatrosses in ways that go beyond scientific observation. It is almost as if he is trying to feel what it must be to soar as the great birds do. Had Safina lived a century or two earlier his task may have been easier, for that was the golden age of sail when men and birds alike lived by the wind. One man of that age came closer to fulfilling Safina’s dream than anyone else. He was Captain Joshua Slocum, the first person to sail single-handed around the world, a feat he described in his 1899 book Sailing Alone Around the World. Slocum was already a good age—fifty-one—when he set out from Boston in the Spray, a thirty-six-foot vessel he had rebuilt himself. The journey would take him three years and two months, and when he downed anchor at Newport, Rhode Island, on June 27, 1898, he had ridden the wind as solitary as any albatross for over 46,000 miles.

Our modern age has become jaded with adventurers, but in its day Slocum’s feat was astonishing. How, people wondered, would he steer and sleep? And would the solitude drive him as mad as a man marooned? While Slocum himself may have had secret worries in this regard, he was entirely at home on the sea.

Slocum was one of those long-gone captains of sail who could say of his life, “I was born in the breezes and I had studied the sea as perhaps few men have studied it, neglecting all else.” He seemed naturally to sleep with one eye open as the wind carried him, and as for steering—he didn’t bother. Instead he tied the tiller and the Spray took care of herself. He ate, learned, and lived alone on the sea, and like the albatross he could read waves to anticipate roiling, distant tempests, and the positions of capes and headlands. But Slocum suffered one handicap that no albatross ever labored under—the first person to sail solo around the world could not swim.

Albatrosses have long been taken as omens of good and evil, and it seems that Slocum’s solitary wanderings occasionally evinced similarly superstitious feelings. A few days before the Spray arrived at the Indian Ocean island of Rodriguez, the local abbé had given a hellfire and brimstone sermon predicting the immanent return of the Anti-Christ. When the tiny yacht with its solitary occupant sailed unheralded into the harbor, news that this awful personage had indeed arrived—albeit oddly by boat—spread quickly. Slocum recalled one elderly woman who “made for her house and locked herself in. When she heard that I was actually coming up the street she barricaded her doors, and did not come out while I was on the island, a period of eight days.”

The question of navigation barely worried Slocum. Crossing the Indian Ocean toward the obscure Christmas Island he wrote,

For several days now the Spray sailed west…as true as a hair. If she deviated at all from that… she was back, strangely enough, at noon, at the same latitude. But the greatest science was in reckoning the longitude. My tin clock and only timepiece had by this time lost its minute-hand, but after I boiled her she told the hours, and that was near enough on a long stretch.

The truth is that Slocum was so familiar with the ways of the sea that “sleeping or waking, I seemed always to know the position of the sloop, and I saw my vessel moving across the chart, which became a picture before my eyes.”

The thing that strikes the contemporary reader most forcibly in Slocum’s wonderful tale is the lack of hurry and the old sailor’s relaxed manner even when in conditions that would terrify a lesser soul. Upon rounding Cape Horn and emerging into the Pacific, he encountered seas so violent that he was forced back into the Straits of Magellan—close to the land that gave Darwin his nightmares. For weeks Slocum had battled alone through the worst seas on Earth, and now he had to return to where he had started and face again awful challenges, including fending off piratical Fuegian Indians and the fierce squalls in the channels. Yet never does he seem hurried, defeated, or despairing. He just goes on, confident in his little Spray and his own abilities.

Slocum’s great achievement belongs to an earlier time, for few if any today have the easy knowledge of the sea that would allow them to build their own vessel and sail it as he did. Nor, it seems to me, do many have the time or courage. Yet Slocum’s age was changing around him as he sailed. “The time was,” he wrote, “when ships passing one another at sea backed their topsail and had a ‘gam’ [a chat], and on parting fired guns; but those good old days have gone. People have hardly time nowadays to speak even on the broad ocean, where news is news, and as for a salute of guns, they cannot afford the powder.”

Our own age is diminished not just by the lack of such pleasantries but because, although we travel more widely and quickly now, we seem to see less of the world. Contemporary biologists can know a species’ biology in minute detail, yet they struggle to capture the essence of the beast because their travels and studies do not broaden them. Safina soars above the modern average in this regard; but Slocum’s book positively glows with the tale of a man who drank in the globe as he traveled. Perhaps that’s why his wondrously told story seems so rich to the modern reader.

It is ironic that Slocum’s age saw albatrosses killed by the millions with hardly a voice raised in protest, yet the man himself would take the life of neither fish nor fowl while sailing in the birds’ prime habitat off Cape Horn—so precious did life seem to him in that perilous place. Today we are doing more than ever to protect the great birds, but still we kill carelessly at a distance, with discarded plastic and the hooks that put fish on our tables. Even Carl Safina and the young biologists at French Frigate Shoals must kill in their pursuit of science, for they arrive by aircraft that slice through the cloud of seabirds hovering about the island, with occasionally fatal consequences.

In the fall of 1909, at age sixty-five, Joshua Slocum set sail in the Spray once more, this time intent on exploring the Orinoco and Amazon rivers. Like many an albatross setting off from its breeding grounds, he has not been heard of since.

  • Email
  • Print