Five Years at Sea

While in Tonga we planned a trip with my grandparents spanning the length of February. We would tour the South Island, going to eleven Air BnBs, spending 2-4 nights in each: Christchurch February 1-3, Twizel 3-6, Dunedin 6-8, Papatowai 8-10, Stuart Island 10-14, Te Anau 14-18, Kinloch 18-22, Whataroa 22-25, Punakaiki 25-27, Arthur’s Pass February 27 – March 2, Christchurch March 2-3.

On the 7th of February at Otago Peninsula Kim, Mark, Anson, Peter (my grandfather), and I went to see the southern royal albatross at the tip of the peninsula. The 20-minute drive flew by and soon we were at the Royal Albatross center. Booking our tour was a simple matter, and fifteen minutes later we started it. The tour leader led us into a side room, and we proceeded to watch a video about the Southern Royal Albatross. As the third largest bird it uses a triple folding wing to compact their 10-foot wingspan more tightly. They lay a single egg in November/December that hatches in February. The adults will take turns sitting on the nest while the other one feeds. Usually they will be gone for three to seven days but occasionally take as long as twenty-five. The eggs hatch in February and the chicks fledge in October. At seven months old the chick outweighs the adult by two kg (eleven versus nine). The juveniles fly east to the southern tip of South America where they gorge on the rich sea life and never touch land. They use glands located above their eyes to filter salt out of their blood stream, where it drips down the bill like a tear, creating the image of a lonely, sorrowful bird. Five years later they fly east over the Southern Ocean and circumnavigate the world before returning to their breeding colony. They court for up to three years before finding a lifelong mate and reproducing every other year.

On the way up to the viewing blind, the young Brazilian tour leader told us the history of the military presence on Otago Peninsula and how the military transformed the point into an ideal nesting ground. In the late 1800s a Russian war ship with more cannon than New Zealand, came for provisions. This supposedly unintended show of force made New Zealand aware of how weak its military was. They installed three disappearing guns, one of which is still at this point. Building the tunnels and moving the gun to the top of the hill meant clearing the trees and flattening hillocks. Knee high grass sprouted up, making a perfect place for nesting albatross. In 1937 the first successful hatching occurred. The egg and chick was watched over by a pair of soldiers to prevent the egg being stolen for food. From one pair of birds the colony now has over 50 albatrosses.
Finally reaching the blind we got our first glimpse of the albatross! They look like large seagulls with a longer curved bill and a smug gleam in their eyes. The closest nest was sixty feet away and three others were visible. Several times the parent stood up and you could see the small, fluffy chick peeking out between the parent’s legs.

In response to Mark’s question about the conservation program, the guide explained how rangers banded the legs with plastic rings, similar to name tags, and kept a close eye on the egg and chick, weighing them every week. Sprinklers were installed to wet the albatross on hot days. If a partner was gone for more than two weeks, the egg would be switched with a fake egg in case the albatross decided to leave and ease its hunger. The chick would be force fed after 1 week of no food and the adult would also be force fed at 15 days. If the feeding albatross did not return before twenty-five days passed, it was presumed dead and the chick/egg would be taken away so the second albatross could feed. Fences were made to keep mammals and blue penguins out, and other birds were not allowed to nest. Is this ethical? The southern royal albatross is by no means an endangered bird. There are 25,000 on sub artic tussock grasslands and the 60 pairs on New Zealand mainland make up less than 1% of the population. The fences block off habitat for the little blue penguin and the red-billed gull whose numbers are rapidly falling. Should so much effort be used to “help” these albatrosses in potentially traumatic ways?

Our half hour of viewing was soon up and we continued on to tour the old military base. It was made in the early 20th century and had a rare disappearing cannon that used the power of the recoil to disappear back into its hole. A lookout station gave the position of ships so the cannon crew could aim, pop up, fire, and go back down before the enemy could see it. The base completed our tour and we moseyed back down to the car.


2 thoughts on “Five Years at Sea

  1. That’s a great story Devon, and very informative. Sounds like you’re all traveling in style, quite a contrast ing image to a previous post of all that camping equipment your family purchased. … or am I missing something? I’m assuming that Nana and Papa are having a blast. At least I hope so and that all are. For over two years, on an annual basis, an albatross would visit Point Arena, Mendocino County. It would generally appear around the same time frame every year… in the cove protected waters near the pier… and stay for about the same length of time. I can’t remember, but it would usually be in residence for a considerable time (as in months) and was people friendly. Folks travelled from all over to catch a glimpse. He was quite celebrated in the community. I haven’t heard of his or her appearance in a few years. But I did get to see it once, as it rested in the water. And my reaction was as yours in terms of the description. But also, having seen an albatross in flight (while in Samoa), it was hard to understand how the resting albatross, that looked like a large Seagull, could have such a large presence in the sky. Your explanation helped me to understand how that could be. Your post here is reminiscent of the posts that Anson did when you folks last had an extended stay in Northern India. (at least I remember something about a fort.) I really enjoy reading your posts and all of your family’s posts. Please continue. I look forward to reading more of your adventures / experiences, and certainly hoping that it will one day include a long slide presentation or many with detailed commentary when you all return. You’ll have to let me know, so that I can travel to hear / see the presentation. Hope all goes as planned in the remaining time you have in NZ, and for all your future explorations. Thank You. md


  2. I meant for over two decades [not 2 years], Al, the Laysan Albatross, as he was known, would appear annually in Point Arena. or so I think that’s the story. I can’t remember things as well as I used to. And, I meant by reminiscent to Anson’s posts from Himachal during your family’s last sabbatical, that there was some connection to essays for school. Your essay has a similar feel, but I don’t suppose that what you write has anything to do with your formal education, does it? [no need to answer.] md


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