Up Close and Personal with the Albatross In literature, albatrosses represent weighty, inescapable burdens. But in real life, the huge seabirds use wind energy to cruise around the planet's oceans. Photographer Frans Lanting and writer Carl Safina report from one of the world's largest albatross colonies.
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Up Close and Personal with the Albatross

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Up Close and Personal with the Albatross

Up Close and Personal with the Albatross

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

The extraordinary wildlife photographer Frans Lanting, who's been everywhere to shoot everything, cannot get over one creature, the albatross.

(Soundbite of Albatross)

Those are fledgling albatrosses you're hearing, recorded on the Pacific Island on an earlier National Geographic Radio Expedition, partly inspired by Frans. These enormous birds soar incredible distances. They mate for life, which can be 60 years. A pair produces a single egg a year.

(Soundbite of albatross)

I knew Frans had been working on an albatross story for more than a year, and then, a couple of days ago, he called.

(Soundbite of Albatross)

Frans Lanting, where are you?

Mr. FRANS LANTING (Wildlife Photographer): I'm in the middle of a huge albatross colony in the Falkland Islands.

CHADWICK: The Falklands, isolated in the southern Atlantic, fought over by Britain and Argentina more than 20 years ago - really remote. But Frans had a satellite phone, and he offered to do a Radio Expeditions interview.

Mr. LANTING: In front of me is one of the world's largest colonies of black-browed albatrosses. There are more than 30,000 albatrosses from my vantage point.

(Soundbite of albatross)

CHADWICK: Well, I could hear some of them anyway.

Mr. LANTING: Indeed, this is an extraordinary sight. I can see at least 30,000 birds from where I'm at. But the colony stretches for another two miles along the shoreline of this island, called Steeple Jason.

CHADWICK: Describe these albatrosses, would you Frans?

Mr. LANTING: Superficially, if you don't know them, you may think of them as, as huge seagulls. But there's something entirely different. They have a wingspan of about seven feet. And what makes them truly remarkable is that the ultimate frequent flyers on these planet. These birds don't flap their wings like other birds do, but they use the wind's energy instead and they fly phenomenal distances.

An average black-browed albatross may cover a 100 miles a day during its lifespan of more than 40 years, in which as of to maybe a million and a half miles during its lifetime.

CHADWICK: Why do they fly on like that? A hundred miles a day, what are they doing?

Mr. LANTING: They're seabirds and they're looking around for fish and squid, and that's not very evenly distributed on the open oceans. So they have to get around using as little energy as possible, and that's why they've become gliders. They use the wind's energy instead of expending their own.

CHADWICK: You're there with a writer Carl Safina. He's the author of the book, "Eye of the Albatross." Is Carl there?

Mr. LANTING: Ah, yes. Carl is standing next to me. Here he comes.

Mr. CARL SAFINA (Writer, Author of Eye of the Albatross): Hello.

CHADWICK: Carl, so these birds - they're seabirds and they are all over the world except in the North Atlantic. You can find them everywhere.

Mr. SAFINA: Usually they are far from land, not within sight of beaches. They do not nest on any continent. They nest on a most distant island groups and usually on small little islands at the edges of those island groups.

CHADWICK: Despite these remote locations where the birds colonize and breed, I read there are 21 or 22 different species of albatrosses, 19 of them face extinction.

Mr. SAFINA: Well, 19 of them are declining because of activities caused by people. There are a lot of people who write that they face extinction, but I think that that's really premature. They have problems. They are declining as a result of things that people are doing, mostly because they get killed with fishing gear. But we have time, and we have the technology, already, to completely tackle that problem if we choose to. And in fact, progress is being made in some places on that.

CHADWICK: They are snared by commercial fishing vessels that use these long lines to catch fish. I mean, what kind of technology can you use to save albatrosses from a fishing hook?

Mr. SAFINA: Well, they're vulnerable to fishing lines when the lines are being used near the vessel - in other words, when the line is first being let out before it sinks - because they' not really diving birds, they catch all of their food at or near the surface of the ocean. So if you can make the line sinks fast, or if you can put something out behind the boat that will scare them or keep them away from where the line is before it sinks, (unintelligible) catching albatrosses. You know in the last five years, we've really developed these techniques, and the trick now is to spread them around and make it a part of what fishing fleets do.

But in the meantime, yes, there is a serious problem. And so for many of the species we have time. For some of them time is really of the essence, or else we'll lose something that is extremely special and that we won't be able to get back again.

CHADWICK: Carl, can I speak to Frans Lanting again please.

Mr. SAFINA: Absolutely. Here he is.

Mr. LANTING: Hi, Alex.

CHADWICK: Frans, I know you've had a long fascination with these birds. But of all these places that you've been over the last year, why did you call us now?

Mr. LANTING: Because this is a truly extraordinary place - so many birds in front of you. You know, the vitality of it. Yeah, in all the years that I covered the world for National Geographic, I can think of few places as spectacular as this one.

CHADWICK: But it sounds very barren. No trees, just this kind of wind swept rock, and the oceans all around you, and the birds.

(Soundbite of albatross)

Mr. LANTING: Indeed, that there are these thousands and thousands of birds, all with their own lives. And when you walk into a colony, as I'm doing right now, every bird has its own story. I can see, you know, adults coming back from sea and working their way into the colony to meet up with their partners. I see younger birds that are looking for mates, that are trying to establish nest sights of their own. It's a society. It's a society of seabirds.

CHADWICK: Photographer Frans Lanting, speaking with us from Steeple Jason Island in the western Falklands, along with his writing partner, Carl Safina. Hey Frans, would you do one thing? Can you just hold that phone there for a moment and let us...

Mr. LANTING: Pardon?

CHADWICK: ...hear these birds.

Mr. LANTING: Yes. I will walk into their colony and just hold the phone near the birds, and you can hear them yourself.

(Soundbite of Albatross)

Mr. LANTING: Did you hear that Alex?

CHADWICK: I did indeed. Frans Lanting, world-renowned photographer, and now sound recordist as well. Frans, thank you.

Mr. LANTING: It's good to talk with you, Alex. Bye-bye.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: That interview, thanks to Radio Expeditions, and yes, Frans Lanting has a couple of pictures for us on our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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