This largest of all seabirds, with a wingspan up to 12 feet, has its place in literature and life. As a teenager, I read Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, a haunting poem that introduces the albatross as a good omen, not to be taken for granted. It inspired my desire to explore new horizons.
Many years later, my wife and I stood before the famous albatross sculpture at Cape Horn in South America, a memorial to sailors who’ve died in Cape Horn’s turbulent seas. Inscribed at its base is this verse: “I am the albatross that waits for you at the end of the earth. … Today you fly on my wings to eternity in the last trough of the Antarctic wind.“
In the days ahead, wandering albatrosses followed our ship across the Southern Ocean to Antarctica. We watched these birds for long periods. They would glide just above or between waves in search of fish, then catch updrafts to veer skyward. Paradigms of economy and aerodynamic efficiency, they instinctively knew how to steal the wind’s energy and defy gravity without so much as a single beat of their wings.
These oceanic wanderers lead remarkable lives. When not traveling across thousands of miles of ocean, they perform elegant courtship rituals in their cliff-top abodes by gently clacking their beaks and nuzzling. Then, unfurling their long wings, male and female perform a romantic pas de deux. They mate for life and can live some 50 years. Oblivious to the arbitrary boundaries of man, they travel thousands of miles to feed, then, season after season, find their way back to the same remote island to breed. Wired into their brains are programs for physics, aerodynamics and global navigation that we’ll never fully comprehend.
On restless nights, I focus my mind on these magnificent creatures. I imagine soaring as they do, feeling the exhilaration of defying gravity, experiencing the sensation of transforming Nature’s turbulence into positive energy. I’m gradually lulled to sleep by the notion that I, too, am flying above the Southern Ocean. And eventually, with patience, I drift into the kind of slumber Shakespeare described as the “balm of hurt minds.”
Do these noble albatrosses have a message, I wonder, for mankind, so distracted as we are by endless follies? Perhaps, if we stretch our minds and imagine they speak a language we comprehend.
The message could be that boundaries of any kind—borders, ethnic differences, physical barriers and more—matter less than what we have in common. That exploring beyond the finite spaces of our childhood is beneficial. That wandering the planet can help us understand we’re all connected to a fragile earth—and to each other. And that finding a soul mate can bring enduring happiness. Could their message be about love?
My mind soars, like the sudden rise of a wandering albatross above the crest of a giant wave, to the words of 19th-century Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin: “One day, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness the energies of love. And then, for the second time in history, man will have discovered fire.”
Free spirits. Explorers of the world. Artful lovers. Lifelong partners. What’s not to like about these incredible creatures?
James Spencer is a writer and photographer.