If you’ve never seen one in the air, you might be inclined to think of the albatross as a large seagull. Or, maybe my fellow Minnesotans would picture a heron or some broad-winged bird of prey. Certainly, when I was a kid at that age to be fascinated by “biggest” and “farthest,” I just blew up robins to huge proportions and invented something that looked more like a turkey vulture than the truth. Well, actually, my mental image came entirely from photographs. So they were broad, static things, forever still in the air. The strange thing is, having finally seen them in person, that still image is closer to the truth than I would have imagined.
We went to New Zealand, my wife and I, and found our way to the Royal Albatross Center on Taiaroa Head. This is the only nesting colony of the great albatross on inhabited land (the “why not” and “why here” are interesting questions deserving of their own posts). The Maori call the albatross “toroa” which translates, literally, to “albatross” (hey, some things just are what they are). Albatross are the largest flying birds measured wing tip to wing tip. The Wandering Albatross is the largest having been measured over 11 feet (11 feet... I’ll just let that sink in for a second) The Royal Albatross is a much more modest 6-10 feet.
As a kid, it wasn’t really the size that captured me, though, it was the wandering. The albatross doesn’t live on land. It touches down once every few years to breed and even that it doesn’t do for the first 15 years or so of its life. They don’t live on the sea either. There is some mystery around this, but they only seem to land on the water for very short periods of time to nap. The rest of the time, they live in the air. They travel. That’s what had captured my imagination as a child: the freedom of that travel, tens of thousands of miles all covered by a motionless bird in a static image.
What would that be like to live so freely in the air, making 10,000 mile trips without pause or rest? No one is certain how far an albatross might travel in a year. One 50-year-old albatross was estimated to have traveled 3.8 million miles in its life-time. Almost 80,000 miles a year. These birds circumnavigate the globe in as little as 46 days. I’ve had thoughts, maybe, that have traveled so far so fast, dreams about that kind of effortless travel. That desire to tether myself to the wind has led me to a quiet (and, admittedly, passive) obsession with sailing. So, I was a little giddy when we wound our way toward the colony. My wife was driving and I was straining out the window, trying to tell which, if any of the dozens of birds hovering high against the wind might be albatross. Then something else crossed the green face of the point, something so large and so still I thought it was a kite at first. It didn’t register as real.
Albatross don’t fly, not like other birds. Flying is an active thing of flapping and energy. They don’t soar either, not like the big raptors that reach out the fingers on the ends of their wings to ride currents up into the clouds. No, they glide. But even that doesn’t do them justice. Picture a bird gliding and you’ll most likely picture the resting glide between flaps or that last, slowing moment before landing. Instead, picture a plane, a human glider with its long, narrow wings rigid, every point fixed in the changing air.
It was windy that day on the point, which meant the albatross were very active. To take off, they would face into the wind on the steep, downward slope, and unfold their wings. They take a few steps forward and, then seem to miss a step and simply be airborne. Albatross have a tendon running along the edge of their wings that snaps their joints into place; a tensioned cable that relives their muscles of any effort to keep their wings outstretched. Truly, when they take-off, they don’t simply fly, but they become a structure in the air, a shallow arch of nothingness broader than a man is tall, large enough to smooth the rough edges of the wind.
Have I ever been at home anywhere as much as an albatross is in the wind? Has anyone? I don't have a body like that, one so well adapted to a single purpose that there is no thought to act. There is only being. Only flying. I’d like to think I have a brain suited to thinking as well as the albatross is to riding the wind. But it’s only really spiraling anxieties or unvoiced frustrations that seem to live that kind of life. But, I can dream, can’t I? Dream that we could all travel so far and our minds could build such sturdy structures in the air.
(Here's a few short videos I took that don't do justice to their grace.)