Days 5 and 6 we spent at sea, headed relentlessly south both days toward the unseen Falkland Islands and, by night, toward the seemingly more tangible Southern Cross. We came in and out of areas more crowded or less populated by various seabirds. The farther south, the more we left juvenile albatrosses and giant petrels. Or at least, the more adults appeared in the mix. The species mix hasn’t changed much. But Pintado Petrels became more abundant. And in some places, for a while, the sea near and far seemed to almost crawl with albatrosses and various petrels.
In the afternoon, we sighted land. Thousands of prions appeared on the ocean, streaming to and from one island that must house an immense breeding colony. Extraordinary Commerson’s Dolphins appeared several times, bearing the most striking black-and-white banding imaginable, like ocean pandas.
The Falklands are a landscape that is always part seascape. A broken, fractured archipelago of short grass and bare rock. No native trees grow, and the only trees one sees are planted as windbreaks around farmhouses. On the out-islands, the few people living there raise sheep for wool. At Westpoint Island, though, there’s a bonus: a large colony of Black-browed Albatrosses crowding the sea cliffs, with numerous Rockhopper Penguins mixed in on the lower slopes. We went ashore at Westpoint Island. It was our great luck to be able to spend several hours among the birds.
An albatross colony is surely one of the great spectacles in wild nature. And one of the most beautiful. The Falklands have been home to the largest albatross population in the world. The species nesting here is the Black-browed Albatross. But they’ve had problems. Between the mid 1990s and the mid ‘00s, the Falklands’ Black-browed albatrosses were declining at about one percent annually. They lost about 38,000 pairs in that decade. Among the throngs, one-percent annually doesn’t seem like much—until you realize that 38,000 pairs is nearly one adult bird per hour. It’s as if a giant invisible eraser could, over time, wipe away every bird in view.
In 1988, Australian conservationist Nigel Brothers first linked fishing boats with the albatross population declines scientists were reporting. Albatrosses eat mostly squid, but they and other seabirds eager for a free meal often follow fishing vessels. The birds trail boats deploying “long-lines”— miles long—with thousands of baited hooks. If hooked while trying to steal the bait before the line sinks, they drown. Albatrosses also crowd behind vessels dragging trawl nets, where slicing cables can fatally strike their long wings.
But in recent years, that decline seems to have been arrested. Boats fishing around the Falklands must now use streamer lines behind the vessel to scare and discourage birds from approaching close behind the boat. This gives the bait time to sink out of reach. Upshot: boats using this technique kill only about two percent as many albatrosses as do boats not using streamer lines. And the news I got on this trip is: the decline in the Falklands’ Black-browed Albatross population has been stopped.