Cruising the ocean, counting seabirds

  • A black-footed albatross soars somewhere off the coast of Washington state.

    Eric Wagner
 

Page 2

Gnomic hints, the chance to see as a seabird sees -- these things brought Hass to the Golden Princess. "I love that birds are picking up on things in the ocean that I can't," he says. "Distinguishing signs, determining where to go."

Even so, by day two, I feel like one of Murphy's bound peons myself. The first four hours on deck -- a tease of wind, a twinge in the back -- were but a gentle prelude to the 14-plus-hour per day marathons we are now taking on. When the glare and 50 mile-per-hour winds become too fierce, we seek shelter where the ship's hull forms a windbreak. Large overhead vents pump out pleasantly warm air, but it reeks of diesel. We debate the relative merits of hypothermia versus headaches and nausea. Somehow, we have managed to make a cruise physically exacting. But our reward is a flurry of activity: pomarine and parasitic jaegers, Arctic terns, flocks of red phalaropes, Leach's storm petrels, pink-footed and sooty shearwaters.

Then: "Murphy's!" Hass yells. "Murphy's petrel!"

The gray-brown bird -- first described by Murphy in 1949 -- breeds as far away as New Zealand. It streaks over the waves, impossibly fast on wings like scythes. When it flaps, it does so with quick, cutting strokes. It weaves through spume, and then crests a swell and tilts, and the wind somehow catches it and yanks it up like a kite. It soars high in the air and flashes out of the ship's shadow, and in that bare instant I see the white of its chin, the hint of an M on its wings. It rises, wheels over in a great arc, levels sharply, speeds away.

The encounter lasts maybe four seconds.

When we reach the Washington state line on the third day at 1340, the waters are cold and bare, the winds weak, and the birds stay down. Hass scans nonetheless. "For me, there's a difference between fatigue and boredom," he explains. "Out here, the challenge is always to see the next bird." He once spent eight hours 200 miles off the South Carolina coast. He saw one bird, a belted kingfisher. "I wasn't bored!" he insists. "I mean, I wasn't happy, but I wasn't bored."

The lack of birds, he explains, demonstrates the value of this work. The California Current, vast conveyer of nutrients along the West Coast, is warming, its waters consequently less productive. As the effects ripple through the food web, some seabird distributions have changed, with species from warmer tropical waters seen farther north, and in greater frequencies, while birds from colder waters disappear. Are relatively fewer sooty shearwaters being seen because they are starving to death, or are the birds somewhere else? How can we disentangle the effects of humans from natural variability?

Then: "Albatross! Black-footed!" he calls. "Straight off!"

Reeling from the fumes, I lurch to the scope. After 30 hours at the mast, my eye is so exhausted that it keeps fluttering closed, but I can just pick out the bird's dark shape against a blur of sea and sky. It sweeps towards the ship and examines us. Inwardly I bless it for sparing me the eyestrain.

The black-footed albatross is something of a tragic figure, emblematic both of the past hardships seabirds have endured and the newer ones they face. Most of its breeding colonies are on islands in the central Pacific, although a few nest closer to Japan. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Japanese hunters harvested millions of the birds for their feathers. World War II and its aftermath nearly finished off the rest. On Midway Island from 1955 to 1964, more than 60,000 Laysan and black-footed albatrosses were clubbed or bulldozed to death to prevent collisions with military planes. During the height of the cull, the Navy produced documentaries in which a narrator gently explained why the birds needed to be dispatched for the country's good. They were shown crash-landing in an absurd pile of limbs, or trying to take off, wings bizarrely spread as they plodded along. To a writer in Time, the "goony bird" was an "odd and charming creature which serves no useful purpose at all."

More recently, tens of thousands were killed in Hawaii's long-line tuna fisheries, snagged as they tried to snatch bait from hooks; the population declined by 19 percent in just five years. But mitigation efforts show some promise, and mortality has since dropped by over 80 percent. Perhaps 200,000 are left.

Now, one soars alongside us for a moment, so close that I can step back and watch it with my naked, weeping eye. It outraces the ship without seeming to move and then drifts away, drawn to something unseen. Here, motion is being and being is hunger. The bird coasts down, traces the contour of a wave, then turns into the wind to be borne aloft, and as it does, the tip of its wing brushes the sea, just barely, like a kiss.

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