Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Mock the Prince's 'Black Spider': It Could Save the Albatross

Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Mock the Prince's 'Black Spider': It Could Save the Albatross

Article excerpt

Briefly last week the nation chortled over its cornflakes at newspaper headlines about the 'black spider', and reports of letters to ministers from the Prince of Wales, and pictures of letters from ministers to the Prince of Wales heavily annotated in the sort of spidery black ink, which did look obsessive when spread across the front of a newspaper above a giggly caption, but hardly differed from the exasperated marginal scribbling we all produce but never expect to see in newspapers.

I found my mind wandering to a different scene. I had described it in The Spectator at the time, six years ago.

I was wintering in the sub-Antarctic on an island Captain Cook called Desolation and which the French, who own it, call Kerguelen, about 4,000 miles south of India in the Southern Ocean, in the path of the Roaring Forties. There are no roads there; but driving a tractor along the beaches a French comrade and I reached the extreme east of the island, a vast flat wetland, strewn with lakes and tufts and bogs, on whose shore (first mapped by Cook) the freezing ocean pounds. Two thousand miles of angry sea heaves between the multitude of penguins and elephant seals, which winter there, and Western Australia.

A blizzard was blowing. We could see only a few yards. Snow stung eyes and faces. Our tractor was stuck by the shore, its fuel frozen. Our shelter was a mile inland: a little wooden hut constructed for scientists and expeditionaries. There was no path from shore to hut, and though the journey from hut to shore could be reliably navigated by the perpetual roar of the surf and scream of the penguin colony, finding the hut in a white-out, with the ocean at our backs, was difficult.

It was getting dark. Renaud and I stuck together, stumbling across bog and tussock.

All at once and almost beneath our feet we came upon a remarkable sight. Sitting on a small raised dais of mud, about the size of a lavatory pan but only half as high, sat a snowy-white creature about the size of a goose, its down as fluffy as dandelion seed, lightly garnished in frozen snow. It had an enormous, soft-looking beak, which was snap-snapping at us with a soft sound, as it craned its head to left and right in obvious and helpless alarm. It was perfectly defenceless, and alone.

This was the chick of a Great Albatross.

These birds, who mate for life, lay only one egg every two years, and the offspring hatches to a life as solitary as it will remain for the 60 years it may live. On this part of Kerguelen there were perhaps 100 chicks in about as many square miles, but none closer to another than about 50 yards, and most completely alone. Each sits on his little observation tower, looking around him, craning his downy neck and scanning the horizon restlessly, relentlessly.

He is looking for his parent. Soon after hatching, both parents begin to leave the chick for increasing spells, flying off in search of food - fish - which, partly digested, is disgorged in an oily mash from parent's to baby's beak. As months pass and the chick grows, mother and father wheel off in increasingly long circuits across the ocean, out over the deep seas, sometimes travelling halfway across the bottom of the world for up to 20 days before returning.

For weeks at a time they are gone. The flightless chick is left alone, grounded - he cannot even walk - peering into the skies whence parent and his next meal will hopefully come. …

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