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Sunday, June 17, 2007
A Crewmember's Friend

A Crew’s Companion in the Loneliness of the Back Deck

Long hours on the back deck staring at the wake, watching the jigs for a strike, can leave a crew member stark raving nuts. There is little debris like eel grass to clear off the hooks. The hooks have been sharpened twice already. The jigs just follow the boat long hour after hour. Above the water soars a friend, having spied the boat from many miles away. Boats mean bait, food, and amusement to an albatross. They glide up to the stern from nowhere and watch the boat’s wake for goodies. I often tossed up some small chunks of tuna to watch the albatross dive and then take off again. They actually land on the chum, tip arse over teakettle, and grab it in their beak underwater. Then they run over the water into the wind, wings out and flapping until the airspeed is right, then the webbed feet tuck up and back to allow soaring as they bear away to gain speed. They soar back and forth behind the boat, scything the air until certain there are no more treats and then leave as suddenly as they appeared. We loved the company of birds like the southern royal albatross (diomedea epomorpha) and the largest of all albatross, the wandering albatross ( diomedea exulans) with an average wingspan of 10.2 feet. In addition to albatross, there were many more shearwaters and storm petrels. Four of their species nested on the Pitcairn Island group atolls, Oeno and Dulcie Islands.

Murphy’s Petrels (pterodroma ultima)

Kermadec Petrels (pterodroma neglecta)

Herald Petrels (pterodroma hereldica)

Christmas Shearwater (puffinus nativitatis)

Another albatross which I am almost certain we identified was the Pacific Albatross or diomedea bulleri platei. This bird of the diomedea genus circumnavigates the southern ocean from 40 degrees S. latitude down to Antarctica. There is a thrill in watching these birds catch a lift off a large wave, soar up, bear away, and lift up and over another sixteen foot wave. When you are hanging on in raingear waiting for an albacore to bite, watching an albatross frees the mind and lets your spirit soar along with this magnificent creature. Sailors of past centuries have written about the good luck an albatross brings to a voyage. I feel connected through the ages with Charles Darwin, Captain Cook, Herman Melville, and other explorers and travelers who viewed these albatross with the same admiration, and who shared the mariners’ boon/curse of excessive hours to observe and appreciate the flying acumen of these largest of ocean birds.


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