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.”