On slender wings, a shy albatross rode the crests of waves one stormy day in the Derwent.
I had been told many years ago that it was possible to see albatrosses in zig-zag flight on the bay but I hardly believed it. On journeys on roads fronting the Derwent I always instead kept my eyes peeled for another wonder of the natural world, the peregrine falcon, which uses the Derwent, or more precisely the air above it, as its playground.
This day, as usual, I had one eye on the sky, looking for peregrines, but my focus was soon directed to the bay itself, topped with white caps as wind whipped up a spray.
And there it was, the lanky, swerving, tilting, dipping shape of a shy albatross not forty metres from the verge of the Tasman Highway going south.
Albatrosses – there are 22 species which largely inhabit the southern oceans of the world – are the great travellers of the seas with some species, like the biggest flying bird, the wandering albatross, easily circumnavigating the globe each year.
The shy albatross – which only breeds on islands off the Tasmanian coast – falls into the category of medium-sized albatross species, the mollymawks.
Because albatrosses largely fish in remote seas, only coming ashore to breed on islands, they are rarely seen except by those whose occupation, like commercial fishermen, takes them into such harsh waters, or by birdwatchers who mount what are termed pelagic birding trips.
Such a birding excursion in Tasmania runs from Eagle Hawk Neck, and attracts birdwatchers from all over the world.
Although birders might revel in the sight of albatrosses plying the oceans, using the updraft from the waves to give them lift with a minimum of expended energy, the fishing industry has not been kind to these magnificent birds, or indeed to other pelagic species.
The latest controversy surrounding the Geelong Star factory trawler, in which shy albatrosses were among its by-catch, has once again highlighted the plight of the these seabird families across the globe.
Two aspects of modern fishing are putting the albatross in peril. The first comes from long-line fishing, in which lines sometimes kilometres long are strung out behind ships to catch fish. Albatrosses and other seabirds take the bait and are drowned.
Research by marine biologists suggest that an estimated 100,000 albatrosses are killed in this way annually, although in recent years great strides have been made in designing lines that sink below the surface, out of reach of albatross beaks. The use of these lines has also been mandated.
Another threat to the albatross is the discarding of fish offal from factory ships, which attracts the birds for a quick and easy feed. In such instances, instead of being drowned by fishing lines, the albatrosses are caught up in trawler nets and dragged to their deaths that way.
Of the 22 species of albatross, all attract some level of concern, three being critically endangered. And the carnage on our oceans doesn’t end there: among the world’s 346 seabird species, 97 (28 per cent) are globally threatened and nearly half of all seabird species are experiencing population declines.