Rime of the modern mariner

Albatrosses can fly over everything but environmental destruction

Humans and albatrosses have a lot in common. We both live for many decades, possibly a century. Our reproductive patterns are similar. Albatrosses take as long as 13 years to mature, engage in courtships that can last two years or more, and raise a single chick every other year (or three to four years for some species.) Albatrosses, like ourselves, are found from the Antarctic to the Far North and most places in between.

Of course, we spend our time on earth very differently. Albatrosses spend 95 percent of it at sea, usually in flight. They come ashore only to breed and nest, and even then they are constantly flying off on 2,000- to 3,000-mile foraging runs to collect each feeding for their chick. They can fly for many days without stopping, sleeping on the wing, wandering from tropical to subpolar seas in the course of a single foraging run.

Carl Safina wondered what we might learn about the world if we could see it from their perspective. Now, after shadowing these great birds by foot, ship, and satellite, he has painted a beautiful, awe-inspiring tableau of our world as you've never seen it: an interconnected universe of wind and waves, sun-blasted islands, teeming polar seas, broad-winged birds, and the far-reaching effects of civilization.

"Almost everything about the albatross is superlative and extreme," Safina writes. They're huge, with an 11-foot wingspan. Masters of long-distance flight, they use less energy soaring over a stormy sea than they do while sitting quietly on their nests. They endure equatorial heat and ferocious Arctic storms, sometimes on the same feeding trip. And they travel far: By 50 years of age, a typical albatross has logged nearly 4 million miles.

Tracking them, Safina journeys to beaches covered with egg-laying sea turtles, crystalline Pacific waters filled with prowling tiger sharks, and island tern colonies so vast they're likened to "a white-noise cyclone of sound."

But today, albatrosses' lives are tangled up with those of humans. Though their world is far removed from civilization, they're inundated with pesticides, antibiotics, and hormone mimics. They swallow bottle caps and cigarette lighters, become entangled in drift nets, or drown after seizing one of the millions of baited hooks dragged behind fishing vessels every year.

"Eye of the Albatross" relates some unforgettable scenes. At one point, Safina watches an albatross chick feeding from the mouth of its mother, just back from a 2,000-mile foraging trip. The chick gulps down globs of regurgitated squid and fish eggs, but then the mother has difficulty retching up the next serving. "Slowly, the tip – just the tip – of a green plastic toothbrush emerges from the bird's throat," a sight Safina describes as "one of the most piercing things I've ever experienced." The mother, unable to pass this bit of trash, wanders away from her squawking chick.

The lesson, Safina writes, is that there are no longer any places on earth unaffected by man. "No matter what coordinates you choose, from waters polar to solar coral reefs, to the remotest turquoise atoll – no place, no creature remains apart from you and me."

Fortunately, in some places people are starting to correct the situation. Safina visits Midway Atoll, where the military accidentally introduced rats, which bred voraciously and extinguished entire nesting colonies. But since control of Midway passed to the National Wildlife Service, the rats have been eradicated, and the birds are recovering. In Alaska, Safina goes to sea with Mark Lundsten, a commercial fisherman leading the effort to save albatrosses from hooks. Lundsten has found a simple and cost-effective way to reduce albatross mortality by 90 percent with a combination of weights and streamers.

Safina, who earned a PhD studying seabirds, established himself as a leading voice in marine conservation with his first book, "Song for the Blue Ocean," which drew attention to the environmental catastrophe unfolding beneath the waves. "Eye of the Albatross" is an eloquent sequel, a moving depiction of how interconnected life on this planet truly is.

• Colin Woodard is author of 'Ocean's End: Travels Through Endangered Seas' (Basic).

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