Albatross & Sinatra…a Sea Day

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Itinerary:

  1. Attend every lecture – especially Kim Heacox’s story about Sir Shackleton (more on that later)
  2. Get through all photos taken so far and process a few for the slideshow-showoff later in the trip
  3. Shoot some more sea birds off the back of the ship

We’ve been at sea since last night. We’ve been going with the wind and the waves, so the boat has had an even rock. I have not felt bad once. In fact, I’ve been doing quite well, and been testing my nerves by hanging at the front of the boat a lot – where most of the ocean motion happens. The swells are bigger and squarer than they were the other day, so it has been fun standing on the bow for the huge rises and drops. It has been like a ride at the amusement park!

It was a little bit of a pain to get a camera situated on some Minke Whales we chased for about 20 minutes. I need to do a little more research on the Minke (not even sure if I’m spelling it correctly), but I recall it being one of the largest whales, if not second in size to the Blue Whale. I’ll speak more to the whales as we see more.

One thing we have seen a lot of is one of my favorite birds: the Albatross. We’ve encountered two of my favorites of that species so far: the Black-Browed and the Wandering Albatrosses. These are enormous birds with wingspans the size of 2 NBA basketball players who can circumnavigate the globe in search of one meal to bring back to their chick. The wandering albatross is the largest flying bird on the planet. We have only seen this species at sea, today. We have been followed by Black Browed Albatross ever since we left Ushuaia, and visited a big colony on New Island in the Falklands. Seeing these massive birds up close (imagine a monstrous Thanksgiving Turkey with wings bigger than you) has been amazing.

“I now belong to the higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross”
-Robert Cushman Murphy

Inside the colonies, the Black Browed Albatross build large stumps for nests out of grasses (mainly tussock grass) and mud. They’re kind of like small pueblos. Mixed around these nests are usually other types of birds like cormorants or penguins.

Coming in for a landing amongst the colony
Coming in for a landing amongst the colony

Albatross need an area with a lot of wind to launch from. Actually, albatross need wind just to fly because they’re mostly gliders and they’re carrying a big body to get up in the air without jet propulsion. They typically nest in areas high above ground, and most of those areas are cliffs. This was the case in the colony we visited.

Albatross are said to reach speeds of up to 135 kilometers per hour and I can tell you they’re coming in hot on approach. As they buzz your head, all you hear is a roaring “whoosh” as one of these big birds comes in. I noticed that most landing attempts are unsuccessful, so the bird needs to have enough speed to keep going. Think of it like trying to land a B-52 Bomber on one of those ornaments on the corner of a sky scraper. If we think we’ve got Mother Nature beat in engineering, we better think again!

On approach - putting the flaps down and hovering in a holding pattern
On approach - putting the flaps down and hovering in a holding pattern

Most albatross live a long life aging into their 50’s or later depending on the species. Because they almost have the life expectancy of a human, like a human, they don’t begin to breed till after they’ve reached somewhere around 20% of their expected lifespan. Around the age of 7, the Black Browed Albatross starts his search for a soul mate…not a mate…a soul mate. Albatross form life bonds with their partners and frequent the same breeding spot for many years. They’ll spend most of their life at sea, but still come home to the same partner. Being here this early in the season, we witnessed many Black Browed Albatross pairs getting back together. It was easy to tell between the calls, followed by the beak tapping, then followed by taking turns cleaning one another that these birds definitely meant a great deal to one another.

Albatross greetings are very similar to ours
Reunited: Albatross greetings are very similar to ours...that, or they're French!

I’ve seen quite a few different animal species on this trip. I have witnessed happiness, embarrassment, love, approval-seeking, playing hard to get, and all the same behaviors and emotions humans display; throughout this spectrum of the animal kingdom. This is something one can see in any animal, but not realize how deep animal’s feelings are until you’ve seen the same emotions across numerous species within populations of thousands.

I think Robert Cushman Murphy was correct in saying that seeing the albatross is like shaking Sinatra’s hand, but witnessing the power of emotions in this wild animal realm is even more powerful.

The incredible Wandering Albatross
The incredible Wandering Albatross

P.S. We are heading into some serious weather. 60 MPH winds are coming, and we’ve been told the seas are unpredictable. We also have no idea how long it will last. It could mean I won’t be able to post a new article tomorrow. We are at sea for another full day, and I’m caught-up on my photos. I plan to do some writing.

P.P.S. This may sound a little nuts, but I’m actually looking forward to some nasty weather. I want to be able to say I’ve survived an Antarctic storm!

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Dave (nfrs2000nyc) says:

    Amazing shots Alex, really, really stellar captures. The kissing albatrosses is cover material.

  2. Dave (nfrs2000nyc) says:

    By the way, don’t forget to take some landscape shots too!!!

  3. Mom says:

    60 mph winds…on a boat? Have they got a rope around you as you stand on the bow? (I know – Mom!).
    The pics are really great Alex and the commentary is super.
    Keep it coming…what a fabulous experience.
    LU – Mom

  4. axspot says:

    Dave – I am shooting some landscapes, but it is so hard to move the camera away from the wildlife. I have only taken 3 shots with the 24-105mm. Thousands between the 70-200mm and 300mm.

    Mom – fortunately, we didn’t get winds of that force. We’re at about 35 knot winds now and consistent 15 foot seas. If you’ve got anything on a table, you have to pick it up from time to time. I almost fell out of my chair a few times today.

  5. Kim Clark says:

    OK – I am now planning on PAYING you for photography lessons. What is your rate? I still have not bought my new digital camera (might have to save for awhile to buy the one you suggested). Just make sure you don’t fall off the ship because I NEED those lessons. You gotta be cheaper than National Geographic! Loving the pics and commentary – keep it comin.

  6. Cathy says:

    Alex,
    You need to reconsider the field you are in. The photos are spectacular, the commentary so enlightening. I can see you now on Discovery Channel.
    Put in you application. What a awesome experience for you and for all of us traveling along with you. Stay warm and safe.
    Cathy

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