The Royal Albatross

Dunedin, the second largest city in New Zealand’s South Island, was settled 160 years ago. Located on Otago Harbor, it is a tidy little town with lots of narrow winding roads. It is also where, at Taiaroa Head, you will find the breeding ground of the Royal albatross. One of those narrow roads winds along the coast to the breeding ground itself.

Once a year the albatrosses come to Taiaroa Head to mate. They lay their eggs—one per couple—on a hillside overlooking the ocean. One bird sits on the egg while the other feeds. They alternate until the egg hatches and a fledgling emerges. Sitting sometimes beneath its mother, sometimes its father, the chick flourishes. At three months it weighs 13 kilograms, 7 kilograms more than its parents. At six months the party is over. The parents take off for Antarctica, not together, but individually. They spend a year circling the southern ocean, typically spending 80% of their lives with their 10ft wingspan outstretched against an updraft. When it is time to feed, they land on the water and hunt for squid. This they do completely alone. After a year they return to Taiaroa Head and go through the entire cycle all over again, sometimes with the same mate, most of the time not.

Ernest Shackleton encountered one of these creatures soon after he set out on 24 April 1916 from Elephant Island. He sailed with a crew of five to find help on South Georgia Island, leaving the rest of his crew behind to await rescue or death. About three days out he awoke to a ferocious gale with high winds nudging the waves to gigantic heights. It was a freezing inferno. Ice began to form along the gunwales of his dory. The frozen seawater was turning the boat into a crystalline coffin slowly lowering itself into a watery grave. He and his men were chipping away frantically at the ice when suddenly, out of nowhere, a lone Royal albatross swooped down to within 20 feet of the tiny boat, hovered a few moments and then sailed up to over 100 feet. This it did for several minutes, literally playing with a boat that was fighting for its life. The albatross brought them luck. They made it to the South Georgia coast ten days later.

The albatross was made for that violent world. Shackleton and his men were the intruders. I like to think that the albatross had come to Shackleton from Taiaroa Head. I also like to think that Taiaroa was the home of the albatross that Coleridge wrote about in his Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Maybe not, but I doubt I’ll change my mind.

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