Now the Southern Ocean is a lonely place
Over troubled waters and restless skies
You’ll see those mollymauks rise and dive.
Wherever I go, I can’t escape birds. I was taking a time out from birding at a Festival of Voices concert when a song about seabirds featured on the program. It was not surprising really. I was enjoying a performance of sea shanties by a choir of old salts, The Stranded Wailers.
Why don’t you ride the wind and go, white seabird
Ride the wild and go mollymauk.
The song Mollymauk – the term for a small albatross – demonstrates the mariners of old certainly had a thing about these denizens of the high seas. The albatross was a good omen to the crews of sailing ships. And what happened to a sailor if one was killed either accidently or deliberately is spelled out in the epic poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 poem a sailor who senselessly kills an albatross brings a curse upon his ship and, as a punishment, is forced to wear the dead albatross around his neck, forever a supernatural reminder of his action.
In the days of sailing ships, albatrosses were of help to sailors. These giant birds were masters of the wind and so, by watching them glide across the sea, mariners gained clues about conditions essential to wind- powered vessels.
These seabirds do not actually flap their wings; they merely use wind energy, exploiting updrafts of air coming off the waves.
Using minimal energy, they can fly phenomenal distances. An albatross can easily cover 160 kilometres a day and during a lifetime of more than 40 years, may cover 2.5 million kilometres.
Although albatrosses were once respected, in more modern times they have suffered at the hands of a highly mechanised and industrialised fishing industry.
Albatrosses are killed in their tens of thousands after being caught in trawling nets or in line-lines fishing operations.
Of the 22 species of albatross, all but seven face extinction if measures are not put in place urgently to save them on the high seas. They also fall victim to predators such as introduced rats at their remote island breeding grounds.
It is the fishing operations, however, that are the main threat, even though as I have written in the past, technology is available to tackle the problem.
Among those under threat is the shy albatross, Australia’s only endemic albatross which breeds on just three islands in Tasmanian waters.
The population stands at an estimated 15,000 pairs at the moment. It might sound a big number but it’s minimal in the scale of albatross slaughters, which sees an estimated 100,000 albatrosses dying each year in long-line operations.
Now the mollymauk glides on them great, white wings
And lord, what a lonesome song he sings.