Travel

A journey to a remote Tasmanian island brings the writer tantalisingly close to the world of the magnificent and tormented seabird, the albatross. By Konrad Muller.

To the albatross

Shy albatrosses on Tasmania’s Albatross Island.
Shy albatrosses on Tasmania’s Albatross Island.
Credit: Matthew Newton

“There’s the island,” said John Franklin.

The young abalone diver had promised he would take me to the Albatross, this upflung fist of rock in the western reaches of Bass Strait, in his runabout. We’d left the small town of Smithton that morning, hearing the bark of oystercatchers in the predawn, sailing out through a lattice of islands, past Robbins and Perkins, between Three Hummock and Hunter, by reefs and sandbanks littered with shipwrecks and old fishermen’s tales, to this gap in the waters and the glittering ocean beyond.

Franklin had supplemented his fisherman’s earnings by working as an electrician since the near-collapse of Tasmania’s abalone fields in 2016. He had warned these were among the most dangerous waters in Tasmania. The day was absolutely windless, but the tide now shifted and we hit, in fisherman’s parlance, “a bit of slop” – pounding churn where the funnelled ocean slapped into a reef.

The fibreglass speedboat started skipping on short, sharp waves, bouncing like a trampoline on concrete, jackhammering my back and my ankles as I clutched the rails grimly. This went on for some time, with Franklin at one point saying, “Runabouts are a young man’s game”. A young man’s game! I felt like Turner strapped to his mast, painting his ship in a storm in 1842. And indeed our own romantic image duly descended.

As we thumped across the spray, a truly massive bird came alongside us, gliding effortlessly on “vast archangel wings”, to use Herman Melville’s phrase. I saw a white belly, dark grey shoulders, a yellow-enamelled beak, riveting irises brushed by inky eye shadow, a two-metre wingspan.

We were nearer the island now. Above the rock, vast numbers of the albatross – hundreds of them – were veering and circling above the ocean, hypnotically. I could hear the weird sound of their immemorial cries. A powerful smell of wildlife came from the rocks, musty and dense as any farmyard. On the fluted cliffs we could see more birds perched – juveniles probably, from the greyer plumage – many gazing out like sentinels. Others performed their version of the love dance of the albatross: tapping bills, fanning tails, arching wings.

“Amazing to think the sealers butchered them,” said Franklin, as the boat dropped to an idle.

The abalone fisherman was referring to the 19th-century march of havoc. Bass Strait sealers clubbed these birds to death en masse, selling the feathers as down for a pittance in the markets of Launceston.

The evangelical Christian and bounty hunter George Augustus Robinson provided a graphic account of the carnage when he visited the island in 1832. He was then in the midst of perpetrating his own human atrocities: rounding up Aboriginal survivors of Tasmania’s genocidal Black War for removal to other offshore islands in Bass Strait, where the hunter-gatherers were already dying of disease. Robinson was, however, strangely sympathetic to the plight of the birds he discovered plucked of their fine white plumage, left lying in putrid heaps in a cavernous ravine. The sealers he painted as monsters sitting around fires made from the dead birds, “the gas produced from the burning bones casting a hue over their figures, which combined with the dreariness of the place renders them as demon-like as it is possible to conceive”.

These words were written 30 years after Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his The Rime of the Ancient Mariner had fixed the slaughter of the albatross, butchered with a crossbow, as the quintessential symbol of the modern world’s violence against nature, for which a nightmarish retribution would be paid.

 

Alone, alone, all, all alone,

Alone on a wide wide sea!

And never a saint took pity on

My soul in agony.

 

The many men, so beautiful!

And they all dead did lie:

And a thousand thousand slimy things

Lived on; and so did I.

 

The poet’s grim prophecy was already well-founded in fact. Though he never ventured into the southern oceans himself, Coleridge was taught as a schoolboy by the mathematician William Wales, who sailed with Cook on his second voyage of discovery, when albatrosses were shot for food or sport.

The general plunder continued across the 19th century. The birds were killed for the feathers that milliners prized; they were targeted by guano traders; their eggs and chicks were stolen; they were hobbled as pets and shot as targets by marksmen. As a result, by century’s end the albatross population crashed to some 300 breeding pairs on this island. It is now a successful sanctuary for Australia’s only endemic albatross, the thalassarche cauta, or shy albatross.

We slowly chugged around the island, watching these mesmeric creatures ride the air above their quartzite cathedral in the sea. By this time of year – it was December – most of the mature birds had made nests on the island’s grassy rooftop. These are the long-lived, monogamous couples that rarely see each other but take turns to forage wide across the ocean after fish and squid. We passed the island’s “anchorage” – little more than a wild leap onto rocks, and we didn’t attempt it. This was a journey to a destination we were not permitted to arrive at. A yellow-on-red sign greeted the traveller: NO ACCESS. We didn’t get close enough to read the fine print, but we understood. Elsewhere, visitors have brought feral species to once-pristine nesting grounds. On Gough Island in the South Atlantic, for example, house mice, escaped from sailing ships, have evolved into monster rodents with a penchant for eating albatross chicks alive. The Tristan albatross is critically endangered as a result.

Of the 22 albatross species, 15 now face extinction – the most of any family of birds. The shy albatross, breeding on just three islands around Tasmania, is among the least threatened. The population on Albatross Island, at some 5200 breeding pairs, has rallied to an estimated quarter of that at the time of the European arrival. Climate change – bringing hotter, drier summers that compromise chicks and nests – poses a new threat. However, the gravest hazard remains the susceptibility of birds to unreformed international fishing, especially the juvenile shy albatrosses, which range beyond the relative safety of Australian waters to southern Africa.

BirdLife International, which is running a campaign called Albatross SOS to change fishing practices and reduce plastic pollution, estimates that at least 100,000 birds are killed each year as bycatch. Despite the development of effective mitigation technologies – in which Australia has played a pioneering role – these magnificent creatures continue to be snared on baited steel hooks set for tuna that can trail, as many as 3000 of them, for 60 kilometres behind a longlining vessel. The albatrosses are also caught in the cables and wires of trawl fishers and drown. According to Oliver Yates of BirdLife International’s Marine Programme, these so-called “interactions with fisheries” involve both artisanal fleets off the coasts of southern Africa and Latin America, as well as poorly monitored industrial fishing vessels. When it comes to flags, Yates remarks, “it is easier to name the good nations than list all the rest”.

We had now completely rounded the island. The waters here were the mysterious ultramarine blue of the deep ocean, shot with hints of purple like pressed grape skin. Giant kelp was floating and heaving off the rocks. A family of fur seals slid into the brine with this year’s pup. There were other signs of abundant life: cormorants, skuas, shearwaters. A high-value abalone field also lay hidden beneath these nutrient-rich waters, near to where the upwelling Southern Ocean meets the continental shelf. A group of albatrosses was bobbing further out like surfers, except these ocean wanderers were waiting for a better wind to launch themselves on their long foraging flights to the west.

“There’s an old fisherman’s saying,” said Franklin. “The albatross is inshore: a big wind is coming.”

We decided to head back. The sky had indeed turned to grey, the sea to gunmetal. Soon we were pounding through another swell.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 11, 2023 as "To the albatross".

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