Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Albatross: Their world, their ways

Albatrosses take a hold of the imagination like few other birds. Superbly adapted to life on the open sea, they have been gliding effortlessly across the world's oceans for tens of thousands of years. Even after years of study and admiration, they remain mysterious inhabitants of a world that is distinctly alien to humans.

Unfortunately, the future is not looking too good for albatrosses in general. They are in trouble and not to mince words - humanity is primarily to blame. Nesting sites have been decimated by the feather trade, demands for airstrips and by the reckless introduction of predatory mammals. When cast ashore on Gough, a remote islet in the South Atlantic, a mammal as innocuous as the house mouse can become a monster that literally eats albatross chicks alive (click here for the gory details). At sea, albatrosses are drowned in their thousands by baited lures used to capture fish for our dinner tables or starve to death because their stomachs are packed full of cigarette lighters and other plastic debris carelessly tossed from ships or washed out to sea by rivers. It's ugly and it is serious but there is still hope.

The world is finally waking up to the scale and speed of the incipient calamity. Hundreds of researchers, conservationists, fishermen and plain everyday people are taking up the cause, modern-day 'Knights of the Albatross' if you will. Major conservation groups, backed by legions of supporters, are putting pressure on governments to formulate and enforce laws that will put a stop the unconscionable slaughter, ingenious methods are being devised to continue profitable fishing practices without adding albatrosses and other seabirds to the daily catch and remote islands are being systematically cleared of introduced mammals or plants that threaten nesting seabirds. There can be a happy ending to the story but it will take work.

Albatrosses by Tui de Roy, Mark Jones and Julian Fitter (2008, Christopher Helm) celebrates the extraordinary lives of albatrosses and ponders their modern predicament. This volume is really three different books pressed between one set of covers. The first 'Spirits of the Oceans Wild' by photographer Tui De Roy is a travelogue, a first person account of her visits to the remote nesting grounds of several different albatross species. The second book, 'Science and Conservation' by Mark Jones is a collection of essays by scientists, conservationists and other important figures that explore the treats and solutions that albatrosses face in the human dominated world. The third book, 'Species Profiles' by Julian Fitter provides a short overview of each species, describing their range, population size and so on in a fairly conventional guide book format. The glue that holds these somewhat unevenly matched books together are the hundred or more photographs by Tui de Roy. Well known for her captivating images of the Galapagos, De Roy has spent months, if not years, visiting remote albatross colonies, predominantly in the Southern Ocean. These are formidable places and her accomplishment is all the more spectacular when you consider that De Roy and her partner Mark Jones sailed to each location aboard the Mahalia, their 43-foot cutter.

To be perfectly honest, I'm not entirely blown away by some of the photographs. The portrait shots are often taken from a low angle with the brightly illuminated bird set against dark brooding clouds. Somehow these seem overly contrived to me. I appreciate the effort to capture the drama of these slightly alien and others may find the images inspiring. Perhaps seeing these photographs in a large format would change my views?

Regardless, I think the authors are let down by the uneven layout the book, especially in the latter sections. Many excellent photographs are reduced to a tiny size and yet float on an unnecssary sea of blank paper. Other photos extend right up to and perhaps beyond of the margins of the page. Some images are simply cropped too tightly, either awkwardly clipping the wing tips off flying birds or creating a very cramped feel to scenes that were anything but cramped. The labels that accompany the photos also suffer from poor design, printed in a weak gray font that gets even weaker on some pages and inexplicably becomes so tiny and so tightly pressed against edge of the photographs in other sections that they could easily be mistaken for essentially unreadable agency credits. BBC Wildlife magazine reproduced a selection of Tui de Roy's photographs in an article about the book and in a side by side comparison the magazine versions of the photos look much better in terms of color and sizing.

A more minor grumble is the choice of not using capitalization to indicate species names. Here 'Wandering albatross' refers to a cluster of species (or populations) and 'wandering albatross' to a single taxa. This is the antithesis of most bird literature which favors capitals to designate species names and I was amused to note that the illustrations in Rosemary Gales section does use the upper case in this way. Again I appreciate that this is probably a production issue and not something the authors necessarily had much control over.

The production shortfalls are an unfortunate digression from the important mission of the book, namely to bring the extraordinary lives and diversity of albatrosses to the forefront of public awareness and to make it clear to the world that these birds are in real trouble and that to large extent, it is our fault. Most of us can only stomach so much doom and gloom and several success stories such as the use of ingenious methods to minimize accidental by-catch or to cajole albatrosses into establishing new nesting colonies provide a welcome breath of fresh air. The phenomenal recovery of the Short-tailed Albatross population, due in large part to innovative work by Hiroshi Hasagawa and colleagues on Torishima, deserves more air play than it gets. Recovery of Short-tailed Albatrosses from the brink of extinction represents a brilliant beacon in the field of bird conservation and there are many lessons that can be adapted to helping other albatrosses and seabirds.

The book was conceived from a need to raise awareness of the continuing plight of albatrosses and the marine environment in general. Brief endoresement from Michael Rands (Birdlife International) and Cristina Mittermeier (International League of Conservation Photographers). His Royal Highness Prince Charles, an active supporter of BirdLife's Save the Albatross Campaign, contributed the foreward and the introduction is by Carl Safina, author of the Eye of the Albatross (2002 Henry Holt & Co.), and a leader in the movement to improve public awareness and conservation of the marine environment.

Title: Albatross: Their world, their ways
Authors: Tui de Roy, Julian Fitter & Mark Jones
Publication Date: 20 Jun 2008
Publisher: Christopher Helm, A & C Black
ISBN-10: 0713688122
ISBN-13: 9780713688122
Hardback, 232 pages. 29.6 x 23.5 cm, 300 color photographs.
Retail Price: £35.00 (UK)

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