ReadingRoom

Book of the week: To see the albatross is to belong to a higher cult of mortals

An essay by Matt Vance in response to a monumental study of one of the world's great birdlands - the bleak, uninhabited, and spectacular Auckland Islands.

The Southern Ocean circles Antarctica and acts as a violent mixer of the earth’s air, water and dreams. It’s the windiest, wildest and waviest ocean in the world and is the one ocean that links all of the others; it’s the one feared by sailors and mostly ignored by the rest of the world.

It would have been easy for me to leave the Southern Ocean as just that, a collection of impressive physical facts, to ignore the rattle of wind on the roof in winter, sit by the fire and say to anyone who will listen: "I'd like to go there someday." It would have been nice to know that it was there without a desperate urge to visit. 

The trouble was that I had a desperate urge to visit. All those facts about wind and water mean nothing in the face of the experience of this ocean. It ground away at me; I tried to ignore it briefly, then I resorted to trying every trick I knew to get down there. For three long years, nothing worked; I lost hope. I was trying to forget the place when I received a polite phone call, inviting me to a job interview as a lecturer with Heritage Expeditions.

On the day of the interview I was bustled through the door by a cold winter southwester straight off the Southern Ocean. I was issued with a cup of tea and ushered into Rodney Russ’s office. You can learn a lot about someone in a few minutes if the circumstances are right. Rodney exuded passion. His eyes glimmered with it. It was in his every word as he pushed aside the piles of paperwork on his desk. He had experienced the first wisps of this ocean as a young cadet working for the Wildlife Service and it had willed him on ever since. He was the kind of person who thought nothing of going to university and studying Pacific history and theology, while refining his formidable knowledge of high latitude zoology. He had the radiance of someone who had found his purpose in life; he was the kind of person I like.

We talked, not about the Southern Ocean or about work as a lecturer on the ship his company chartered, but of sailing and islands and dreams of places yet to be sailed to. On that cold winter day, Rodney handed me my chance and so for a run of years, I spent my summers traversing the ocean of my dreams in a nuggety ice-strengthened Russian ship by the name of Professor Khromov.

The Southern Ocean, and indeed the subantarctic islands that dot its waters, have always been out of sight and out of mind. In mainland New Zealand when you care to mention you are off to the Auckland Islands you will often get the response, “Near Waiheke?” with a blinking incomprehension. This obscurity is so potent that in 1953 the Southern Ocean officially disappeared. With the stroke of a pen, the most important ocean on the planet was discarded. The logic of it all came from the International Hydrographic Bureau whose self-appointed goal was to apply borders and names to all the world’s oceans. It sounded like a Monty Python skit and it was the low tide mark of human relations with this most infamous of oceans.

While bureaucracy has not helped, the elusiveness of the Southern Ocean is due to much simpler things. Humans can only exist in transition in this ocean; the idea of settlement is absurd. Staying put is hard to achieve in an ocean hell-bent on picking you up and tumbling you east. When humans do pass through the Southern Ocean it is usually in the form of widely scattered, yet intense clusters of quirky humanity. For this reason, the Southern Ocean sits well out of sight at the bottom of the world and any eyes that are drawn that way are blinded by the gleaming white of its more glamorous cousin, Antarctica. Its dark waters reflect an image of us that is mostly absurd. Ignoring it is our best defence.

The subantarctic islands, slap-bang in the middle of the Southern Ocean, are also smothered in this same strange obscurity. Lying upon the Campbell Plateau the relentless eastward flow of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current forces up nutrients from the seafloor making the waters rich in life. If that life is manifest in anything it is the birds. There are unending streams of them either passing through or using the conveniently located islands as nesting sites.

Auckland Island shag (Leucocarbo colensoi), Enderby Island. Photo by Tony Whitehead.

