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are to say the least, remote. And yet the scientists who have the
dispiriting task of watching the Wanderers’ breeding rate decline
toward extinction, are stubbornly refusing to give up on them
entirely. Dr Rachael Alderman, the Hobart-based ecologist who
leads the monitoring programme, is continuing to come up
with ideas that may, or may not, offer some glimmer of hope
for the future.
Dr Alderman explained that there is now little to no
recruitment to the tiny breeding population on Macquarie Island.
The chicks that do survive to adulthood are not returning to their
natal island to breed, and she has a theory that may explain
“ We are now down to such a low number,” she says, “ that
even if the chicks do come back to their birthplace and do a
lap around the island (they find) there’s no one there. However,
on some of the other sub-Antarctic islands in New Zealand’s
Auckland Archipelago, there are large populations of a closely
related species, the Gibson’s Albatross. They are different but
I have some reason to think that they can and do interbreed.
“ We know that the urge to return to the island of their birth
is very, very strong but so too is the urge to breed. They might
be going to one of the other breeding grounds, in the French
or South African sub-Antarctic islands or they may be birds
genuinely not surviving.”
Dr Alderman says the male and female Wanderers tend to
forage in separate waters and unfortunately, the females tend
to focus on areas where longline fishing is still prevalent. So it
is generally the female Wanderers that are hooked and drowned
“On Macquarie Island,” she says, “we have seen these awful
circumstances where for several years the males come home to
their nest sites and wait and wait and wait for their mate who
never returns. During the mating and egg-lay period which can
go on for a couple of months, they sit on their empty nests and
keep watch. They don’t starve on the nest. They go off to forage
and come back.
“But their life-long pair bond is so strong that they wait in
vain for their mates for years.
“Even if they eventually do give-up and look around for another
mate, there is no pool of young females available on Macquarie
Island. The males would re-mate if they could but there is no
longer any opportunity to do that.”
Death by a Million Hooks
I saw my first Wandering Albatross in the Tasman
Sea some 40 years ago. The experience has
haunted me ever since and will no doubt remain
vivid in my mind’s eye until the day I die. That
enormous creature, a cock bird perhaps 50 years
old, pure snowy white with subtle grey on the
leading edges of its folded wings, was sitting on
the deep green surface of the sea in what was
plainly a state of profound distress.
As I drew closer I could see why. Streaming from
its great pink bill was a three metre length of
heavy gauge fishing line and embedded in the
bill was a barbed J-shaped stainless steel hook
of prodigious size.
In the course of my long life as a journalist I have seen a great many deeply
distressing things but at no time have I ever been so deeply affected as I was on that
day by the sight of that noble bird doomed to die in the most hideous and barbarous
way. I had powerful pliers ready in the cockpit. I imagined that, if only I could come
alongside, reach out, cut the wretched hook, I might be able to save him.
And yet the closer I came the swifter his huge webbed feet propelled him away until
at last he turned into the prevailing breeze, spread his incredibly long and slender
wings and lifted clear of the sea, soaring just above the surface with the remains of
the line trailing over the swell. He circled once and seemed to fix me with his big,
black, unblinking eye.
There are some things in life that are too painful to watch and this was one of them.
My salty tears made him an almost ghostly apparition and then he was gone. The
words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge came home to haunt me and I was the one left
alone, alone, all, all alone on a wide, wide sea, with my soul forever in agony.
Adult Wandering Albatrosses have the longest wings in nature
and weigh up to 12kg – more than twice the weight of the largest
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