Long Live the Albatross

The bird is a literary symbol, a natural wonder—and a harbinger of our own future.

Esther Aarts

I remember the first albatross I ever saw. I was on a small boat a few miles off the coast of New Zealand. As the bird sailed past, gliding on the wind, it skimmed low over the waves, the tip of one wing so close to the water that I thought it must touch. But it never did.

I no longer know which species it was—there are 20 or so, and the encounter was years ago—but I remember my excitement at seeing a bird at once majestic and mythic. Carl Linnaeus, the Swede who, in the 18th century, invented the system of Latin names by which different species are known, called the group Diomedea, a reference to the Greek legend in which the companions of the warrior Diomedes are transformed into birds. Perhaps he was inspired by stories then reaching Europe, which told how the huge birds—the largest can have a wingspan of nearly 12 feet—would sometimes fly alongside ships struggling through the tempests of the southern seas.

One of these accounts certainly inspired the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, published in 1798, Coleridge describes an albatross following a ship in a storm. On impulse, one of the sailors shoots the bird. This turns out to be a crime against nature, and is met with divine retribution. As the first installment of his penance, the sailor explains, “Instead of the cross, the Albatross / About my neck was hung.” Henceforth, the name of this magnificent creature would be synonymous with “terrible burden.”

“I remember the first albatross I ever saw,” says the narrator of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. “It was during a prolonged gale, in waters hard upon the Antarctic Seas.” He goes on to relate that the bird was captured “with a treacherous hook and line.” Happily, it was soon released, albeit—in a sly inversion of Coleridge—bearing a leather strap around its neck listing the ship’s time and place.

These days, certainly, albatrosses are burdened by humans more often than the other way around. In 1989, six members of the species Diomedea exulans, also known as the wandering albatross, became the first birds ever successfully fitted with satellite trackers. The devices showed that the birds ranged farther, and traveled faster, than anyone had thought: In one 33-day trip, an individual covered more than 9,000 miles, reaching speeds of 50 miles an hour. Subsequent research has shown that over the course of their long lives—the birds can live for more than 50 years—wandering albatrosses may travel more than 5.2 million miles, which is about 11 round trips to the moon. They cover almost all this distance by soaring effortlessly upon the wind.

Wandering albatrosses are slow to reach maturity, and breed slowly once they do. In a given breeding attempt, the female lays a single egg, which the parents take turns incubating until, more than two and a half months later, it hatches. If all goes well, the chick will fledge about nine months after that. The effort to raise a chick is so long and strenuous that, after doing so, both parents take a sabbatical year, which they spend entirely at sea.

Like so many other life-forms now, almost half of all albatross species are endangered, some critically. With his “treacherous hook and line,” Melville was prescient: For wandering albatrosses, as well as several related species, longline fisheries are one of the main causes of death. The birds take the bait, get caught on the hooks, and drown. Moreover, because they live so long and prey on fish and squid, albatrosses are among the birds most contaminated with mercury. In many ways, they are mirrors of the ways that humans treat the sea.

While I don’t believe in divine punishment, I do read The Rime as a warning against ecological destruction. If, through our actions, the albatross were to pass entirely into legend, we would have diminished the richness not only of nature but of ourselves. These birds have an important cultural dimension; if they vanish, a tangible part of human culture vanishes too. More generally, if we lose these marvelous and beautiful organisms, which have evolved over such a long period and which have never existed anywhere else in our cosmos and never will, we erode our capacity for wonder, knowledge, and inspiration, and diminish the planet for those who come after us.

But it is not too late; the albatross is not gone yet. Efforts to protect the birds are under way, and an international treaty (the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels) is in force. As a result, a number of fisheries have started setting bait at night, using weighted hooks, and flying streamers that scare the birds away. All of these measures reduce the number of birds caught, and suggest a way to create more general mechanisms of planetary care. We still have time to stop the ransacking of nature and ensure that, for generations to come, people will be able to exclaim with delight and awe, “I remember the first albatross I ever saw!”