How to look an albatross in the eye (Part 1)

5 minutes before my first proper job interview (by which I mean post-university) I found myself in a waiting room in Kensington, staring at a picture on the wall. The picture showed black-browed albatrosses in flight. I thought them to be the most beautiful birds I had ever seen, and promised myself that one day I’d look them directly in the eye. The interview went well and I got the job.  The job was as a Fisheries Observer in the North Atlantic, but that is another story. Unknowingly however, I had started down a path which led us to move to the Falklands many years later – you can read our earlier posts to find out more on that.

It was about a year later that I attended another interview, again in London but this time in Westminster, once again I was lucky and got the job but this time I was set to make good on my promise as the new job was as a seabird observer for the Falkland Islands Government. The time had come to look my albatross in the eye!

The Southern Ocean - not known for clement weather!

The Southern Ocean – not known for clement weather!

My new job involved long periods spent at sea, bumping around the Southern Ocean on what felt like a very small longliner – a fishing boat which casts lines of hooks several kilometres long, hundreds of metres deep, to catch valuable Toothfish. The trouble with this type of fishing was that the baited hooks proved irresistible to foraging seabirds who dived down and swallowed the baits, only to be dragged to their death. The job involved building on the work which had already been done to come up with a set of mitigation measures  to reduce this incidental mortality. The Falklands longline fishery now boasts an almost zero incidental mortality rate. My part in that was very very small but I was proud to have been involved, and I was privileged to be able to look the albatrosses in the eye.

My office, my suit - a survival suit!

My office, my suit – a survival suit!

We studied those that had been died, so at least their death wasn't a total waste.

We studied those that had been killed, so at least their death wasn’t a total waste.

It was 10 years later when I returned to live in the Falklands. In the interim I’d met Zoe, my wife and we’d had 3 children, Oli, Rosie and Jack. I’d passed through the Falklands on numerous occasions in that 10 years, but only for brief visits on the way to South Georgia, or on the way back from Antarctica.

Ross in the Ross Sea - Antarctica

Ross in the Ross Sea – Antarctica

When we returned as a family I was working again as an observer but this time on trawlers. Seabirds also fall foul of this fishery because they collide with trawl warps which are towed by the vessel. The warps can break the seabird’s wings, or drag them underwater to drown. As with longlining there are some mitigation measures which have been put in place to reduce these moralities, but although seabird deaths have been reduced dramatically the problem is not solved. Work continues to find new ways to reduce incidental mortality in the trawl fishery.

landing the net on rough days is dangerous - for men and seabirds alike.

landing the net on rough days is dangerous – for men and seabirds alike.

In all of that time I had grown to know albatrosses well, and spent many days at sea in their company. But there was one place which I had not been, and longed to visit; Steeple Jason.

Steeple Jason has the largest breeding population of black-browed albatrosses in the Falkland Islands, in fact it is the largest albatross colony (of any species) in the world! But it is not an easy place to get to, and few people have the privilege of visiting. So you might imagine my excitement when back in November I had the chance to join Falklands Conservation in a two-week trip to Steeple Jason to help them in their field work; it was almost like winning the lottery.

The first leg of the journey was by air, with FIGAS in a small Islander aircraft. It was a beautiful day and as we headed over the West and to the outer islands, with Saunders below us and Carcass up in front, we could see the Jason Island group stretching up into the North West. Steeple Jason was lost to us over the horizon, but the sea looked reassuringly, and uncharacteristically calm. We landed on Carcass Island where we joined the yacht Condor to take us the remaining 6 hour leg by sea. This is the main reason that people rarely visit Steeple Jason; it is very expensive and difficult to get there!

Steeple Jason

Steeple Jason from the yacht Condor.

Steeple Jason looked beautiful from the sea, but I was very keen to get ashore. Mike, the skipper of the Condor, lowered the zodiac and Shane (his son) helped us load all of our field equipment, provisions and personal gear into the tiny boat. We motored into a small rocky gulch in front of the field station (actually a very nice house) where we landed the gear. Mike and Shane had a few jobs to do but after a short time headed back out to the Condor to sail back to Carcass before darkness fell. This left the three of us Sarah, Janet and I alone on the Island, alone except for about half a million albatrosses penguins and sea lions!

Read How to look an albatross in the eye (Part 2)

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One thought on “How to look an albatross in the eye (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: The Elephant Who Came To Tea | Bearing South

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