Science and Myth on Albatross Island

Pete Hay


The wind roars in from the west, scouring exposed conglomerate rock, funnelling into the cave where a party of humans is seeking vain relief from the angry elements. Rachael Alderman is here.  She is a government wildlife biologist and, since 2003, co-ordinator and team leader of a long-term monitoring study of the shy albatross.  Photographer extraordinaire, Matt Newton, is here, and so is Richard Wastell, an artist rapidly scaling his calling’s heights.  The shy albatross is here, though not precisely here.  It is outside in the weather, fixed and resolute upon its flowerpot nest.

What is anomalous here is the presence of Newton and Wastell.  This is aptly-named Albatross Island, 18 wild hectares 35kms out in the very teeth of the Bass Strait westerlies.  To land on this island you need a permit –and if you are not a scientist your chances are virtually non-existent.  Yet Newton and Wastell are here, for this is to be a collaborative science/art exercise in communication.  More about that science/art nexus later.  Why, though, should there be any call for such a project in the first place?

In her own essay herein, Rachael outlines the biology of the shy albatross, the nature of the monitoring program that has existed since 1980, and the history of human interaction with Albatross Island.  It is an extraordinary story, one that features near-extinction – from 10-12000 breeding pairs when Bass and Flinders landed on the island in 1798, the shy albatross declined to a mere 300-400 a century later.  In the twentieth century the species recovered, climbing towards half its pre-contact population.  Since 2005, though, the number of breeding pairs has undergone a small but steady attrition.

The bird only breeds on three remote Tasmanian islands and, though Albatross Island is off bounds to you and I, it is the most accessible of the three and it is here that the project is based.  Rachael speaks of ‘her’ albatross with great passion.  It spends most of its life at sea, but Rachael knows it with a unique intimacy.  After a day of banding and fitting miniature satellite tracking devices her hands and forearms stream blood.  These are the wounds of love; they mark an engaged scientist’s deep affection for an extraordinary bird, one hovering on the brink of vulnerability.  She wants it lodged in the hearts and minds of Tasmanians.  She wants it known and iconic.  Enter Newton and Wastell.

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‘Albatross Island.’  I am overwhelmed with the mythical portent inherent in those two conjoined words.  There is a context for this project that sends it soaring it into rarefied realms.  Let’s take ‘island’.

As a geographic trope, the island ‘idea’ constructs much of civilised societies’ understandings of themselves.  The life humans live, or might live, is simultaneously distilled and made luminous on islands – islands real and islands imagined.  The island is the crucible within which utopian dreams are played out.  It concentrates a can-do sense and it concentrates the passions.  Albatross Island is a remote speck in Bass Strait, but Bass and Flinders were here, Robinson was here with Truganini and Wooredy,, the lawless sealers of the Straits were here.  It is a place with a call on history.  But its human history and its natural history have been profoundly incompatible.  As we have seen, the sealers, having cleared the island of seals, then commenced plundering the albatross colonies to satisfy a pampered European taste for feathered pillows.  A natural catastrophe was narrowly averted.

And here we have an all-too-familiar tale.  Writing in 1987, that fine chronicler of the natural world, David Quammen, observed that in the preceding 300 years 127 species of bird had entered the dark cave of extinction – and of these 116 had lived on islands.  Here’s what he observed in his melancholic essay, ‘Island Getaway’:

Speciation and extinction tend to happen more rapidly on islands.  At the same time, the level of species diversity is almost always lower than on the continental mainlands. Therefore the complex relationships balancing life against death, stasis against change, the success of one species against the decline of another, show themselves more clearly in such places. The history of life on islands reflects – in a heightened and simplified way – the entire evolutionary process.

Evolution speeds up on islands, then.  It throws up biological anomalies, flightlessness in birds, say, or gigantism.  And that’s fine, as long as the random evolutionary whims at work on any given island are left to unfold free from disturbance.  But this rarely happens.  At some point the cocooning isolation is breached, and then we see just how vulnerable are these little oceanic oases of uniquely evolved life.  The isolation that made evolutionary pizzazz possible now become the problem – the island’s hard edge becomes an imprisoning wall, precluding escape.  And so the short march to extinction begins, most visibly as a consequence of human rapacity, but also subtly – with little genetic variation within species, susceptibility to introduced pathogens is heightened in island-dwelling species.

It has been said that islands are evolution’s ‘natural laboratories’.  The role they have played in the emergence and subsequent development of evolutionary science is incalculable.  The twin fathers of evolution, Darwin and Wallace, each formulated his breakthrough theory from observations made of life on islands – indeed, Wallace published his pioneering study under the title, Island Life.  In more recent times, MacArthur and Wilson’s 1967 book, The Theory of Island Biogeography, has set the agenda for a generation of ecological scientists.  The Albatross Island scientific monitoring program, then, takes place with the very heartland – the island heartland – of evolutionary science.  It stands four-square within a great tradition

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The shy albatross, though, is an ocean wanderer.  It should, theoretically, be able to escape the prison of its breached island boundaries.  Well… no.  Its dependence on a mere three of the planet’s countless islands, from which it shows no inclination to diversify, gives the lie to this.  Each admirably monogamous pair produces just a single egg each breeding season, and they must survive the perils of sea and land for six years before they can begin to breed.  Not easy in these fraught and crowded times.  The trend-line of post-2005 decline suggests that the bird is remorselessly succumbing to unprecedented and growing pressures within their land and, especially, marine environments.

