Landmass to landmass, wingtip to wingtip. The albatross sees and spans further than any other creature. Spectre and sentinel; it encircles the earth without touching the ground; swooping into the sea-faring imagination and emerging unruffled through the storm.
The ocean’s watchman, restless wanderer, ‘prince of the clouds’ – here’s why the Finisterre X Christopher Raeburn collaboration proudly bears its mark:
40 degrees South and beyond. Westerly winds churn seas and whip sails where the roaring forties and furious fifties spin in the Antarctic polar vortex. These are the Albatross Latitudes; christened by early sailors, fleeing the doldrums to ride along the ocean currents and all the way to the world’s loneliest corners; only to find themselves in white-winged company.
“…the white thing was so white, its wings so wide, and in those forever exiled waters, I had lost the miserable warping memories of traditions and of towns…”
- HERMAN MELVILLE (MOBY DICK)
A collaborator with the elements, the albatross has evolved to not only weather, but actively harness the storm. Ancient wind-seeker, engineered to surf the gales, it covers up to 1000 kilometres a day on a 12ft wingspan. The slickly engineered skeleton locks for gliding and, exploiting changes in wind velocity at different heights, it soars at speed. Angling straight into the wind, species of the vast seabird can fly at over 50 miles an hour, harvesting the energy of the gradient where air, meets air, meets air, meets sea.
‘Flying’ is a misnomer, the albatross journeys by ‘dynamic soaring’, an almost 100% energy-efficient gliding style that’s currently in development with NASA; although the intellectual property is all theirs. Patented and perfected over millions of years, a single bird might cross entire oceans on a single rise and fall of its wings. Airborne, the albatross is so entirely in its element that its heart beats slower than when sitting on the sea. It expends less energy in effortless flight than it does brooding aground on an unhatched chick.
“At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came”
- SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE (RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER)
At home in the wild places, the seabird has appeared to sailors in fevered seas since the first days of sail, a gliding white spectre through gelid storms. Scavengers by evolution, a lone albatross can follow a ship for weeks in pursuit of easy pickings. Thousands of miles from land and appearing from nowhere, it’s no wonder sailors, explorers and poets have made of it a mythic figure.
In maritime lore it has become a portent and protector, bringing signs of rough seas on the horizon, appearing as a spiritual companion in the eye of the tempest. White and high and seemingly untouched by the harshest conditions, legend turned albatross into the innocent souls of lost sailors. Sacred, talismanic and (as Coleridge’s ancient mariner would implore you) deeply unlucky to kill.
A symbol, too, of nature’s mysteries, the albatross brings contradictions and contrast. Stunningly elegant in the air, most species are ill at ease on land. A wandering albatross can circumnavigate the globe for up to seven years, a paragon of endurance that never sets foot ashore. Sleeping in motion, foraging from the ocean’s surface, it’ll travel alone with no obvious home or destination. But, when it does touch down on some far flung island to mate; it’ll join a sociable colony of thousands. And we know now that culture’s patron saint of lonely souls mates for life, always returning to the same family after years away.
“… the prince of the clouds
Who is friendly to the tempest and laughs at the bowman”
- BAUDELAIRE (THE ALBATROSS)
Science has come to dominate superstition. We’ve dissected, tagged, tracked and studied the albatross; borrowed their flight technologies and watched them pair up on screen to Attenborough’s dulcet tones. We know where they go and where they come from. But their role of portent still holds true. Relying on the ocean’s surface, the albatross will dive down for squid, fish and crustaceans; as well as carrion left behind by ships and other species. As it snatches at the water across a continental range, the health of the albatross has become a metonym for the health of the ocean, a sentinel species.
As it stands, the fortunes don’t favour us, or them. Chris Jordan’s heart-stopping documentary feature, Albatross [insert link], released this year as a public artwork, foregrounds skeletal photographs of dead chicks. Lying decayed and splayed; their stomachs appear as plastic collages. Sculptural stories of a careless consumption, they cast a new sort of curse. Jordan is a modern day haruspex, inspecting sacred entrails to uncover unutterable truths. And so, hundreds of years after superstitious sailors first looked to the bird for a way out of the storm, the albatross continues to cry out a warning.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!
- SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE (RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER)
It might help us to try and see as the albatross sees, taking the whole world in. We had to head into space before we could fully understand, vaulting above the earth for the seabird’s eye view. We’ve come a long way since Darwin looked to the sky in 1833 and puzzled at how the albatross “glided right up the wind”. Orbiting space satellites now allow us to track and unravel the full truth of their miraculous lives, as poetic and strange as the literature. Living fluidly in constant motion, an albatross will pass 95% of its life above the sea. In a 50 year lifespan, it’ll journey over 3 million miles, that’s six trips to the Moon and back. These creatures of air, working with wind and gravity, loop the entire earth. Leaving no sky or sea untouched, they still bring us signs and omens through wind-whipped skies. An icon of hope, serenity and endurance through the heart of any storm.
“I now belong to the higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the Albatross”
- ROBERT CUSHMAN MURPHY
View the Christopher Raeburn Collection Here