Eye Of The Albatross: Visions
of Hope and Survival, by Carl Safina
By Mccabe Coolidge
For a number of years, I was haunted by
a reoccurring dream. Iíd climb to the top of the mast of my sailboat and
search the gray clouded sky, seeing only a big pale bird, way off, flying
alone, away from me, away from land. I wondered then if it was an
albatross, exiled from land, flying for the rest of its days and nights
over open ocean. I wonder now what I was searching for, climbing the mast
of my sailboat, scanning, scanning the horizon.
Itís Palm Sunday and Iím standing on
the edge of Kiluaea Point, a National Wildlife Refuge, gazing out at the
Pacific, a steady swell rolls in and thousands of seabirds are circling.
This furthermost eastern edge of Kauai is a sanctuary for frigatebirds,
shearwaters, red footed boobies, and albatross. A halfway point, a resting
place, a time to court, breed, nest, and feed. To my left is Albatross
Hill, an acre or so of green lawn used as a landing strip by the
albatross. Along the edges of this airfield the courtship has begun, duck
and bob, duck and bob, circle and circle. A delicate dance often lasting
fifteen minutes. Meanwhile on the landing strip, a few albatross are
attempting take-offs, a wobble walk into the breeze, the flapping of wings
and airlift. Landings are less sure. Upon landing there is much toppling
over, apparently no hurt pride. Hundreds and hundreds of albatross are
crowded around this spit of land. Iíve come here in celebration of my
60th birthday. A wish stretching back a quarter of century. A need to
follow a dream and find the pale, white bird.
Carl Safina, author of Song for the
Blue Ocean, brings us a fascinating tale of Amelia, a
"tagged" albatross who courts, gives birth to a fledgling, flies
thousands of miles in search of food. Carl follows her, first by GPS, then
by heading out to sea on an old wooden halibut schooner, repowered for
longline fishing in the Aleutian waters off the coast of Alaska. But
mostly, Carl lives on a tiny dot of an island in the Northwest Hawaiian
Islands, French Frigate Shoals and Tern Island. A center of research for
eighteen species of seabirds, six million of them densely populated on a
string of islands 500 miles northwest of Kauai.
My dream haunted me because I thought of
the albatross as a burden. Around the neck. An individual sin inherited
from the sailor who shot one and it was hung around his neck, a
retribution for the slaughter and ensuing bad luck. Safina brings us to a
deeper, clearer understanding of the story with the help of the poet
Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
The spirit who bideth by himself
in the land of mist and snow
He loved the bird that loved the man
who shot him with his bow.
Safina tells us that great wandering
albatross means "out of oneís country, living in exile."
Sailors and naturalists, on multiyear voyages may have thought this, but
the albatross is at home in the wild, wide ocean. At home in the wild,
wide ocean. How do you and I define home? Images related to land or water?
One night, on a sail from San Francisco
to San Diego, about 50 miles offshore, the crew and I were joined by a
shearwater. Wide dark wings, small eyes clearly focused on the next wave,
barely moving its wings, we were on a broad reach, the wind sweeping off
our left shoulders. Mile after mile, hour after hour, we were accompanied
by this night visitor. But now I wonder who was the visitor? Maybe our
sloop found its way into the ancient migration pathway of this bird,
unflinching, moving ahead, a shadow, a night angel.
But why spend so many months crowded on
a little island with a couple of dozen other researchers? No videos,
radio, stores, or other diversions except the continual presence of birds,
monk seals, and green turtles.
Safina describes how the ancient
Polynesian mariners used instinct, memory, and observation to direct their
ships from island to island, thousands of miles apart. These sailors
watched the albatross, the shearwater, the subtlety of waves running
across the dominant swells, often reflecting a distant unseen island.
These ancient mariners, when passing an island, memorized its location in
relation to the stars rising and setting.
