The weekend started with Musk Ducks in the harbour. I saw them from the road, a pair of them: dark and flat on the grey water, only five metres offshore from a narrow beach, birds of lakes incongruous there in the sea. The immensity of the town’s aluminium smelter was behind them. I didn’t know what they were at first but I had an inkling, a sense or an instinct for their identity, and as I skirted the beach I willed the male of the pair to lift his head from its resting position beneath his wing and so show me the defining throat-pouch that would confirm beyond doubt the animal I was looking at.
The Musk Duck (Biziura lobata) is sui generis: found only in Australia, and unrelated to any other duck in this country, in fact related only to long-extinct New Zealand species, it is in a genus by itself. It’s a heavy duck, so heavy that it must starve itself before it can fly; perhaps unsurprisingly, it rarely chooses to do so. Nor is it inclined to go on the land, as other ducks do. It spends most of its life on the water, where it sits low to the surface, metal-grey like the ironclad warships of the nineteenth century. It’s large for a duck, sixty centimetres or so from tip to tail, and its body is broad, and its beak is stout, and it’s an excellent diver and swimmer; the first time I ever saw one, in Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve near Canberra, it was beneath the water and I thought at first that I was seeing a Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus).
That Musk Duck had been in an enclosure, though – albeit an unusually spacious one. The pair I saw in the shadows of the smelter were the first wild Musk Ducks I’d ever seen. They were in Portland, on the very eastern edge of the Great Australian Bight and about as far west along the Victorian coast as you can go without crossing into South Australia. I was there with a good friend, her infant son, and her mother-in-law (also an old family friend). Nobody had told me that there would be Musk Ducks in Portland. We’d travelled there, three or more hours drive from Melbourne, because I’d read that it was the best place in Victoria from which to see whales.
In particular I’d read that in the summer months there was a possibility – remote, but a possibility – of seeing Blue Whales (Balaenoptera musculus). The largest animal that have ever lived on the surface of the earth, at least as far as we know, even at a distance you can identify a Blue Whale – so I read – by the fact that its water spout goes some twelve metres into the air. All you have to do is scan the ocean, and hope.
The Blue Whales come to Portland – come to the Bight in general – because they’re drawn by a phenomenon called the Bonney Upwelling. This brings cold, nutrient-rich water from Antarctica up to the surface of the ocean, just offshore from mainland southern Australia; feeding on the nutrients are microscopic algae; feeding on the algae are Krill (Euphausiacea); feeding on the krill are Blue Whales.
Feeding on the Krill, also, are fish, and the fish in turn are devoured by other animals. The waters around Portland are home to several thousand Australasian Gannets (Morus serrator), a population so robustly healthy that some several years ago it overflowed from its home on Lawrence Rocks, two kilometres offshore, and colonised Point Danger, just six kilometres from Portland – the only mainland colony of these birds in Australia. Mainland Australia’s largest population of seals, too, is found in the area: two populations, really, separate colonies of Australian Fur Seals (Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus) and New Zealand Fur Seals (Arctocephalus forsteri) occupying secluded rocks far below the cliffs of Cape Bridgewater, about twenty kilometres west of Portland. Numerous seabirds scour the waves: Gulls (Laridae), Terns (Sternidae), Petrels and Shearwaters (Procellariiformes).
Albatrosses. Only a week or two before going to Portland I read that they could frequently be seen from the region’s cliffs and headlands and I immediately realised that if I saw an Albatross it would be just as exciting for me as if I saw a whale – even more exciting than seeing Musk Ducks, for which I’d been unprepared. I’ve long adored birds – most animals lovers do, I think, birds being the most easily observed of all the higher animals – and Albatrosses are birds par excellence. Only the Swifts (Apodidae) are so well suited to flight; Albatrosses are, in a manner of speaking, Swifts the size of Eagles.
