When did you first encounter albatrosses?
If you go boating in New Zealand, you will see albatrosses at sea, but to see them on their breeding islands is more difficult. These islands are all nature reserves, and you can't land on them without a permit. Fortunately, I met a couple of the albatross researchers in 2001 and was able to join them on a trip. Of course I knew the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and always loved lines like "At length did cross an Albatross/Through the fog it came." And sailing to the Pyramid was just like that—albatrosses appearing through the fog.
Did you have any difficulty getting to these remote islands?
There was actually one dramatic moment. At the Pyramid, it's too deep to anchor, so the yacht just had to idle back and forth along the island while people were taking gear ashore. And at one point the boat's propeller became fouled in a lobster pot rope. We were only about 100 yards off the rocks, and the current was pushing us towards shore. The boat's owner stripped, grabbed a knife, plunged into the cold water—which, I should mention, is known for its sharks—with a snorkel and a mask, and started hacking at the rope, which had wound itself around the propeller shaft. She was repeatedly diving down and eventually came up with enough clumps of the fouled rope to allow the propeller to turn again and the boat to move off from the rocks.
What surprised you about albatrosses?
One of the remarkable things about the lives of albatrosses is that the members of a pair, despite not seeing each other for months after their chick has fledged, often return to their nest site within days of each other at the commencement of a new breeding season. One afternoon I watched a pair getting reacquainted. The female sat on her pedestal like a queen on her throne while the male made elaborate bowing movements and lightly touched her bill with his. He picked up a leaf and seemed to offer it to her—a love token, I fancied—before they began, tenderly, to preen each other. Albatross bills, devilishly hooked and with knifelike edges, can chop a fish into pieces, yet when wielded by a mate they become the most delicate of combs. These islands are such magical places. When you're there you're aware of how intensely privileged you are. I don't know if it will make it into the final edit of the story or not, but at one point I quoted the curator of birds of the American Museum of Natural History, Robert Cushman Murphy, who wrote in 1912, on a voyage in the South Atlantic, "I now belong to a higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross!" That's the feeling you have on one of these islands.
The other thing that's rather interesting, but really gross, is that the only form of defense—and it's not much of a defense—that albatross chicks have is their ability to regurgitate in a projectile fashion at anybody who is coming near. They're packed very closely together—their pedestal nests are often only a yard or six feet apart. And each of these has a large, pear-shaped chick on it (I think they look like melting snowmen—and they have this silly grin on their faces. They're so unlike the svelte elegance of the adult). Anyway, it's like walking the gauntlet between them, and each one of them is making this disgusting sound in their throats as they summon up the slurrified fish and squid that they've been fed. And as you get within range, they let rip. So albatross researchers tend to wear full leggings and wet-weather gear, not because of the rain but simply to keep the albatross spew off them.
Did you get any spew on you?
You become very clever—you sort of feint as if you're moving, then they deliver their payload and miss you, and the you run past before they manage to have another go. Researchers, whose job it is to identify what they've been eating and weigh them, have a harder time. They actually have to grab them. The journalist has the easy life, just sort of standing back a little bit and then running between them. But I did get it a couple of times.
Why do you think albatrosses hold such a fascination for people?
Paul Scofield, the scientist I worked with on the Pyramid, gets a bit peeved that albatrosses hog the limelight and get all the attention when many petrels and shearwaters are equally masterful flyers, and their ability to dive to quite incredible depths is astonishing. They don't get the press that albatrosses do. But we are attracted to charismatic megafauna. To stand at the prow of a boat and watch these things speed past, just riding the winds—it's that effortless grace that astonishes you. They're the masters of the storms. They're wonderful. It's uncanny. You hold your breath, not believing that it can be happening. Albatrosses are so fast, and it seems so effortless. And, actually, it is. Scientists have discovered that an albatross loses more energy sitting on the water, through loss of body heat, than flying. When humans are in that Southern Ocean environment, everything is difficult. I guess you could say the albatross mocks our puny ability to be in their environment. They're the masters of the storms. They're wonderful.