Postcards · 2 February 2022

Masters of the Southern Ocean

So, about two years ago, either just before or during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, I signed up to join a birdwatching cruise down to Marion Island. Not that I am a birdwatcher, but it did seem quite at adventure for a landlubber like me. Finally, we received the thumbs-up for January 2022. Just to get on board we had to working through a seemingly endless pile of paperwork and medical tests. Our ship finally sailed out of Table Bay on the 25th of January. The southeaster had been blowing for days, so there was much talk about the time of our departure. On the day, we left much earlier than anticipated and then anchored off Camps Bay to wait for people arriving on later flights to join us.

Sailing south from Cape Town to Marion Island reminded me a little of travelling on the Trans Siberian Railway. Nothing much happens. As the hours merged into days, the Southern Ocean became a vast intermediate space between ‘here’ and ‘there’ filled with gale force wind and high seas. An infinite spool of indigo and blue wash. Sometimes a wandering albatross would glide aimlessly into sight.

Wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans)

I love this passage from Peter Heller’s book The Whale Warriors, because he captures so deftly the appearance of an albatross so supremely at home in this harsh environment.

That albatross hit the top and canted her soft belly to the storm, and made a screaming banked peel-out downwind and over the other side. I don’t know if anyone else on the ship saw her. To me, she was a visitation. Not harbinger or annunciation, but a simple reminder of a world that worked, that was at home with itself and friends with the storm.

The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet’s Largest Mammals by Peter Heller

Then, as we neared Marion Island (distant and hidden by low cloud and fairly wild weather) the water and sky was suddenly full of birds. I am tempted to add, ‘and penguins’ but of course they are also birds, but in tuxedos. The ship’s decks filled up with twitchers and listers ticking off new sightings. At last there was so much to photograph. Small birds, large birds, rare sightings and common sightings. And always albatrosses gliding into view.

The wandering albatross is by all accounts a huge bird. In fact the largest bird, excluding flightless birds like the ostrich. It has a wingspan of up to 3.5 m and can glide for hours without having to flap its wings. The strange thing is that without any points of reference one is never really aware of their size. They just seem so unflappable and mildly curious. The extraordinary thing about them is that they spend almost their life in the air, coasting between 28 and 60 degrees latitude. In a single year, an albatross can cover more than 120,000 km. They only return to their natal island to breed every other year. Then there is their longevity. Scientists have tagged albatrosses that are 70 years old.

The albatross is in every sense of the word, a master of the Southern Ocean.

In 1758, when Carl Linnaeus received a specimen from the Cape of Good Hope, he named it Diomedea exulans. Diomedes, after the mythological Greek hero, and exulans or exul meaning ‘exile’ or ‘wanderer’. What a description.

The early sailors of course caught albatrosses for food and used the birds’ long wing bones to make pipe stems. The Maori in New Zealand also used the wing bones to make fish hooks, needles and flutes. But like Samuel Taylor Coleridge in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, I feel that surely, it must be a terrible thing to kill an albatross.