Eye of the Albatross

Bookshelf: Eye of the Albatross

Eye of the Albatross: Visions of Hope and Survival – Carl Safina

Eye of the Albatross
Eye of the Albatross

Carl Safina‘s second book (which I read after his first – Song for the Blue Ocean – and third – Voyage of the Turtle) is superficially concerned with seabirds, but, as is usual for him, dealing on a deeper level with the health and future of the world’s oceans and the life they support.

Amelia, a Laysan albatross fitted with a satellite transmitting tag, is at the centre of the book. Safina recounts the voyages she makes from Tern Island, an island in the French Frigate Shoals of the northwestern Hawaiian islands. Her chick having hatched, Amelia spends up to a few weeks at a time away from him, flying thousands (literally) of kilometres looking for food for both her chick and herself. Beautiful maps detail her circular routes.

Safina speculates as to her activities while she is away foraging, based on knowledge about the diet and habits of albatross. I was amazed at how she found her way home – often flying on a perfectly straight course after turning back towards Tern Island – and how she made her way along the edges of undersea canyons and along the tops of seamounts that she had no way of seeing. Instead, her sense of smell guided her to places where deep water wells up bringing nutrients, and attracting diverse sea life that would be suitable for food.

Like the tuna fish Safina describes in Song for the Blue Ocean, albatross are superlatively constructed and magnificently adapted creatures. They spend up to 95% of their lives at sea, mostly in flight, and are uniquely built for this. Their wings lock open, and require no muscular effort to keep them unfurled. They seldom fly higher than 15-20 metres above the sea surface, and take advantage of natural wind patterns to cover vast distances. Food – particularly in the clear, warm Pacific – is scarce, but this is where they breed and lengthy trips north are thus required to find squid, jellies, and other tasty albatross snacks.

Safina also meets and lives with researchers involved with seabirds, Hawaiian monk seals, and turtles, and even spends time on a fishing boat off the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, which is where Amelia came foraging on one of her several-thousand mile trips. (Unlike in his other two books, Safina does not include a passage glorifying sport fishing, which is refreshing. He even seems to feel something as he watches a sablefish die.) I read Tony the entire section on Alaskan crab fishermen – while Safina doesn’t actually meet any, the Alaskan fishermen he does meet describes them as “brutal people” and says that it’s rare to find anyone over 30 on the deck of a crab boat. It was an interesting confirmation of what we’ve seen on Deadliest Catch, although seeing the men only on board ship doesn’t really let us decide how brutal they are! (The fact that every boat seems to boast at least one crew member with a recent criminal record should have tipped us off, though.)

Unfortunately, as in almost every other book I’ve read about the ocean, the Japanese do not come off covered in glory. Japanese ships systematically wiped out albatross on several Pacific islands, killing hundreds of thousands of birds for their wings and for the feathers on their breasts. The corpses – wingless – were left to rot. Since albatross return to breed where they were born, these populations will never recover. The cultural antagonism this rouses in me – fanned by what I know about Japanese whaling, tuna fishing and their respect for international conservation laws and bodies – is intense, and I would like reasons to feel otherwise.

The scope of this book is massive, and, as with his other work, Safina does not apologise for apparent digressions. His descriptions of the life of a fieldworker on a remote island – whether studying seals, birds or marine life – are fascinating, and the characters he describes add dimension to the book. While this kind of work often involves immense privation and isolation, the rewards and opportunity to spend time so close to wild things are very special. It is upsetting that, even on the most isolated islands, masses of plastic rubbish washes up daily on the beaches, and alien species such as grasses, rabbits, and rats have decimated local plants and animals unaccustomed to the competition and predation. No spot on earth is the pure, untouched paradise one hopes is lurking out in the ocean somewhere.

Safina’s writing is extravagant, detailed and sweeping. If you want a scientific treatise on seabirds, this isn’t it. There’s a lot of information here, but Safina’s concern is more with evoking an emotional response and intellectual wonder, than with presenting a highly organised set of facts.

I cannot wait to see an albatross!

The book is available here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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