Dear Smitty

Author Timothy Foote tells our travel editor, Smitty, a yarn about how his respect for the albatross soared and has continued to soar since his visit

Our Travel Editor, Smitty

Although British by birth like his namesake James Smithson, Smitty is a gadabout who is at home anywhere from a palace to a rain forest. He sends our writers and photographers around the planet—he'd much rather be sending himself, of course, but someone has to stay home and mind the store. Still, Smitty likes to be kept abreast of what's going on in far-flung places, and so our authors write him letters about their journeys.

Dear Smitty:

As a small boy in upstate New York I had the great good fortune to spend some weeks being introduced to redstarts and black-throated blue warblers by Ernst Mayr, then a young ornithologist lately fled from Nazi Germany. (Eventually, he would become a world famous professor of evolutionary biology.) As kids will, I resolved to go to Cornell and become an ornithologist, but as it fell out I wound up elsewhere studying criticism, poetry and English literature.

Which is why, when I landed on Midway to do a story, I knew almost nothing about the life of the albatross. Lord of the air? Sure. Great flier? Yes. And, of course, it's really bad news if you kill one and have it hung round your neck! That last notion, I owed—like most people—not to the world of biology but to a work of Romantic literature: Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," a goofy but absolutely astounding creation, written more than 200 years ago. The Ancient Mariner, who "stoppeth one of three," is still one of the most famous and most quoted poems in English.

Nearly everyone vaguely remembers how it goes, and at least a few familiar lines. Just say aloud "It is an Ancient mariner, and he stoppeth one of three," and here comes the mariner himself, a dreadful sight, buttonholing guests late for a wedding, relentlessly telling his amazing story. How his ship sailed south and south until, with crossbow in hand, he shot an albatross that followed it, only to have the bird tied round his neck by his superstitious shipmates.

Soon natural and supernatural powers, displeased by his cruel act, begin to punish him, the crew, the ship itself, tormenting them with spectacular icebergs and huge storms followed by a deadly calm, when the helpless vessel lies for days "as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean." And, of course, unimaginable thirst: "Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink."

After all sorts of horrors, all hands die—except the mariner, left alone, alone, a worse fate perhaps in store. But at the last moment the damned mariner is saved when, even though in extremis, he experiences a brief moment of spontaneous joy and, indeed, reverence, at the beauty of some "water-snakes," creatures not usually associated with much charm.

On Midway, hip deep in fledgling albatross and busy asking dumb questions of the biologists and their helpers, I was not tempted to mention "The Ancient Mariner." They would just roll their eyes, I figured. Coleridge can seem as crazy as a hoot owl, and the poem is anything but scientific. Nevertheless, before leaving Midway, I came to think there is a revealing parallel between the words of the poet and the work of the island's committed field scientists.

We know a great deal more about biology and the world's creatures than was the case even a few years back. Almost every week we hear that science has turned a new corner in the labyrinth of DNA. But when it comes to the study of wild creatures, especially ones like the albatross that spend half their lives flying over miles of ocean, we still rely on measuring, keeping track and slowly collecting data until it points to a specific, and maybe useful, conclusion. The main difference between then and now is that now a major aim of the work is to preserve the creatures under observation. The more you know about their habits, food and biology, the better you may be able to help them when the pinch of declining numbers comes to the shove of extinction.

Today elaborate and precise descriptions abound of albatross life. Their courtship is famous, involving a stately gavotte of ritual movements that include a series of mutual bowings and nibblings, a tucking of bill under wing, an amorous fencing with crossed bills and, finally, a "prolonged nasal groan," delivered by one partner with beak pointing straight skyward while the other snaps its bill rapidly as if to keep time.

Albatross couples mate for life, though some studies have noted an occasional "divorce." Once paired off, they breed pretty much every year, each year returning to the same nest site, within 20 yards or so of where the male was hatched. Sadly, they only get to dance their courtship dance once, the first time they meet. After that it's just domesticity. (Back home, when I mentioned this to a group of friends, one of the wives said, "Why am I not surprised?")

The resulting egg—only one a year—weighs nine ounces. Parents alternate sitting on it for sometimes as long as three weeks at a stretch without relief, while the absent mate forages hundreds, even thousands of miles at sea for food. Both talk to the egg while it's incubating, with three sounds, Eh-Eh-Eh, and other varying syllables, presumably so the chick will know them after hatching.

It is only lately, with the help of minuscule new telemetric devices attached to these birds, that we are beginning to have a clue about how and where they spend their months at sea.

Albatross seem to be almost as dependent on wind as sailboats, which is why northern species stay in the Northern Hemisphere, and southern species keep to the Southern. Basically they are soarers and gliders, not flappers. The absence of strong sea breezes at the Equator keeps them from crossing the line. Like sailboats, they cannot sail into the wind; they have to tack. To do this they soar downwind to pick up both speed and height, then turn, using the acquired height and lingering momentum to let them glide down to the sea's surface more or less in the direction of the wind. Thus they may spend years at sea before returning to mate and rear their young on land—in our case on Midway.

There are many creatures in Midway's small space other than albatross, of course. Right now what seems to require a lot of unworldly allegiance (as well as financial support) is Midway's struggle to save that all-but-extinct species, the Hawaiian monk seal. Oceanic Society biologists on Midway regularly work at grimy chores like sifting seal scat out of beach sand, hoping to get the minutest clues about seal diet, how it changes and if the changes account in part for their decline. And that's the easy part. To help the handful of pups still being born survive, in the near past researchers have gone as far as trying to keep them in a marine equivalent of our Head Start program, well fed and safe from marauding tiger sharks.

To deal with such things, on a low budget against high odds, like striving to save foster children, requires something not far from religious dedication.

The young biologists on Midway, like those who passionately advocate at-all-costs preservation of all endangered species, are driven by a conviction as absolute as that of any religion. Midway folk seem to me to be close in spirit to the mariner's act of faith, as, briefly stirred by the coiled beauty of the sea snakes, he blesses them "unaware." They might even accept one of Coleridge's last lines: "He prayeth best who loveth best all things both great and small."

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