|It is past the eleventh hour for the wandering albatross|
Matthew Parris - The Times Saturday 19 June 2004
John RIdgway, we salute you. The small reports on inside pages of
yesterday's newspapers marking the veteran yachtsman's return under
Tower Bridge on English Rose VI, deserved front-page treatment. At least
the Prince of Wales noticed.
Mr Ridgway is a hero. For the past 327 days he and his wife, Marie
Christine, have been at sea with English Rose. Their epic voyage has
been to wherever the greatest bird in creation flies: Cape Town, the
Southern Ocean islands of Marion, Crozet and Kerguelen, and then to
Australia, New Zealand, the Falklands and back to London. Uninsured,
unsponsored and funded entirely out of the couple's own savings, their
odyssey has been in the most wonderful cause: the protection of that
noblest of our planet's endangered species, the albatross.
At 65, Mr Ridgway, a lifelong sailor, decided it was time he repaid his
debt to this sublime bird. He puts it simply: "I have been in the
Southern Ocean with albatrosses for the past six decades and they have
often inspired me when I have been low." He told me yesterday he meant
his voyage "as a kind of personal statement". I had the impression that
the journey has been hard, and taken its toll, but that he feels that in
the autumn of his life he has now been able to offer some small payment
for all the summers.
The couple have collected more than 100,000 signatures for a petition
-one for each of the 100,000 albatrosses killed every year by industrial
long-line ocean fishing. With an expert on albatrosses, Euan Dunn of the
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Birdlife International,
they travel to Rome next week to present their petition to the United
Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.
The petition calls for urgent action to save the albatross, almost all
of whose 21 varieties are now on the endangered list. For many,
including the giant snowy (or wandering) albatross, it is the eleventh
They should add my name to their petition. I too have been alone with
I too have felt moved beyond words -awed by the vastness and fragility
of the wild -in the presence of these beautiful nomads. Like Mr Ridgway
I have been powerfully touched by the experience, and felt wretched when
told of the bird's plight, wondering what I could do. When you meet a
creature on equal terms, both of you alone and far from anywhere, you
feel linked forever.
For me this happened four years ago to this very day. It was in the year
2000, and midwinter for I was on Desolation Island -as Captain Cook
dubbed what is now the French possession of Kerguelen when he set foot
on this wildest, windiest, bleakest and most unvisited of archipelagos
on a Christmas morning three centuries ago.
Cook established that this was not, as supposed, the tip of the fabled
Southern Continent, but a crowd of uninhabited islands, the largest
nearly a hundred miles long, strewn treeless across the furious path of
the Roaring Forties half way from Africa to Australia and (though this
Cook did not know) a thousand miles from the coast of Antarctica. No
other landmass is closer than 2,000 miles away. For the seabirds of the
Southern Ocean this is a gale-lashed aircraft carrier in the middle of
an immensity of sea.
On that June morning I was at Cap Ratmanoff, the island's most easterly
point, about 20 miles from the tiny French base which is Kerguelen's
This part of the island is flat, marshy, and strewn with lakes, hollows,
bogs and quicksand. There are no roads or paths.
Two companions and I had travelled to Ratmanoff by tractor around the
shore, and were staying in a wooden hut a mile inland from the sea. Our
tractor was on the beach, among about 20,000 King penguins and countless
elephant seals. The diesel had frozen, the battery was flat, and we had
spent the morning fighting through the gale and horizontal sleet to
ferry battery and diesel between our hut, where we had a generator and
heat, and the shore.
The wind was about 60mph and the visibility about 20 yards. One
navigated mostly by sound: the roar of the waves and the scream of the
penguin colony on the shore.
I was making my way alone from hut to shore.
Out of the sleet loomed my friend the wandering albatross chick,
blinking and dozing in the stinging sleet.
I knew he was there; I had visited him before. Getting on for the size
of a goose, his beak as long as your boot, he sat, as albatross chicks
do, a single baby on an isolated mud-built throne about the size of a
lavatory pan, a foot above the tufty grass. On a clear day you may spot
dozens of these, hundreds of yards apart, spaced like isolated rural
bungalows, each occupied by one albatross chick peering daffily out over
This landscape is a nursery without a nurse in sight. Their parents are
away. Each chick is waiting for its father or mother to return from the
ocean -away over which, for up to a fortnight at a time, the parents fly
vast circuits, often as far as Australia or Africa, to fill their
bellies with fish. They return - flapping in unannounced out of the fog
-to disgorge into the waiting beak of their chick a sort of oily mash.
The refuelling over, the parent departs again to wander the currents of
air and ocean, navigating by the stars in search of more.
Yet some part of this bird, some internal whisper, connects him
invisibly to the chick he has left behind, waiting, sure of his return.
In the blizzard my chick had lost sight of the next nest. His duvet coat
of fluffy cream proclaimed the newness of this bird to the world, and
the newness of the world to this bird, as he clapped his beak softly at
me, unsure if I meant danger or food. He could not fly and was unready
to walk. He could only clap his beak and stare around.
"And so he sits," I wrote, "wide-eyed and wingless, beholding his
beholder with a kind of goofy anxiety, neither fear nor confidence
hardening his soft, round, unfocused eyes. All he knows is that
something is approaching him. He is helpless on his throne and his
parents are hundreds of miles away."
Mated for life, nesting in their thousands on the same remote islands
-and there are not many safe islands left -yet lacking any kind of
gregariousness, these most solitary of birds establish relationships
with mate, and chick, and the wind -and nothing else. There is no
community. For each, he and his family are the only birds in creation.
"You never enjoy the world aright," wrote Thomas Traherne a hundred
years before Cook sailed, "till the sea itself floweth in your veins,
till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and
perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world." That, to me,
is the glory of the wandering albatross. Like John Ridgway I have seen
them a thousand miles from anywhere, wing-tipping their way across the
swell, alone but not lonely, majestic in sovereignty over their watery
These creatures are on the verge of extinction. For every albatross at
sea whose chick sits alone this June morning in the Kerguelen storm,
another chick waits whose parent will never return. I saw the skeletons
of these too, starved on their nests. Somewhere in the world, perhaps
two thousand miles away, a long-line fishing boat had dragged and
drowned their parents underwater on a 50-mile string of hooks. The fish
are reeled aboard, and the dead albatrosses, a hundred thousand a year,
chucked back into the sea.
To blame are unenlightened fishing methods, the pirate fishing now
taking perhaps a quarter of the world's total harvest, and the switch
from net fishing to line fishing for tuna -ironically, to save dolphins.
Saving the albatross is not a hopeless cause, not an irreconcilable
clash between human greed and its doomed victims, not an attempt to
police the unpoliceable. The high seas in the Southern Ocean may be
lawless (as Dr Dunn put it to me yesterday, "like Mars out there") but
we can pinpoint vessels from high altitude; France has a warship in the
Southern Ocean; Britain can work with our compatriots on Falkland and
Tristan da Cunha; the international tide is turning against flags of
convenience; environmental consciousness is dawning on a young
generation in Japan; we can help countries like Argentina to supervise
and regulate; The Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and
Petrels has come into force (Britain has just ratified); and -this most
importantly of all -perfectly practicable ways of adapting long-line
fishing to protect seabirds can, if there is the will and pressure to do
it, be adopted.
It is a race against time. The Prince of Wales is right: the albatross
is saveable, if only governments acting singly and together would grasp
the urgency of this creature's plight. In the way he welcomed John
Ridgway back to Britain on Thursday, Prince Charles almost made a
monarchist of me.
Copyright 2004 Times Newspapers Limited
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