Article and images by Dr Julie O'Connor, senior conservation partnerships officer, Sunshine Coast Council
A rare seafaring visitor
Although the black browed albatross (Thalassarche melanophrys) is the most commonly seen albatross in southern Australian waters, it is only rarely seen as far north as southeast Queensland. Usually found exclusively south of the sub-tropics, it has occasionally been recorded in southeast Queensland as far north as Fraser Island.
All the images for this article were taken in the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), an archipelago in the south-west region of the South Atlantic Ocean that is undeservedly more famous for the Falklands War than it is for its magnificent wildlife. Around 80% of the world’s black browed albatross breed in the Falklands, with the remainder mostly on other sub-Antarctic islands, including Australia’s Macquarie, Heard and McDonald Islands.
The nest is a large muddy pedestal moulded from mud, guano and a little seaweed and tussock grass. When choosing its first nest site, the black-browed albatross is often philopatric (returning to place of birth to first breed) and also displays high nesting fidelity (returning each year to the same breeding location) and will often even re-use the same nest each breeding year. Colonies also include pre-breeders - juveniles who return to the colony after two or three years, but don’t breed for the first time until approximately their tenth year.
They generally retain the same partner for many years, if not for life. When not breeding the black-browed albatross stays out at sea until it again returns to the colony for nesting. Upon their return, the pair reaffirm bonds through intricate visual and vocal mateship displays. Males and females both participate in incubating and chick raising, taking shifts of between one and eight days each (average of 4 days). Eggs hatch after 68-71 days and chicks fledge in another 120-130 days.
At a time when bad news abounds regarding declining wildlife, there is at least one good news story surrounding the black-browed albatross. In Chile’s Diego Ramirez and Ildefonso Archipelagos, nesting populations increased 52% and 18% respectively between 2002 and 2011. This increase has been attributed to a change in longline fishing methods with the replacement of the Spanish method with the Chilean ‘trotline-with-nets’ method in the Patagonian toothfish fishery. In 2002, 1,555 black-browed albatross were caught as bycatch by Spanish system vessels. In 2006 and 2007, the conversion of the fleet to the Chilean method resulted in zero black-browed albatross mortality.
Up until 2013 the IUCN classified the black-browed albatross as ‘Endangered’ due to widespread population decline. It is currently classified as ‘Least Concern’. However, despite population increases at some sites, including those mentioned above, other colonies are thought to be declining.
Largely due to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, penned by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1834, the albatross has long held a place in seafaring folklore. Coleridge’s poem recounts the tale of the Ancient Mariner who had set sail with 200 other sailors. When the ship reached the equator, a ferocious storm blew the ship southward into a ‘rime’ – a still and impenetrable icy patch of ocean. The poem describes the change to the ship’s fortunes with the sudden appearance of an albatross out of the mist:
…At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.
It ate the food it ne'er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!
And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner's hollo!
In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white Moon-shine.'
'God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look'st thou so?'—With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS…
…And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work 'em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!...
With the death of the albatross comes the sudden disappearance of the good conditions, and the angry sailors hang the albatross around the Ancient Mariner’s neck. And from that we get the saying “to have an albatross around one’s neck” to describe a tiresome burden.
Other seafaring superstitions may also have arisen from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Some early European sailors crossing the wild Southern Ocean would never kill an albatross, believing them to house the souls of drowned sailors. It was thought that killing the bird would bring bad weather upon the ship. However, not all seafarers shared that particular superstition. Conversely, some sailors associated albatrosses with ill weather and would sometimes shoot an albatross in the hope it would bring better conditions.
Regardless of their nature and origins, superstitions around albatrosses have been hard to shake. When a cargo ship, the Calpean Star, experienced engine trouble in 1959, the fifty-strong crew went on strike until a live albatross they were carrying for a zoo was removed from the ship.
Even today it is considered good luck to see one and, happily for the albatross, it is mostly considered bad luck to kill one.
- Pallesen, A., 2008. Roimata Toroa (Tears of the Albatross): A historical review of the albatross in folklore, and a critical examination of the environmental law protections
- Robertson, G., Moreno, C., Arata, J.A., Candy, S.G., Lawton, K., Valencia, J., Wienecke, B., Kirkwood, R., Taylor, P. and Suazo, C.G., 2014. Black-browed albatross numbers in Chile increase in response to reduced mortality in fisheries. Biological Conservation, 169, pp.319-333.