Albatross!

The legendary Monty Python sketch, of course. “Aaaalbatross!” Who doesn’t love it? John Cleese as a very rude vendor in the cinema with a huge stuffed albatross on his tray. Yet this can’t be the whole story. There’s got to be some link to my journey too…

There is indeed! The possibility to see wild albatrosses was one of my reasons for coming to New Zealand, you see, and to Kaikoura on South Island in particular. It would be quite literally a childhood dream come true. And I was not disappointed.

After the time spent with my friends in Nelson I took a bus to Picton and then a train along the upper east coast to Kaikoura. There I stayed for three nights in the aptly named “Albatross Backpackers” (significantly raising the average age there), hoping for suitable weather for all the things I wanted to do during those first days of the year.

Most importantly, I had booked one trip with “Albatross Encounter Kaikoura” already months in advance. Then, on an impulse, I decided that one trip wouldn’t be enough, and I spontaneously booked a second one for the following day. I really, really wanted to be on the safe side with that one…

And everything went according to plan. I went out to sea on both days with Gary, the skipper. On the first day it was windy and cloudy and rather chilly (and the sea quite bumby!), and the sky was largely overcast. The second day brought totally different conditions: plenty of sunshine, mild temperatures, less wind. And we saw many birds on both days, including albatrosses.

The ‘albatross encounter’ always follows the same pattern: the boat goes out to sea away from the coast, but not very far. The birds already know what’s going to happen and approach the boat from all sides. Then the skipper throws a thick block of frozen ‘chum’ (fishy bits) into the water. Tied to the boat, the food swims on the surface of the water, immediately attracting the birds. According to the operator’s website, the chum is sourced naturally from local commercial fishers. What it definitely does is help to bring the birds in close allowing very close viewing and photographing opportunities – especially when the boat isn’t full.

This may not seem to be a very natural setting for watching seabirds. But do I really care?!? And besides, many seabirds follow commercial fishing boats in the hope for food, so it is part of their daily lives anyway. But I have to admit that it did feel a bit like a visit to the zoo…

We saw several species of albatross and mollymawk (smaller albatrosses). I must admit I haven’t quite figured out who is who on the photos…

Photographing birds that sit on the water is relatively easy, even though the little boat may sway somewhat in all directions. The really tricky business, however, is capturing the birds in flight. I must admit that I find the result of my endeavours to be not very satisfactory…

It’s okay as long as the birds are still in the distance. Plus, you can include the impressive mountain range of the Seaward Kaikouras in your frame as a backdrop.

But as soon as these huge birds approach the boat, focussing becomes more and more difficult…

And sometimes the result is, ummm, different from what you intended…

Albatrosses may seem peaceful creatures to the uninformed eye. Well, they are not!

They fight for food, they chase each other away from the boat. They can be really aggressive! To what extent this behaviour is aggravated by the feeding, I can’t say. I suppose they behave similarly when food happens to be available on the open sea, but I’m not sure.

Albatrosses are not the only seabirds which are attracted by the boat. Another common species to be seen not long after the boat has left South Bay harbour is the northern giant petrel (Macronectes halli). It is a bit special…

And not exactly beautiful. Gary, the skipper, told us that giant petrels are also called ‘vultures of the sea’ because they feed mostly on carrion. But they are also known to kill penguin chicks, among others. Booooooooh!

Okay, they may not be beautiful by common standards. But there is definitely something about their looks that fascinates me. Not to mention their behaviour!

I think it was during this fight between the two giant petrels that the American lady on the boat said: ‘I love how they interact’.

WTF?!?

Fascination, yes. Love, certainly no! But of course I can only speak for myself.

So, a childhood dream come true indeed. My life will never be the same again after those remarkable two days out at sea. Furthermore, never again will I mistake herring gulls for albatrosses, as I did when I was nine years old and my family and I were in Cornwall. Wishful thinking on my part, and an inexhaustible source of mockery in the family for years (and in fact, decades) to come… I have overcome my trauma at last.

“Gannet on a stick!”

(Click here for more bird-related articles on this travel blog).

Published by Sebastian

Geographer, naturalist and photographer (www.schroeder-esch.de). Based in Germany, but always keen to travel and explore

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