08 November 2013

Having been to the same school as Samuel Taylor Coleridge I was brought up on his poetry especially The Ancient Mariner so it is little wonder that I have always been fascinated by albatrosses. I shall never forget my first, when I was a Surgeon Lieutenant RN serving in a frigate in the Southern Ocean in 1957.
For hours a wandering albatross, Diomedea exulans,  stalked our ship hunting for oily particles of fish and squid which they detect with their highly developed sense of smell in everlasting figure-of-eight movement with never a wing beat. 
Since then I have watched other species of the Diomedeidae: on a pelagic tour from S. Africa both the shy and the yellow-nosed albatross and on other trips the white-capped, the black-browed and the grey-headed in the Bass Straight, Drake’s Passage and the Beagle Channel respectively. It is a pity that Coleridge has left us with such a malignant impression of them. They are among the Worlds most magnificent creatures but few humans are lucky enough to see them. You have to be far south and miles from land.  Howevealtr the black-browed albatross has a more northern range and this accounts for very occasional British newspaper reports of sightings round our coast.
I have just had my eightieth birthday and I don’t travel far now but these memories of remote places and their birds mean much to me. For my entry into octogenarianism my wife and daughters planned a secret binge. I knew something was going on because of all the hard work. So I felt a visit to Malcolm Appleby was called for to say thank you. I found a brooch of a tall ship’s superstructure - it was hull down below the horizon, which seemed fitting for the occasion. More importantly its upper sails were decorated with the sun, moon and stars and, on the mainsail, flew a magnificent albatross. A fit gift for an old sailor (if not an ancient mariner) to give his wife!
Albatrosses are the biggest seabirds which, with their ‘tubenosed’ bills, are related to the common northern fulmar which we often see round Scottish cliffs. Like their bigger southern relations fulmars are masters of the air currents but cannot equal the albatrosses in their ability to fly on the updraft from the waves with hardly a movement of their three metre wingspan. In fact the albatross with its weighty body has a wing loading which comes close to the structural limit for flight. Even so they may live for thirty years. No wonder the Ancient Mariner regarded them with such awe.
On a bird trip to Antarctica with one of my daughters we saw albatrosses every day as they followed the ship - mostly ‘blackbrows’ with their frowning faces and some greyheadeds. These birds are so huge they have difficulty in taking off and so, when they do come ashore to breed they nest near cliffs where they can launch themselves into the void at the edge. Breeding is a lengthy business for these huge birds; after laying a single egg they may incubate for as long as ten or more weeks. The egg is so strong the chick may take six days to break free of it when hatching. In order to break its shell the chick is equipped with an ‘egg tooth’ at the tip of its bill (many species have these but most are shed as the juvenile grows) which persists to give adult albatrosses a raptorial hook on the tip of their bills as can be seen in the illustration.
The albatross was originally a sign of good fortune but the  belief that it was a bird of ill omen probably dates from Coleridge’s 1798 ’Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. In this long poem a ship icebound in Antarctic waters is cheered by the sight of an albatross but the Ancient Mariner shoots it and so brings disaster on the ship. To this day around the Dornoch Firth the use of Swan Vesta matches, where the swan symbolises the albatross, is considered unlucky by seafarers. I consider myself fortunate to have seen these magnificent birds in the wild but I wonder how long they will last since they are threatened by modern fishing techniques.
Robin Hull


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