While you can mentally prepare yourself for stormy seas and windswept islands, it’s always the birds that catch you out with their sheer number and diversity. This is birdland and the islands that make it up are small terrestrial abominations in a vast and violent ocean. Like all abominations, they have their quirks. Some are tall, thickly vegetated handsome islands like the Auckland group and others, like the Bounties, are bare guano-covered rocks. Most of the time it’s blowing forty bastards and raining horizontally. They all do versions of bleak, yet all of them are alive with birds.

For tiny islands, the contribution of New Zealand’s subantarctic islands to the biodiversity of the Southern Ocean is out of all proportion to their size. A conservative estimate puts the total number of birds in these few islands as 10.7 million.  That is roughly 120 birds per hectare.  The most densely populated island is the Snares with a staggering 17,211 birds per hectare.

They have 40% of the world’s albatross species, 30% of the worlds petrels, shearwaters, fulmars and prions species, 50% of the worlds penguin species breeding, 5 species of seal including the worlds rarest and 250 vascular plant species growing 35 of which are endemic to the Islands. For a good reason, the whole lot are designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

While all this can be biologically exhausting to contemplate, not all of the subantarctic islands are evenly endowed with life. The contrast between the islands with predators and without can be measured in birdsong. Auckland Island has the scourge of pigs, cats and mice and is eerily silent. Just across Carnley Harbour, Adams island is alive, having never had a land bridge or predators. Only the Auckland Island Merganser has gone extinct there thanks to the shotgun of the enthusiastic Governor-General and bird collector Lord Ranfurly.

More often than not my voyages to these islands entail guiding birders who travel the world to see what must be the birders equivalent to Mecca. Some birders are borderline autistic in their single-mindedness towards birds; others are merely obsessive. As of the last count, there are 10,637 known species of bird in the world. It used to be that the number sat around 9,500 species, but DNA testing has done for ornithology what GPS has done for navigation, and despite the odd extinction this number is rising as the existing stock is subdivided.

All birders treasure their secret life-list number and if prompted enough will cough it up with sheepish pride. When asked, they’ll supply you with an exact figure like "six thousand five hundred and twenty-three." Never will they say, "Oh around six thousand I think." That kind of looseness has the air of someone making it up and would never be tolerated.

To guide birders on an expedition to the subantarctic islands of New Zealand is a black and white affair. When they see birds they are ecstatic, when they don’t they are silent, with just a hint of melancholy. They live for the birds and for the most part it’s uplifting to be around such single-minded enthusiasm. They will endure any kind of hardship to see their birds, whether it’s puking in a bucket during a Southern Ocean gale or up to their knees in peaty mud being chased by a sea lion.

On occasion, the expedition will get to deliver ornithologists and other scientists to their field camps on the islands. They have the enthusiasm of the birders but with a much broader interests and personalities well-honed by the hardships of weather and topography that these islands offer. They tend not to carry a secret number, only a warm fascination for questions that the birds pose them.

The people who do venture to these islands, whether birders, scientists, or sailors, seem larger than life, like their volume dial has been turned up high. Any harsh edges that may have been present on land are knocked off them quickly in a Southern Ocean gale. Perhaps it’s the miserable nature of the islands that throws them into contrast or perhaps they somehow grow a few inches as the venture south, or perhaps it’s being in the presence of an ominous God-like ocean that does not give a shit if you live or die.

After many years visiting these islands I’ve stopped sprinting around trying to take it all in in one gulp. My favourite habit is now to sit out of the wind under a large tussock and listen to the whistle of the southern royal albatross as their wings cut the air above. Robert Cushman Murphy said that to see the albatross is to belong to a higher cult of mortals. He would have had more to say if he had heard their wings whistle as they flew over.

Auckland Island tomtit. Photo by Kath Walker.

Every time I go there I swear it’s going to be for the last time, hoping to instead sit by the fire at home, hear the wind rattle on the roof, and bore my family with stories from the south. But each year I will find myself back among the gales, waves, islands and birds of the most magnificent ocean on Earth.

*

Te Papa’s Lost Gold: Ornithology of the subantarctic Auckland Islands stands as a collation of nearly all that’s known about this remote and spectacular birdland. It’s a natural history and a history, too, of the birdwatchers who put in the hard work.