They’re pelagic, too, spending most of their lives flying above the remotest parts of the deepest oceans. Fishermen see them; sailors see them; the rest of us probably never will, unless we seek them out. They can most readily be seen on the remote islands on which they nest – but if an animal can be seen the “wrong” way then seeing an Albatross ashore, grounded and clumsy, must surely be seeing it the wrong way. An Albatross at rest, terrestrial, is not the bird that inspired the American ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy to exclaim in 1912 “I now belong to a higher cult of mortal, for I have seen the albatross”.
When I saw the Albatross, when I joined that cult – when my life changed, for that’s how it felt – the bird was flying. I was standing near the Blowhole, a coastal feature beyond Cape Bridgewater, and I was as I had been for days mesmerised by the steady heaving of the Southern Ocean. You see by looking, and you look by staring; I was staring at the water, one hundred metres below me and somewhere between shore and horizon, and hoping to see something.
When I saw the Albatross, and raised my binoculars to it, and watched it bank and turn, showing me back and then belly, back and then belly, long stiff wings never beating – I gasped. I sighed. I shouted out loud in joy and exhiliration to myself. How do you describe the flight of an Albatross? It’s a dance. It’s a pas de deux in which one of the partners is utterly indifferent. As the ocean moves, so moves the Albatross – and yet not entirely, not exactly. The Albatross rises with each wave’s rise, descends with each wave’s fall, as if held on a wire only a few inches long connecting it to the surface of the ocean – and yet scanning the ocean I found to my surprise that I could pick out the Albatrosses (Albatrosses! Eventually I saw four or five of them, each alone) easily, for they moved at cross-purposes to the sea: as the waves pulled unceasingly towards the land, the Albatrosses circled above them, as if wiping them clean – or scouring them, as we say, for food, for that’s what they were doing. An Albatross in flight is a hungry Albatross. So great was the movement of the sea, so uniform in its immensity, that even a bird – a large bird, with a two metre wingspan, but tiny by comparison – stood out instantly for the way it moved in its own patterns. The Albatrosses were at once bound to the ocean – depending on the miniature thermals lifting of its waves to give them lift – and thrillingly liberated from it.
I don’t know to which species the Albatrosses I saw belonged – they were Albatrosses, and that’s all that mattered to me – but the most commonly reported Albatrosses in the Portland area are the Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophrys) and the Shy Albatross (Thalassarche cauta). Both are mollymawks, a group of medium-sized Albatrosses. The mollymawks boast more species in their ranks than any other single group of Albatrosses, and all of those species belong to the same genus, Thalassarche. The genus was named by the German ornithologist Ludwig Reichenbach in 1853; the name means “from the sea” or “having command of the sea”, and it could not be more apt. Yet mollymawk, too, has a meaning: it’s a derivation of a Dutch name meaning “foolish gull”. From foolish gull to commander of the sea – between them these two names encompass our entire attitude to nature. In the abstract we are in admiration, even awe, of wild animals – but this is tempered by a more concrete disdain. It’s a signal feature of the human intellect that we can hold these two attitudes in our minds at the same time. We love the idea of wild animals – we’re just not prepared for the inconvenience of actually sharing a planet with them. Albatrosses, those foolish birds, those children of the sea, circle the waves looking for fish; they are animals, and will take easy food when they can. They are killed in their tens of thousands every year on long-line fishing hooks, in trawler nets, by floating rubbish which they mistake for food.
When I watched the last of the handful of Albatrosses that I saw that weekend in Portland, just a month ago as I write this, it was isolated in the narrow field of my binoculars. It was circling, unwavering, effortless, long wings shining in the sun, and I held it in my gaze until my arms grew tired. The only sound I could hear was the sound of the ocean, heaving and surging, seemingly limitless. I felt as if I was looking not through binoculars but through the looking-glass, into another world; I felt that no two beings could be more disconnected from each-other than me, flat-footed on a rocky cliff, and the Albatross, suspended above the waves and held by nothing more than air. Yet there was an invisible wire connecting us, too, and it can never be broken. Humans touch the world as no other animal ever has or can. This is to our immense gain, and the Albatross’s great peril.
Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org