By Darren Grover
Head of Living Ecosystems, WWF-Australia
The journey out to Albatross Island was an interesting one. Our team of four left from a sheltered location in Tasmania on a grey and overcast day. It was drizzling with light rain. Once we were out in the open sea, it became as rough as it could get for people to be out there.
There was no beach or jetty to dock at on arrival, just rugged rocks that we had to jump over with all our gear. The island is wild and there are no trees, apart from some stunted shrubs blanketed in beautiful pink vegetation.
The only shelter we had was in the caves, which retained a bit of warmth. There’s no other place on the island where you can pitch a tent or live with any degree of comfort because it’s too wild and windy. At night, it’s hard to fall asleep because the caves are home to penguins and it was breeding season, so they were calling to each other all night long.
Meeting the locals
Being on the island is like watching a David Attenborough documentary. It was a real opportunity to be able to look into the eyes of the shy albatross and really appreciate these animals. The patterns on their faces and feathers, the soft tones and different colours when they turn their neck… you couldn’t draw or paint that.
Shy albatross are big animals. They have a wingspan of over two metres and have massive bills. You’d think that such a large animal, would be clumsy… but the tenderness in the way they interact which each other is beautiful. They’re so gentle and it’s amazing to watch them.
Seeing the artificial nests in action
What was great was seeing the artificial nests that we’d placed on the island last year being so readily accepted by the albatross. The birds had made refurbishments and put their own mark on them, a little bit like humans, how we have paintings and interior decorations in our home. These birds did something similar, but using mostly mud, dirt and grass (and I won’t tell you what else).
We certainly saw the benefits of the artificial nests. The natural nests had just about disappeared and there was a chick just sitting on the ground on the last remnants of the natural nest.
It’s good to know that we’re giving the chicks the best chance of survival with the artificial nests, as it removes at least one variable. It’s one less thing for them to worry about when raising their chick.
Interactions with the not-so-shy shy albatross
While we were on the island, we checked the health stats of the chicks, which involved taking measurements and samples. It was interesting to interact with these birds because the adults responded in one of two ways. They’d either sit there and look at you as you walked past, or they’d lunge and try to take a bite out of you.
There was one time I was taking notes and keeping my eye on one of the birds in front of me… but behind me, one managed to lean over and bite me in the back! Their bills are big, so getting bitten hurts. I’ve still got the scar!
Aside from taking measurements, we also had to do poo patrol. We sat in an area that had about 50 nests in it, waiting for an albatross to poo so we could collect it in a tube. Sometimes they’d just fire it out like a dart and it’d hit your leg. Not only that, but when the chicks were feeling a bit threatened, they’d throw up as a defence mechanism. They ate squid and fish, so along with the poo, the smell on the island was pretty awful.
There aren’t any facilities on the island, so we absolutely stank. It was pretty rough and raw, but that was all part of the adventure, especially as you get a real connection to the animals and to the island itself.
It’s one of those places that thrives and survives without people. You get the sense that the island has existed for thousands of years and will continue to do so long after we’re gone. Being able to witness the island and its wildlife up close was an experience that I’ll always cherish.