The dedication page contains portraits of ornithological pioneers Robert Falla, Graham Turbott, Charles Fleming and Brian Bell. They stare from the page in various modes of the self-deprecating smile. Their looks are of men who are intelligent and sensitive to the beauty of the world yet hard as nuts, mud up to their waist puking in a bucket tough. It's a rare combination yet it is the one thing that the multitude of the women and men who constitute the authors of the many fine scientific papers within have in common. They’ve all had to take a physical and emotional beating from the wild Southern Ocean even to get to the Auckland Islands, let alone set up camp and begin to study the finer points of her science in a climate that can be best described as inclement.

Of these ornithological pioneers, I only ever had the privilege of meeting Brian Bell on one of my first forays south. He had the dry humour of a high country farmer and the unflappable demeanour of a wandering albatross. My enduring memory of Brian is of him standing on the ship's gangway assisting passengers into the Zodiacs. He would sink up to his hips in cool subantarctic water with each lurch to starboard. He stoically smiled each time a new flush of icy water went through is trousers. He didn't give a rat's arse; we were going to get into the Zodiacs no matter what because what lay inshore was worth all the discomfort in the world. He was passion in tramping boots.

Cooperation has always been a part of working in a place as remote and wild as the Auckland Islands. Each paper in Lost Gold has a host of authors who have had to piece together data from different times and places to build an ornithological picture of what is there and what is changing. Going to the Auckland Islands is not easy and an easy read is not what you will find in the pages of Lost Gold. Its chapters are well-researched scientific papers; there are no bold assertions, no flowery prose; it’s all hard-won data based on meticulous observation and plain hard slog.

Adult shag species collected on Auckland Island in 1901 and 1902, from the collection of the Natural History Museum in London.

Without doubt one of the early contributors to our ornithological knowledge was the Cape Expedition, the code name for the World War II coast-watching operations in the subantarctic islands. Among the planners of the Cape Expedition was the curator of the Canterbury Museum, Dr Robert Falla. As a man of peace and science, Bob had been asked to contribute his knowledge of the islands for the purposes of selecting sites for the coastwatching stations.  In his quiet and unassuming way, Bob suggested that there might be potential to include young men of a scientific bent in the selection of the coastwatchers. The isolation and monotonous routine of the coastwatcher were well known and any extra-curricular activity that could help them keep their marbles was welcome. The military authorities agreed and a standing instruction was given. It read: "In addition to their regular duties, expedition personnel should be encouraged to record general observations of natural phenomena." It was an order that was to have a lasting impact on the study of ornithology in the Auckland Islands and there are echoes of it still in Lost Gold.

The chapters are a well-balanced array of the general history, definitive species lists, and the minute detail of individual species. A favourite is the dedicated paper on the birdlife of Adams Island. In an ocean known for its fantastic islands, Adams Island is the most underrated. Having had no predators get ashore or land bridges linking it to main Auckland Island, it’s only lost one species to extinction since people have been going there. To Zodiac-cruise up the protected northern coastline of Adams is to get a view into a rare world that has not been messed with. On one such voyage, I had the pleasure of delivering ornithologists Graeme Elliot and Kath Walker there by Zodiac from the ship for their summer research stint on the island. Their annual pilgrimage to the island to study the Gibson's wandering albatross means their names are woven into many of the chapters of Lost Gold. It was like delivering Adam and Eve to the Garden of Eden.

Other islands in the group like Enderby Island have had the scourge of introduced species. Enderby is probably the most visited subantarctic island, yet its restoration after the eradication of cattle, mice and rabbits in 1993 is a top note in the power of people to put things right. Like the sound of a southern royal albatross wings cutting through the air above you, it’s these small beacons of hope that dot the text of Lost Gold and make you feel like it might all be worthwhile.

Lost Gold: Ornithology of the subantarctic Auckland Islands edited by Colin Miskelly and Craig Symes (Te Papa, $55).

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