Saturday, March 24, 2012


Noon Position: 43 19' S, 48 22' E, SOG 6.5, COG 090, Day's Run 129nm.
Before I started on this trip, my mental image of the pervasiveness of
life in these waters was based on my experiences crossing temperate and
tropical oceans. I expected occasional bursts of bird life, or visits
from whales or dolphins, depending on proximity to currents and land,
but I was not at all expecting the near constant airborne companionship
that I have experienced since entering the 30s on my way to Valparaiso.
Since rounding Cape Horn, I can think of perhaps 4 or 5 days in which
there were no birds at all, if that many. Every other day has been
accompanied by at least a few stormy petrels pitter-pattering away at
the water with their feet. A few days have been overwhelming - South of
Good Hope I had 36 hours where I was surrounded from dawn til dusk by a
flock of perhaps 80 or 100 fairy prions, which are the prettiest birds
to grace these waters. A small petrel, just a bit bigger than the
stormy petrels, they have very pale grey and baby blue plumage, with a
dramatic dark M swooping across their backs from wing tip to wing tip,
dipping towards the tail as it crosses their bodies. Like the stormy
petrels, they mystify me with their (lack) of eating habits - constantly
skimming a foot along a wave or scurrying across a face, with just the
tips of their little feet in the water, the only time I've seen one land
was in a failed attempt to digest a fishing lure that was the same size
as the bird. According to my bird book both they and the little stormy
petrels feed by plucking up food from the water with their feet, but
I've never seen them either land to eat it or perform the foot-mouth
transfer. Shearwaters accompany me as well, with the same group often
following the boat for 3 or 4 days. The shearwaters are very fond of
whatever garbage I throw overboard, from onion peels to scrambled eggs
to grapefruit rinds, although the item that they have seemed most
excited about was the white metal lid of a jar which floated for a few
seconds until a bird flipped it over with a hungry peck. In the last
week I've had a fairly constant entourage of albatrosses, at least a few
of which I can recognize from day to day. They range in size from the
massive wandering albatrosses, weighing 20-30 lbs with an 8-10 foot wing
span, down tho the black browed and grey headed albatrosses, more on the
size of an abnormally large (or normally sized Chilean) seagull. The
albatrosses are a constant source of amusement - they're incredibly
graceful in the air, soaring effortlessly up and downwind. Occasionally
I make a game of trying to catch one flapping its wings, a game that I
only rarely win. But for all their size and obvious power, they
constantly seem to have slightly silly expressions on their faces, which
makes the occasions when one tries to scratch an itch with a foot
mid-flight or peers back under it's wing while swooping overhead
slightly absurd. There's one brown albatross with a white head, a
medium-sized bird, that's been with us for about a week now, and is
unfortunately the most ludicrous looking creature I've laid eyes on
yet. From a distance the combination of white head and pale beak make
it look like the bird is burdened with a tremendous schnoz, and when he
deigns to pass closer, this unflattering image is merely replaced by a
visage that reminds me of nothing so much as a vaguely befuddled,
slightly senile old man, peering out at the world. But the real joy of
the albatrosses comes when they land or take off. Coming in for a
landing, the huge wandering albatrosses fly upwind and dangle their feet
like a set of goofy landing gear, bodies upright, wings stretched wide,
as they slowly drift in to the surface with their necks thrust forward.
Sometimes they pause like this, awkwardly hung between sky and sea, to
wait for a wave to pass under them , before finally plopping down feet
first and folding their wings in a very slow and dignified manner, as if
to deny the spectacle that they just created. Take-off is almost worse
- wings spread, head thrust forward, they trundle up a wave, running
furiously with their swinging paddle-feet, until they gain the speed
need to take to the sky. Its good that they're so graceful once aloft,
for otherwise they would be an exceedingly popular subject of YouTube
videos. The last time I had fishing lines out one Albatross came in for
the kill, determined to gobble the delicious looking green squid I was
trailing, only to be flabbergasted when it kept moving, instead of
placidly remaining stationary as he landed to lunch. I looked aft and
saw the bird determinedly running along the surface of the water after
the boat, wings half spread for balance, swinging his head from side to
side and squawking indignantly. After about 3 albatross lengths he
suddenly gave up, folded his wings, and placidly sat contemplating the
sea, as if that was the goal the entire time. I hope that someone,
somewhere has put some good videos of albatrosses taking off and landing
on YouTube - all my attempts so far have been thwarted by lack of zoom,
unwilling subjects, and intervening waves.


  1. Wow! Eric you have all of us running to youtube today. Thanks for writing this wonderful blog about the birds and giving us a peek at your world.

    Here are my best wandering albatross youtube finds.
    For take off and landing:

    For the beauty of the wondering albatross in flight over open waters(enhanced with hauntingly and appropriate music):

    And here is a fairy prion that lands among albatrosses. This one isn't great of the fairy prion, but does show the surprisingly different sizes of these ocean birds:

    In fact it seems to be the only youtube video starring a fairy videographers you have a niche to fill!

  2. Thanks, Eric, for such thoughtful writing. I'm wondering one thing -- stories
    speak of "sailors" seeing visions of things, especially other sailboats. Has
    that happened to you?
    Stay safe!