Tofino Birding: Albatross - Spirits of the Wind and Sea
by George Bradd, Tofino
Far out of sight of land, offshore from Tofino is a world of birds
few of us have imagined could exist. The open ocean is the domain of
the Albatross, the ultimate pelagic bird that flies with grace and
ease through storms so fierce that sailors say their prayers when caught
at sea in such weather. Accounts of sailors, who while wondering whether
their ship was going down, tell of Albatross flying with ease through
gale force winds.
Long distance flights powered by wind make them world travellers.
A fifty year old Albatross will have flown a minimum of 3.7 million
Two Albatross species can be found offshore of Tofino, the Black-footed
and the Laysan Albatross. These birds are probably nesting in the
Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Long narrow wings make the perfect gliding
machine with a ratio of wingspan to wing width of 18 to 1, and a wing
lift drag ratio of 40 to 1 in the Wandering Albatross. Wingspans vary
from 7 to 11 feet. To enable long hours of flight, their wings lock
at the shoulder and elbow. They fly working with the wind and gravity.
Their bones are lightweight, with the skeleton composing only 13% of
their body weight. Calm weather strands them on the surface of the
sea; they need wind to fly.
The pair bonding of Albatross is very strong; a bird that has lost
its mate will sometimes wait on the nest for two months for the return
of its partner. Starvation eventually forces it off the nest. An
Albatross who has lost its mate will take 4 or 5 years to form a new
Their long reproductive cycle constitutes a life pattern closer to
humans than any other animal. The oldest living wild bird was over
60 years and some scientists believe they may live until 100 years.
Some species don’t reach breeding age until 13 years. They lay
a single egg and incubate it more than two months, with the male taking
turns incubating. Parents take turns making long distance flights for
food and spend only 5 to 10 days together in the entire breeding season
of 12 months.
Many Albatross species are in now in a steep decline. Six of the
21 species of Albatross, “have shown an alarming decline” in
just one year.
Historically the Japanese feather collectors and egg collectors were
the greatest threat to nesting birds. The Japanese completely wiped
out whole colonies of nesting birds and even continued sneaking onto
Midway Island in Hawaii until 1915 in order to poach Albatross. The
us government had declared the island a refuge in 1909. Commercial
guano operations were used as a front for killing birds in some areas.
Now most nesting islands are protected and the greatest danger comes
from long line fishing boats.
Every year an estimated 200 million hooks are set by long liners
off the coast of Canada and the us. Longliner fishing boats are killing
100,000 Albatross every year. A bird with such a low reproductive
rate cannot withstand such mortality rates. Recently I heard a report
of a dead Albatross found on the rocks at Cox Bay in Tofino. It makes
me wonder how many other dead ones are washed up on isolated beaches
and not found by people.
I have spoken to fisherman in our area that admitted that they have
killed Albatross while fishing for Black Cod.
Mortality can be reduced by over 90% using paired streamers and weighted
lines. The streamers come off a line towed from the roof of the bait
station and scare the birds until the fishing line has dropped too
deep for the birds to get the bait on the hook. Pirate vessels doing
long line fishing do not conform to regulations and account for the
majority of the dead birds.
All boaters in Canada can help Albatross by not throwing any plastics
in the sea while fishing. Bring your garbage back to shore and dispose
of it. Most young albatross have plastics in their stomachs. You
can tell where chicks died last year by the colourful piles of plastics
that mark their gravesites on nesting beaches.
The young birds probably absorb toxic chemicals and plastics may
starve or dehydrate weak chicks in the nest. Cigarette lighters will
be swallowed while floating because they resemble natural foods. Abandoned
drift nets also tangle Albatross and they eat pieces of broken nets
that have deteriorated and washed up. Banning drift nets has benefited
Albatross by reducing their entanglements and allowing more squid and
dolphins to survive. Albatross will sometimes accompany dolphins and
catch the squid surfacing to escape the dolphins.
An attitude of respect for one of the world’s largest birds will
help them to survive their present downward spiral. Only we as people
can make the decision to preserve these gentle giants of the air. We
call them “gooney birds” because they lack fear of people.
If we can’t save the Albatross how much ability do we have to
survive as a species ourselves?
Next time you are huddled inside during a wind lashed stormy night
in Tofino, remember there are still an entire race of living beings
outside keeping watch on sailors at sea. The Albatross are the spirits
of the wind and the sea.
George Bradd operates Just Birding, a Tofino birdwatching company.
Visit his website at www.justbirding.com
Tofino bird watching guide George Bradd writes about Albatross in Tofino in this article for Tofino Time magazine.