The albatross is one of nature's true wonders. These seabirds can soar for hours, riding on the wind, ranging for thousands of miles over open ocean. The wandering albatross, the largest seabird in the world, remains at sea for years before returning to land to nest. For centuries, sailors considered these birds sacrosanct; to kill an albatross was to court disaster.
A cruel irony, then, that oceangoing fishermen are now responsible for drastic declines in 17 different albatross species, driving some to the brink of extinction. The cause of the birds' plight and the efforts to save them are a microcosm of the processes of species extinction and their possible salvation.
In order to harvest large numbers of fish, ships extend longlines for up to 80 miles behind their vessels. To these, they attach thousands of baited hooks. Longline fleets set an estimated one billion of these hooks annually. Albatross and other seabirds, attracted by the bait, swallow the hooks and are dragged beneath the waves to drown. The toll is 300,000 seabirds a year. In the early '90s, ornithologist Nigel Brothers, seeking to find the cause of the decline in the Australian albatross population, signed aboard a longline fishing boat and documented firsthand the birds becoming caught on the hooks.
The problem is growing. In 1994, one third of all albatross species were threatened. A scant six years later, the number had grown to two thirds. On South Georgia I see roughly half the number of albatross that I saw there 30 years ago.
Alerted to this situation, a number of conservation groups, including the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds, formed BirdLife International, an organization dedicated to raising public awareness of the problem and implementing solutions, which include changing longlining methods and working with the UN to eliminate pirate fleets (ships that use current loopholes in international law to circumvent fishing regulations).
Such efforts require funding. Passengers on our Antarctica and South Georgia expeditions have greatly contributed to this cause. Every day during an expedition, I paint a watercolor depicting something of our travels, wildlife or landscapes, and post these for sale as mementos of our journey. For each voyage I also create a chart showing our route, illustrated with seabirds and other wildlife of the region. On our last night aboard ship, these charts go to the highest bidder in spirited auctions. The money raised goes to the Royal Society as well as Falkland Islands and South Georgia conservation efforts. To date, a total of $99,485 has been raised for these projects, of which $59,100 has been forwarded to the "Save the Albatross Campaign."
I am happy to report that BirdLife has met with some success in its campaign. The decline in albatross populations has slowed, and I'm very hopeful that concerted efforts will halt the decline altogether. Of course, as with all such environmental struggles, a good beginning is still only a beginning. We have a tremendous amount of work yet to do.
For more information on BirdLife International and the Save the Albatross campaign, visit their website: www.birdlife.net.