Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Apple #698: Albatross

I heard someone on the radio say that albatrosses mate for life.  Which, it occurred to me, means that an albatross is saddled with another albatross for life.

Ba-dum ching.

Seriously, folks.  I did want to know more about these not-mythological birds in general, and I also wondered where that idea of an albatross as a terrible thing you're stuck with all your life came from.  Did it originate with old Samuel T., or was it in the lore before he wrote it down in his Rime?

But first, of course, this:


  • Yes, it seems that the idea of an albatross as a burden one can't get rid of originated with the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
  • Here's the deal.  When the albatross first shows up, following the ship, the crew take it as a good omen.  And good things seem to happen while the albatross is with them.
At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.

It ate the food it ne'er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!

And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner's hollo!

In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white Moon-shine.
  • Then the wedding guest asks the Mariner, well, if that was all so good, why the long face?  And the Mariner says: 
With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.

Engraving by The King of Engravings, Gustav Doré
(Image hosted by the University of Adelaide)

  • No good comes of this, of course. The wind drops, the sun gets hotter than blazes, and everyone says it's the Mariner's fault.
And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work 'em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!
  • Then you get the most famous and best-est lines:
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea. 
  • It gets even worse.  They have no water to drink so they finally have to bite their arms to moisten their mouths with their own blood.  Then DEATH shows up and the whole crew, one after another, drops dead.  Plunk, plunk, plunk.
Four times fifty living men,
(And I heard nor sigh nor groan)
With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,
They dropped down one by one.
  • The Mariner, however, does not die.  Terrible as it is floating around on this ship full of dead guys, he does not die.
  • But then he sees some water snakes, and he thinks they look beautiful, their colors and how they swim across the water.  Delighted by their beauty, 
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.

The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.
  • Later, he has a vision in which he hears two voices talking about him.  One of them says, basically, "Is this the one?" and the other one says, "Yeah, this is the jerk who shot the 'harmless albatross.'"  They say he's done penance for this deed, but he's got more penance still to do.  More bad things happen on his ship, which winds up sinking, and he asks to be forgiven for his sin of killing the albatross, but basically he's condemned to tell his story for the rest of his life.


  • Really, it isn't the albatross itself that is hanging around the Mariner's neck.  It is his sin of killing the bird that haunts him. 
  • But that's not how we remember it.  We think of it as the albatross itself that is the burden one cannot shake.
  • That's very unfair to the bird.  And very much not in keeping with the moral of the poem:
Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all. 
  • The Mariner abjures us not to kill or curse beasts but to love them, and to love human kind as well. 
  • So, going around essentially using the name of "albatross" as an insult is not quite in keeping with the spirit of the poem.  Maybe that's why the Mariner has to keep telling his dag-goned tale.  Because we refuse to get it right.  We keep blaming the albatross.


With the Mariner's injunction in mind, what are some useful things to know about the bird itself?

  • Albatrosses have the longest wingspan of any bird: up to 11 feet.
  • Think about that for a minute.  Their wingspan is as long as two men are tall.

This kind of gives you some idea of the size of an albatross' wingspan.
(Photo from Wallpaper Abyss)

Or this photo might give you an even better indication of the bird's overall size.  They are not small.
(Photo from zoochat)

  • With that huge wingspan, they can glide for hours without moving their wings once.  
  • Since they're gliding, and they don't have to flap their enormous wings, they can glide and glide and glide for hours without landing to take a rest.
  • This type of gliding has a specific name: dynamic soaring.  If you want to know the physics involved, check out this article from IEEE.  Yes, aerospace engineers are studying the albatross.
  • Researchers speculate that they fly while sleeping.  Yes, with their eyes closed.
  • They drink salt water.
  • They can do this because they have a special gland that filters out the extra salt in their blood, and then the salt is excreted through some tubes in the bill. 
  • They also have a powerful sense of smell.  This is what guides them to food sources that can be swimming up ahead for hundreds or thousands of miles.
  • They prefer the ocean and stay at sea for years at a time.  About 5 months after they are hatched, they spend the first five to ten years of their life at sea, without ever coming to land.
  • The main reason they do land is to find a mate, do the deed, lay one egg, and the pair take turns looking after it until it hatches.  Once the chick is old enough to fly, they all take off and don't see land again for maybe as long as a decade.
  • Cornell, which is where all the bird specialists are, hesitate to say that albatrosses mate for life.  They go only as far as to say they "form very long-lasting pair bonds." 

A pair of albatrosses looking after their chick.
(Photo from Wallpaper Abyss)

Albatross in flight
(Photo from RSPB.org.uk, an organization working to conserve the albatross. Check out their site to find out how you can help.)

  • There are actually 22 species of albatross.  All are threatened, some are endangered, some are critically endangered. 
  • Most live in the Southern Hemisphere, around Antarctica, Australia, South America, and South Africa.
  • 3 species live in the North Pacific, around Japan, Hawaii, Alaska, and California.
  • Albatrosses eat squid, crabs, shrimp, krill and fish, but researchers recently discovered they also eat another kind of animal.
  • There are these bizarre-looking gigantic fish called ocean sunfishes.  They get to be over 3 meters long and they weigh one or two tons.  They hang around on the ocean's surface, eating whatever wanders by.

This, by the way, is an ocean sunfish. Weird-looking thing, isn't it?  This one lives in an oceanarium in Denmark.
(Photo from Advanced Aquarist)

  • But unfortunately they get parasites. Crustaceans that latch onto the fish's body and do their icky parasitic thing.
  • A few years ago, a bunch of Japanese researchers observed a school of sunfish all headed in the same direction.  And they figured out they were following the path of an albatross flying above it.  They couldn't figure out what for.  
  • Then the albatross flew down and picked a crustacean off one of the fish.  While the albatross was bobbing in the water, enjoying its crunchy lunch, other fish swam up next to the albatross and sort of showed off its side, as if to say, "Here's another one; eat this one."
  • Researchers hesitate to say that this is a thing lots of albatrosses do on a regular basis -- they haven't seen enough evidence of many albatrosses doing this in many places at many times -- but they are intrigued enough to wonder if this is a habitual thing, and if the albatross might be helping out other fish in similar ways.
  • For these sunfish, having an albatross hanging around seems to be definitely a good thing.
If you want to see albatrosses live & in the flesh, Cornell's Lab of Ornithology has an albatross cam.  It's not up at the moment, but they say it will be soon, when the mating season starts.  Check Cornell's page that lists all their bird cams.

I've saved the best for last.  How could anybody shoot anything this fuzzy?
(Photo from Cutest Paw)



Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, (reproduced at Poetry Foundation)
National Geographic, Albatross
Cornell Lab of Ornithology, FAQ: Bird Cams - Laysan Albatross
Darren Nash, Scientific American Blog, Tetrapod Zoology, A symbiotic relationship between sunfishes and . . . albatrosses? Say what? February 1, 2012

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate all your post on this blog. How would we go about getting an article submitted on here to add to the collection? We cover bird topics but mostly bats and I noticed you didn't have anything in this category.



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