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King of birds


Back on the subject of encounters at sea, I wanted to introduce you to the great Wandering Albatross. Jules took the first picture when he visited South Georgia a few years back. I saw them too in 2004 when I crossed the Southern Ocean from South America to New Zealand.

My grandmother Dot had a great love of birds. She made a great friend of a blackbird she called "Baby" who would come into the house to eat stale cheese. When in late November 2004 I left Buenos Aires headed for the Southern Ocean, I thought a lot about my Grandma. I knew I would see Albatrosses and how much that would have thrilled her. So every day as we headed south I wondered, in a dialogue with Dot, "Would today be the day?". Even as we got to the tip of South America, I had not seen anything more than some Petrels and what looked like big seagulls - but no Albatrosses. I got some emails from Jules asking if I had seen one yet. Surely we would see one soon?

Shortly after we turned the corner, I was helming the boat on another grey Southern Ocean day when I caught sight of something large and white gliding at head height. Alongside me was my American friend Tom. You would have thought, after all the anticipation, that I would have been prepared for it. Not a bit. Nothing prepares you for your first close encounter with an albatross in flight. The first thing you notice is that its big. Really big, in a way that your head finds hard to compute. My friend Tom drawled "shit J, thats not a bird, its a flying pig!". Its rare to find photographs which do them justice, as there is never anything in the background which gives you a sense of scale. Anyway, I found this photo for you: Try and imagine that flying at head height alongside you. Its head is so big, you can see it looking right at you. You can practically see it thinking.

The next thing you notice is its unbelievable grace. When I say "flying", you need to know that albatrosses do not flap when they fly. Albatrosses only flap when they take off (more on that later). After that, they pretty much fix their wings in a kind of B52 bomber formation with the fat undercarriage hanging underneath (their wing bones literally "lock"). After that, they just glide, giving the ocassional mariner and anything else edible the beady eye. The Southern Ocean is full of big rolling waves, and these incredible birds soar their hills and valleys, with one wing tip only centemetres from the water. On and on they go. These birds don't stop to rest. They continually circumnavigate the earth in their splendid isolation, completely at home in this hostile environment. They are the airborne kings and queens of our precious planet.

Meanwhile somewhere, if its nesting season, their "other half" sits and waits. If the airborne albatross dies at sea (too often snagged on the shallow baited long fishing lines) then their partner will die too, waiting for it to return. These birds mate for life. One day I would like to witness the scene when they meet up again because apparently, their joy at meeting again is so touching to see.

Towards the last days of our journey across the Southern Ocean (38 days at sea), the wind unexpectedly died. Usually, when this happens the Albatrosses have already left to find wind, because they need air pressure (wind) to glide. I guess they got caught out this time because the sea all around us was full of grounded albatrosses. Sitting in the water, they were transformed into ungainly looking ducks (albeit ducks on steriods). As the boat drifted down onto them, we offended the old one or two (squarking disapproval) who decided to try and take off. The poor things need a long runway. They unfurl their wings and flap as if their lives depend on it, straining their necks forward and running, slapping their feet frantically on the water to achieve forward motion. Flapping and slapping and flapping while you will it to take off. I suppose its a bit like a swan taking off, but worse. Anway, swans take off in flat water and these guys were doing it at sea. Even little waves would trip them up and they would literally face plant a bit and have to start again. So no, not so graceful taking off... unless they have a cliff handy.

I genuinely and completely fell in love with these birds. I wished my Grandma could have seen them. I have never seen anything so majestic. They truly are the most graceful, immense and faithful wanderers of our planet. See one before you die.


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