Sailors Beware, Heed the Ancient Mariner!
BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)
In his classic narrative poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge tells us in no uncertain terms that bad things happen when we mess with an albatross.
From high school English class, you may recall that the albatross comes to save the wayward ship and crew from peril in Antarctica. The ungrateful Mariner then shoots and kills the albatross with his crossbow, whereupon the ship is becalmed for days on end and the sailors begin dying of thirst as told in the poem’s best-known line, “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”
The sailors become so enraged at the Mariner for killing the albatross and forever cursing their ship that they make him wear the dead albatross around his neck to illustrate the burden he must suffer for killing it. Through the years, the fate of the Ancient Mariner has led to the contemporary colloquialism about how someone who endures a lot of bad luck in life has an “albatross around his neck.”
Birds of the open oceans, albatrosses are primarily Southern Hemisphere species with only three species breeding north of the equator. They excrete salt from the seawater they take in through exceptionally long nostrils, giving them the nickname “tubenoses.”
A pair of Albatrosses (Diomedea spp.) on their nest in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands.
With wingspans that can exceed eleven feet—the longest in the world—they have an incredible ability to stay at sea for months, even years, on end, often flying millions of miles in a fifty-year lifetime. Renowned as the most awesome oceanic birds on the planet, they are magnificent flyers as John James Audubon so eloquently describes in this passage:
Albatrosses will always be associated in my memory with the ocean storms, with the plunging of the ship over mountainous seas and with the whirr of racing propellers over the crests of mighty waves. Amid all the grandeur, excitement, and danger of a storm at sea the albatross glides calmly on, rising easily over the crests of the highest waves and gracefully sailing down the valleys between them, frequently lost to sight but never troubled or confused, thoroughly at home in its native element. What mariner would not respect the bird that shows such mastery of the sea in its wildest moods?
Albatrosses feed on squid, fish, and krill by either surface seizing or diving to capture their prey. They have a habit of following fishing boats, picking up bits of garbage that have been tossed overboard. Unfortunately this scavenging practice has contributed to severe declines in albatross populations worldwide. When they dive after the bait on long-line fishing gear, they often become entangled on the hooks and drown. Other threats include loss of habitat, introduced predators on nesting islands, becoming tangled up in plastic waste, oil spills, and climate change.
Fortunately there are conservation activities aimed at protecting the albatross. In particular, the World Wildlife Fund is implementing real-world solutions to modify fishing gear, reduce the incidence of accidental by-catch of oceanic birds, and allow fishermen to fish smarter while helping maintain the health of our oceans.
If we’re lucky, these measures will help us protect the albatross for future generations—saving us all from the fate of the Ancient Mariner.
Text excerpted from book: BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press). Photo credit: Copyright Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS.
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.