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Mission Log: July 5, 2006
March of the Albatross - In the Remotest Place on Earth, Love Finds the Way

Paulo Maurin
University of Hawai'i

At a first glance, anyone would be hard-pressed to find any similarities between the Laysan Albatross and the Emperor Penguin.  Hawai`i versus Antarctica.  The first one nests in warm tropical islands, while the second one incubates the eggs in the coldest place on Earth.  Albatross spend much of their lives on air, even sleeping mid-air, while penguins cannot even fly.  To raise the chicks and mate, one finds sand, while the other needs ice.  And these two magnificent birds do not ever meet.

Beach with Albatross
Another day at the beach for a couple of Laysan Albatross.(Photo: Paulo Maurin)
But both share a story.  It’s a story of love.  It’s a story of survival.  And is a story of the grave threats both face.  Although albatrosses are ill-equipped for walking, they perform annual marches in the skies.  Both penguins and albatross share a diet of fish.  Both find remote places to raise their young.  Both of them place their eggs on the surface.  And this surface needs to be far from civilization.  While these penguins are called Emperor, the Laysan Albatross are equally majestic.  With a wingspan of eight feet, their domain rivals in size the vast expanses that Roman Caesars ruled over.

Albatross Meal Time
A parent feeds a hungry albatross chick in Kure Atoll.(Photo: Claire Johnson/NOAA)
Mating and raising a young Laysan Albatross chick is a perilous endeavor in which, just like the Emperor Penguin, both parents alternate in Magellan-like voyages to find their place of birth.  The Laysan Albatross found in the Hawaiian atolls regularly fly as far as thousands of miles to the coasts of Alaska and California to feed.  When caring for a chick, parents forage for food, and then return to the site where the chick hungrily awaits. The other parent has to then search for food.  As it is true with the Emperor Penguin, if either parent dies, so does the chick, as a single parent cannot properly provide for the young one.  And Laysan Albatross are dedicated ones, as they mate for life.

Both chicks, one fuzzy and one chubby, start practicing for their own march a few months after hatching.  The penguin chicks start with small, clumsy walks around their area, and they end up flat on the ground many times.  As the albatross chicks near fledging, they start to energetically flap their wings into the air, converting the fat reserves on their chest into powerful muscles that will power their wings over their long migration.  They will lift themselves momentarily, only to return back to the ground in a decisively un-royal manner.  But each successive attempt brings added mastery of self-propulsion for both.  And after many small walks and mini-flights, one day they decide to embark in a great voyage, one that will take them to far places.  For once penguins and albatross leave their place of birth, they won’t return for several years.  Both have site-fidelity, eventually coming back to their place of birth, in an annual ritual of love that produces life.

Plastics Recovered
Plastic items found inside a dead albatross chick.(Photo: Paulo Maurin)
But love faces great obstacles, with common threats to both animals.  Overfishing of the world’s oceans to feed us is making them tragic casualties and their food sources dwindle.  And there are other, even more sinister, threats to their life.  Two global threats, which we seem incapable of stopping.  Both of these threats come from the same source deep within the earth: petroleum.  The burning of fossil fuels is a culprit in climate change which, among other challenges, is melting the ice in the South Pole that is critical to the Emperor Penguin’s survival. And plastics, another end product of petroleum, are threatening the albatross at an equal magnitude, as they ingest it in a myriad of forms floating adrift in the ocean, condemning many of them to a painful death.

And in a somberly real way, we are indeed unable to stop either one of these threats now try as we might.  Even if we give up using fossil fuels tomorrow, the effects of their burning would still be felt for decades.  If we stopped using plastics today, the loose pieces would litter the ocean for many, many years to come.  While on Green Island at Kure Atoll, we had a first-hand experience of how plastics are killing the Laysan Albatross.  A chick that was alive during our first morning walk was found dead upon our midday return.  When we examined it, we found its stomach full of plastics, one of which pierced the stomach and caused it to die.  The bolus of every single albatross on Kure contains plastics, without exception.  There are ten thousand chicks on this island alone.  Maybe the albatross, like their far-removed relatives on Antarctica, need their own documentary movie for us to become aware of their plight, and their own march.

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