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The most famous albatross in the world is dead: shot by the Mariner in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s long, strange  1798 poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” This is a shame, not just because the mariner spends the rest of his life under a curse, but because a dead albatross cannot fly, and flying is what albatrosses do best. Here is an incredible fact: an albatross can fly thousands of miles with scarcely a flap of its wings.

albatross1

To understand how this works, and why it’s so impressive, you need some background albatross knowledge.*

Albatrosses are the largest of all seabirds. The biggest albatross species, the wandering albatross, has an average weight of about 20 lbs (context: a turkey is 17 lbs). Big birds are rarely also good fliers. The nine heaviest bird species (ostrich! penguin!) do not fly at all. But albatrosses need to fly. They live in the Southern Ocean and the North Pacific: inhospitable areas of ferocious winds and scattered scraps of land. If they want to eat, and to feed their chicks, they have to be able to transport themselves across long distances through the air.

The secret to albatross flight lies in the weight-to-wing ratio. An albatross has the longest wingspan of any bird. The average wingspan of a wandering albatross is 10 feet. There are aircrafts not much bigger than that. Furthermore, albatross wings are narrow and pointed, i.e. maximally streamlined.

This is our wandering albatross:

albatross2

Let’s call him Wilbur, after this guy from The Rescuers Down Under, which is my primary albatross association, never mind Coleridge. (N.B. Wilbur’s clumsiness is a standing joke in the film, but that’s because albatrosses are terrible at take-offs and landings. Once they’re airborne, they’re dynamite.)

Wilbur flies by doing something called dynamic soaring, which is as cool as it sounds. In remote, windy places like the Southern Ocean, the air just above the sea snags on the waves and slows down. The air higher up zips along unimpeded.

Wilbur yo-yos up and down between the various wind speeds (that’s the soaring bit). The combination of wind and gravity propels him forward, allowing him to reach speeds of 63 miles per hour (that’s the dynamic bit) with almost no effort on his part. He adjusts the position of his wings so minutely that, to the human eye, they appear perfectly still.

The energy Wilbur uses in this kind of flight is no more than if he were paddling in the sea. The result is that he can remain in the air for weeks at a time. He even sleeps on the wing.

And the faster the winds, the happier he is. In January 1832 Charles Darwin, sailing in the Beagle near Cape Horn off the coast of Chile, ran into a violent storm. As his crew struggled, he spotted an albatross hanging over the ship, unruffled:

Whilst we were heavily labouring, it was curious to see how the Albatross with its widely expanded wings, glided right up the wind,’ he wrote in his diary. Four years later, Darwin reflected that the albatross flies ‘as if the storm was [its] proper sphere.

An albatross can follow a ship for days, through rough weather and fine. Being followed by an albatross was originally thought to be good luck, as if the bird were spreading its wings over the ship in protection. But in a strange contortion of logic, doom-mongering sailors began to see the albatross as a bad omen: it was offering protection because the ship would soon be in need of protection, from storms or strong winds.

The ambivalence of the albatross is at the heart of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” When the mariner shoots the albatross that has been following his ship, his comrades fear the worst:

And I had done a hellish thing,

And it would work ’em woe:

For all averr’d, I had kill’d the Bird

That made the Breeze to blow.

But as the ship continues, apparently without any problem, the sailors change their minds:

Then all averr’d, I had kill’d the Bird

That brought the fog and mist.

‘Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,

That bring the fog and mist.

Things get worse pretty quickly after that. The ship gets stuck in the middle of the ocean, and the mariner’s 200 comrades die of dehydration – though not before they force him to wear the albatross around his neck as punishment for its murder. The bird hangs there until the mariner blesses some water-snakes, at which point it falls off (the moral of the story: you should love ‘all things both great and small’, beautiful birds and slimy snakes alike). But though the mariner no longer bears its literal weight, the albatross turns out to be worth its weight in guilt. The mariner is condemned to wander the world, grabbing strangers’ hands, fixing them with his ‘glittering eye’ and telling them the ‘ghastly tale’ of his wrongdoing.

Before the publication of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” it was unlucky to shoot an albatross – a superstition fiercely held, but only relevant to those sailors or travelers who found themselves in or near the Antarctic. Since the Ancient Mariner, the bird has taken on metaphorical status. Now we can each have our own albatross: whatever psychological burden we carry around with us, whatever we’ve done that we wish we hadn’t.

And if we don’t watch out, our collective psychological albatross may soon overlap with the literal one, as surely as it did for Coleridge’s mariner. Thanks to all kinds of human meddling, the majority of albatross species are now endangered or at risk of becoming so. But there are lots of groups doing good work to save the bird from extinction, so they – and we – may yet be spared.

Perhaps you are keen to compile a playlist of songs essentially or tangentially about albatrosses. Let me start you off with these two:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wUUDeYSj9Cc

This song appeared on Fleetwood Mac’s greatest hits album, The Pious Bird of Good Omen – a phrase taken from a note in the 1817 edition of The Ancient Mariner.

If 1970s British comedy is more your sort of thing than 1960s moody instrumentals, here’s someone else inspired by the albatross-carrying mariner.

* For more albatross knowledge, I recommend Albatross by Tui De Roy, Mark Jones and Julian Fitter. It contains not only buckets of information, but also as many albatross pictures as your albatross-loving heart could desire.

 [Images via Wikimedia Commons]

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