South Georgia is a very remote place. But with its history of whaling and whale ships, it’s not too far for rats to have reached. As on other oceanic islands where rats have reached, they’ve been devastating to the smaller seabirds. They’ve utterly wiped out the world’s southernmost songbird, the South Georgia Pipit, from much of South Georgia (glaciers are barriers to rat travel, and some of South Georgia is rat free). Prion Island is rat-free, too, and you instantly see—and hear—the difference in the form of the sweet spring singing of a small and subtle bird that cannot be seen anywhere else on Earth—the South Georgia Pipit.
The South Georgia Heritage Trust is now raising funds to eradicate rats from the whole of South Georgia. Trials have begun. This would have enormous benefits for probably millions of prions, petrels—and pipits.
Special though that is, the main event here was the privilege of visiting as near to a holy shrine as anything in nature: a nesting ground for the rare Wandering Albatross. These are birds in the extreme. Wanderers wield the longest wings in nature: up to eleven and a half feet tip-to-tip. During a life spanning perhaps 60 years, they wander literally millions of ocean miles and can stay at sea for years. To feed a chick, they may fly five- to ten-thousand miles and stay at sea for a month to gather enough food for one feeding. They mature at nearly 10 years of age. Courtship takes several years, after which they choose a mate for life. They can lay only one egg in a season. If it breaks, they cannot replace it. A chick requires more than a year to fledge. Parents cannot breed every year. They have one of the slowest, most extreme, most glorious life strategies of any living thing.
“I now belong to a higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross!” exalted the American ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy during his first trip to the South Atlantic, in 1912. Like us today, he eventually found himself on Prion Island.
Being near these birds touches people with something so profound it seems spiritual. Returning from several Wandering Albatross nests during my visit here a decade ago, one of my companions remarked, “I feel like I’ve been to church.” These birds embody the slow sweep of deep time in the splendor of their majestic seascape. Being in their presence infused a penetrating sensation each of us later described with the same word: Serenity. They do not merely occupy the island but seem to give the place its rationale, and the calm gaze in those eyes that have seen so many years and so many miles is quite moving.
The solutions that have stabilized declines of other kinds of albatrosses don’t seem to be bearing fruit for Wanderers. Wandering albatrosses are declining, and this colony has been losing about one percent of its birds each year for over 20 years. Albatrosses of many kinds follow long-lining ships bearing fishing “long-lines” miles long bearing hundreds of baited hooks, trying to snatch bait before the line sinks. Or they follow trawl-net-draggers, whose cables can slice long wings. In these situations, being first can be worst. But, as the biggest of all, Wanderers are often number one in the food line. If there’s trouble to be had, they’re quite at risk.
In 1798, Samuel Taylor Coleridge published his famed and rather surreal poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It includes these lines of empathy for a bird not yet endangered by humans:
The spirit who bideth by himself
In the land of mist and snow,
He loved the bird that loved the man
Who shot him with his bow.
I would like to add an updated poem of my own, for the great Wanderer and all the beings on long wings who are trying as always to survive. They are our companions in this world, they were here before us, and it is up to us to ensure that there are future generations of albatrosses and that future generations of people receive from us an undiminished world. Maybe they will better know how to keep it. Here we go:
Rhyme of the Modern Mariner by Carl Safina
There lives a bird, the Albatross
Who sails the ocean foam.
The greatest wand’rer of all time,
No land does it call home.
Instead, the Albatross lives life
Remote from coast and shore,
It flies a thousand-thousand miles,
And then—it flies some more.
It captures the propelling wind
Like ships over the sea.
Then robs the gales for weightlessness,
And inverts gravity.
With wings as wide as two tall men
The ocean’s breadth it bests
Yet faithfully returns to light
Upon its precious nest.
On their great wings these sturdy things
thus glide so far and wide,
They’ve skimmed the seas a million years
But may not stem the tide
Of people who both love the sea
Yet love the sea too much—
Our appetites unknowingly
The Albatross do touch
It’s true, this soul called Albatross
Who sails the ocean yet
Must cope with modern mariners
With fishing hook and net.
To have our fish—and eat them too—
Requires but a thought,
Yet so unthinking have we been
That Albatross gets caught.
Where wanders thou, oh Albatross?
Wilst vanish from the deep?
Or will we mend our ways in time
Your flight with us to keep?
Have patience with us, Albatross,
Our malice isn’t meant.
And if we lose you for all time
We’ll claim, “An accident!”
But if that comes to pass, who’ll suffer?—
You? Or we? Or both?
I’ll offer this: it’s we who’ll miss
Your grace behind our boat.