16 March 2010
Many people appreciate the name of our sailboat, but you can tell that some hesitate and have a questioning look... This blog is for those individuals who don't really know much about albatrosses and who have the concern that naming a boat 'Albatross' might be a bad idea...
So, first of all, the source of misapprehension for the name 'albatross' is found in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner". In that poem, written by Coleridge in 1797, a mariner tells the story of a ship that became lost in the Antarctic, and how an albatross appeared and led the sailors and their ship back to warmer waters. (In sailing mythology, albatrosses represent the souls of sailors returning to the sea and are considered good luck.) One of the sailors shoots and kills the albatross, and things begin to go downhill for the ship. The mariner is forced to wear the dead albatross around his neck as penitence, but one by one the rest of the crew die. (Thus, "having an albatross around one's neck" is a woeful burden.) In the end the mariner sees the error of his ways and blesses marine life, the crew is resurrected long enough to sail the ship to safety, and the the sailor (the old mariner) is forced to walk the earth and recount his story. There's quite a bit more to it than that (not to mention several proverbs you'll recognize) -- it's a good morality poem and worth reading.
Somehow through the course of time and ignorance about the existence of the poem, the association of albatrosses and bad luck was made. I do wish that at least people understood that albatrosses were never meant to represent bad luck; that in fact, they were symbols of good fortune and it was considered unlucky to harm one! (I admit it particularly galls me when people who sail make the mistake, but then, I'm probably being overcritical.)
But that's not why we named the boat "Albatross"; it was on Butch's short list for years and years (although he did have a fondness for "Vampyroteuthis infernalis" -- google it ;) ). We named our sailboat for the albatross because it is an amazing seabird. There are about 21 species, which include the largest of all birds, the Wanderings and the Royals, with wingspans of up to 11 feet. Their entire body is designed for long-term flying, with long wings that lock into place and the ultimate aerodynamic shape. They live the majority of their lives at sea, some not returning to land for seven years (they stay on the ocean for all for that time), and then they return to find a partner. They will go through a complex courtship ritual involving dancing and songs that may go on for over a year before the couple knows they're "right" for each other. The pair-bond usually lasts for their lifetimes (50-60 years). It takes another year or so (depending on the species) to raise their chick from egg to maturity, and the effort is so intense (they will fly thousands of miles to find food for their chick), they have to take a year off and go back to sea, separately. When they reunite the following year, the couple will renew their bond with a short courtship ritual and then begin raising another chick. They're intelligent, majestic, wonderfully beautiful creatures.
There are lots of sites online that include information, photos, and videos of albatrosses, but I'll include this National Geographic link that features Carl Safina (Eye of the Albatross, Voyage of the Turtle, Song for the Blue Ocean) and Frans Lanting (world-renowned photographer), two of the best-known names regarding albatrosses. Great stuff:
Onboard we also have Tui De Roy's (et al) masterpiece, Albatross: their world, their ways.
Sadly, 19 of albatross species are threatened or endangered. Their biggest enemies are longline fishing (they go after the bait and are hooked and drowned) and plastics. Deaths from longlining can be lessened by weighting the lines, but many fishing boats don't do it. Plastics have become the next biggest problem. Albatrosses see little bits of plastic floating (there is so much plastic in the ocean: bottle tops, cigarette lighters, small toys, etc) and swallow them as bits of fish and squid. Carcasses of both adults and chicks are increasingly found in which the bones of the rib cage surround a mound of plastic; the birds starved to death, their stomachs full of plastic.
This is a good video showing albatrosses nesting with their chicks, but also what happens with longlines:
and what's happening with plastics:
There are a variety of albatross conservation organizations; one of the most central and organized is RSPB/Birdlife International. To find out more about albatrosses and what the ordinary person can do to help, go to:
...And now you know why we named our Norseman 447 "Albatross" :)