Amelia, named by Safina, is tagged so
she can be followed on her forays out into the Pacific for food for her
baby chick. He is amazed, as am I, by how long and fast she flies, her
wings, hitched into a gliding position, she flies hundreds of miles a day
and after a week or two or three finds her way back to the speck of the
island, regurgitates her fishing finds, squid usually, into the hungry
beak of her chick. Then the father takes off while his mate rests. What
navigational instincts does Amelia possess? What can we learn from her?
Safina points out plenty of problems
along the way. Watching a mother regurgitate a toothbrush into her chickís
mouth. Longliners overfishing almost every fish in the Pacific. Albatross
diving for the bait getting entangled into the longline and drowning. Can
you believe that longlined Blue Finned Tuna come off the boat for $300-800
a pound bound for Japan?
Coleridge kept writing the long poem, The
Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Near the conclusion, he gives us these
...he prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God, who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
And then several years later, Coleridge
adds this summation:
...everything has life of its own
and we are all one life.
Reading the Eye of the Albatross
is a way to fall in love with birds and sea. Safina "prayest
best," by loving the albatross with the passion of curiosity. How do
these birds navigate an open (not empty) ocean and return, voyage after
voyage, year after year?
Safina is a monk. One who gazes,
watches, notes, stays day after day, in love with the prospect of life,
reproduction, the passing on of genes, and destiny. The ancient rhythm of
migration and return. Then he returns to the mainland and reports back to
us what he has seen and heard. Out there. Beyond human habitation.
In the United States, we have Earth Day,
Solstice Days, but when the Day of the Ocean came this spring, what
happened? Iím not living in Kansas. I live along the coast of North
Carolina, filled with bays, rivers, estuaries, where the health of the
ocean and her tributaries means survival to thousands of watermen and
women. No celebrations like Earth Day. Writers like Safina will help us
embrace a strange non-western notion, that the earth is not the center of
the universe but is an island in the open sea. How goes the wild sea and
her inhabitants is a telling sign of survival for those of us living on
The other evening at a Sierra Club
meeting I heard, once again, a speaker tell me that wilderness had to do
with valleys, mountains, plateaus, and rivers. No mention of the ocean as
a wild sanctuary, a wilderness threatened, the compass of our survival.
Safina warns us about projecting our own
imagery, our own reflections into what we are seeing. For me, the
albatross is no longer the bird of exile, of burden. How difficult would
it be to say out loud, "Our survival is dependent upon the survival
of the albatross?" Saying yes is affirming that "everything has
life of its own and we are all one life," that we are mutually
dependent. We become the Polynesian mariner, guided by star and bird.
Standing and watching, ohhhing and
ahhhing. Kilauea Point is not a quiet place, this promontory, unlike the
nave of a sanctuary filled with silence, is raucous with the call of
birds. We humans, we were the ones with pursed lips, expectant hearts,
raised eyebrows. We were the ones invited in, to stand, gaze, and vigil as
lifeís migration unfolded in front of us. We were the spectators, not
the actors. We were the students, watching and learning.
When I climbed that mast and searched
the open waters, maybe I was looking for a way into a deeper life, the
longer voyage, across windpaths, led by a bird, wild, wise, and patient, a
journey toward a further home, not defined by ground but by the rolling
swell of the sea.
This afternoon, my friend Willi and I
will pull up the main, jib, and mizzen of my sharpie and head out to sea,
past Shakleford Banks, Ft. Macon jetty. What will we find? Iím not
worried. I love the act of gazing, opening the portals of the nostril,
angling the eardrum, sensing the wind on the backside of my head. Like
tuning a guitar, Iíll be ready for what already is. Iím just joining
the procession, the migration of blues, dolphins, and the happy sighting
of a black skimmer returning to the barrier islands.
The Eye of the Albatross is about
birds, but even more it is about how you and I see. How you and I describe
what we have seen and heard without the overlay of what we fear or need.
This is a book that will help us to receive the gift of the wild life, the
life of birds, mammals, and the coursing current of wind and ocean.