Albatross vs. Your favorite band

Albatross baby craze is taking over Kure this week as proud parents keep distracting staff by standing up to talk to, preen and feed their still-egg-shaped chicks. Coryna keeps threatening to combust from cuteness overload while I can’t stop wondering how I lived knowing so little about such a majestic species mere months ago. Now that our team has been on this bustling nesting colony for a third of a year, revolved every other conversation around everything albatross and taken turns reading ‘Eye of the Albatross’ by Carl Safina, I’ve enlisted the help of my fellow staff members to compile a cliff notes version of everything you need to know about albatross or, more accurately – why albatross are cooler than your favorite band. In order to prove this point and increase bias, everyone went through a grueling interview which turned up only a minor dissension in the ranks as one person (ahem, Ryan) thinks albatross are only equally as cool as his favorite band and another person (Martha) thinks comparing the two is like apples and oranges.

WHY YOU THINK YOU KNOW THEM · Your middle school English teacher made you read ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and write an essay on the symbolism of an albatross. You probably received an ‘A’ if you summarized the character development of the Mariner and quoted these lines ‘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.’

In the poem, a ship full of sailors is having a bad time and one depressed sailor, the Mariner, blames the uncooperative winds/ill omens/his inability to maintain a steady relationship (okay, the last one isn’t in Coleridge’s version) on an albatross that is lingering around the ship. So he shoots the bird which turns out to be a big mistake because life for the boatful of men goes from bad to worse and the new all time low is blamed on the Mariner. He is punished for his crime and forced to wear the dead albatross as a necklace. This is how albatross became a metaphor for someone who has to bear the burden and suffering of a dilemma which is of their own making. Anyway, the Mariner’s life basically hits rock bottom until one day he has a revelation while watching sea snakes swim next to his boat. Our Mariner realizes that everything in nature is beautiful and animals and plants deserve admiration (not bullets) which is when the albatross carcass falls off, freeing him from what must have been one smelly accessory.

Current Kureans describe the smell of dead albatross as ‘funky fresh, sickly sweet pungent odor that wafts right into your nasal cavity, kinda like a wet dirty scalp.’ Most of the Kure staff accused me, the interviewer, of being morbid when I asked if they would be willing to wear a dead albatross around their neck and decided they would not – not even for money. The one exception was Martha, who clearly did her middle school English homework because she is willing, but only in one circumstance: ‘If the captain says I have to and the alternative is to walk the plank.’

IF YOU HAVE THE CHANCE TO MEET AN ALBATROSS, GO· Sitting on their nest, Laysan albatross are the same size as… Andy: ‘Carry-on luggage’, Coryna: ‘Bagpipes’, Martha: ‘Swans’, Ryan: ‘Me, well, with their wings spread.’ At six feet three inches, Ryan is often offering himself up as a unit of measurement which makes sense with the albatross because it is easy to see ourselves in them, or perhaps them in us. The mixture of what we do know, what we don’t know and what we know but can’t directly relate to about albatross gives them the same seductive, mysterious yet unattainable air of celebrities. Confused? Me too. To help break it down, each staff member was asked what albatross fact they would share if put on the spot at a dinner party.

Eryn’s pick: ‘The albatross meet their mates year after year on land after time apart.’ Albatross courtship takes years and a lot of mutual wooing in the form of dancing and later, preening. For albatross, choosing a mate is as serious as human matrimony and both male and female birds need to make sure their chosen partner will be able to put in the energy required to raise a chick even when the going gets tough. When an albatross finally settles on a mate, they are extremely loyal and many albatross mate pairs have been recorded together for more than twenty years.

Ryan and Andy’s pick: Essentially, we don’t know the average lifespan of albatross because the original researchers who wanted to know placed identifying leg bands on birds 40 years ago and the birds and bling are still thriving. Both of the guys on camp chose this mysterious fact, so here’s what they said in their own words. Ryan: ‘Albatross can live to be upwards of 65 years old and still successfully raise and fledge chicks.’ Andy: ‘Some albatross are older than I am and we still don’t know how old they become.’

Coryna’s pick: ‘After a chick fledges from its nest, they spend three years out on the open ocean [before returning to land].’ Albatross are incredible flyers or more accurately gliders. They can lock their wings into place, almost like opening a pocket knife. This ability means that their heart rates are comparable both in flight and while sitting on nests.

Martha’s pick: ‘Amelia’s 25,000 mile journey.’ Martha is referring to a Laysan albatross that was given a satellite tag and is nicknamed Amelia by Carl Safina. An albatross pair invests a lot of energy in their chick. They take turns incubating the egg, which means they sit on the nest for two to three weeks at a time without food or water while their mate is out at sea foraging. For a long time, no one knew how far albatross would go to find food and the satellite tracking study that Safina highlights proves that they fly very far distances. Safina sums it up when he writes, ‘In caring for her chick the last few months, she’s [Amelia] traveled over 25,000 miles, the distance around the world at the equator.’

JUST LIKE YOUR FLOUR BABY IN HOME ECONOMICS · Three out of six of us think the juvenile albatross are in their best life stage. Adult albatross have a lot of responsibility guarding their eggs and are often observed stretching while waiting for their mates to return. Meanwhile, chicks have a very low survival rate and must face obstacles like having both parents survive foraging trips and not getting eaten by a shark while learning how to fly. Juveniles are pretty much worry-free and their carefree lifestyles are currently giving Kure a party vibe. Juveniles are constantly perfecting their dance moves, they occasionally take over and build up abandoned nests and all of us keep catching them as they awkwardly practice sitting on abandoned eggs. It’s a good thing they practice because I’ve observed more than one juvenile walk around with yolk and eggshell smeared across its belly. Albatross are the first birds I’ve encountered that essentially play house just like human toddlers with dolls or middle school students who are taught about the highs and lows of parenting by carrying around raw eggs, bags of flour or technologically advanced dolls.

STILL THINK YOUR FAVORITE BAND IS COOLER? · Check out Andy’s photo of Laysan albatross in flight, There’s no way your musical idol(s) can do that.

With interviews from: Andy, Coryna, Eryn, Martha and Ryan
DLNR Crewmembers

Works Cited
Safina, Carl 2003. Eye of the Albatross. Holt Paperbacks. New York, New York.