This not to be borne.  Let’s return to our portent-laden name: ‘Albatross Island’.  We have seen that the ‘island’ half of the name is loaded with scientific symbolism.  What of ‘albatross’?

It would be difficult to understate the place of the albatross as a defining motif within the cultural legacy of the English speaking world.  This is because the killing of an albatross, and the dire consequences of that act, is the theme of one of the greatest literary works in the English language, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.

In the maritime mythology of the English-speaking world the albatross was a harbinger of good fortune.  So it was in Coleridge’s poem:

And a good south wind sprung up behind,
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariners’ hollo!

Given the several centuries during which Britannia ruled the waves, it may be that the strength of this superstition was crucial to the survival of albatross species in those wont-of-sympathy times.  In any case, in Coleridge’s poem the sailors’ taboo is transgressed: ‘with my cross-bow’, the accursed ancient Mariner tells the hapless Wedding Guest, ‘I shot the Albatross’.  As the poem unfolds, the doomed ship and its doomed crew descend into a tormented, parched and putrid hell:

Water, water every where
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water every where
Nor any drop to drink.

In the poem, then, Coleridge, more than a century and a half ahead of his time, uses the killing of an albatross to embody a profound ecological imperative.  The albatross is symbolic of the living spirit in all life that we should hold sacrosanct.  The animal world in particular merits our kindly regard and, indeed, our own wellbeing as a species is dependent upon the cultivation of just such a cast of mind.  The Mariner’s message is one for our own times, and it is the fate of the albatross that emblemises this.  Nor is this me being fanciful, for Coleridge makes his lesson explicit: ‘He prayeth well’, says the Mariner to the Wedding Guest’, who loveth best/ Both man and bird and beast.’

Let’s not mince words, then.  Central to the canon of English literature is the albatross as the icon for ecological integrity.  It is the single most prominent symbol of the need to prevent species destruction.  No other creature has borne with it, into the present day, such dramatic import.  This given, it is unconscionable, it seems to me, that we should passively watch the albatross slide into the dark cave of non-being with all those other lost, lamented species.  With it would go our cultural soul.  With it the battle must necessarily be deemed lost.

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Late in the 1950s C.P. Snow, acclaimed scientist, celebrated novelist, made his famous distinction between the ‘two cultures’.  In western society, he observed, an intellectual schism divides the humanities and sciences, with each ignorant about the very basics of the other and, moreover, with little respect for the epistemologies from which each proceeds.  Snow was harshest on the humanities, and a backlash within those realms eventually led him, in the 1960s, to produce a sunnier prognosis, one in which divisions were smoothing out into what he called a ‘third culture’.

Perhaps.  Many in the humanities are now literate in the new physics, ecology, nano and cyber technologies, and even new-wave neuroscience.   The popularisers of science can take much credit for this  – books by, for example, Stephen Jay Gould, Paul Davies, Jared Diamond, the aforementioned David Quammen, and many others have been, and continue to be, runaway best sellers.  Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins are household names.  And on television popular science programs proliferate, turning their charismatic presenters into instant celebrities.  For their part, scientifically-trained people are increasingly prominent in music, the visual arts and even literature.  You may even encounter scientists at literary festivals!

But it would be foolish to take this too far.  Mystification and wont of sympathy flourish on both sides, a situation not helped by dismissals, within the various post-modernisms that currently command the field in the humanities, of the ‘essentialist’ truth claims of science.  This claim here is that science is just another hegemonic story seeking to disguise self-interest and context-dependent ‘truth’ under an entirely spurious claim to universality.  Some scientists have hit back by attacking the validity of metaphor-sourced paths to truth and knowledge – a case fatally undermined by the fact that all major scientific advances fond their initial eureka moments in metaphor, conceptually in some cases, or via a visual equivalent in others.

The bedrock credibility of science as an enterprise has been so undermined that when scientific findings seem to challenge sacred ideological precepts, as climate science has for the ideologues of the fundamentalist right of politics, it is easy enough to assert the validity of unexamined ideological assumptions over the truth claims of science.  However you cut it, science is in trouble, its declining fortunes reflected in ever-shrinking public budgets.  It needs help, and this is most particularly needed at the point at which it butts against a largely non-scientific public.  It has a communications crisis, and it needs to find new, more effective ways of getting its message ‘out there’

So. Albatross Island. One scientific story among very many, but a compelling one, a story, as we have seen, of immense symbolic import, touching chords (and cords) that extend deep into the very roots of evolutionary science, and into the mainstream of cultural iconography.  Enter Newton and Wastell, artists drawn to the rough and rugged soul of a rough and rugged place – two of Tasmania’s great visual interpreters, and at the height of their powers.  They were up for it and, as you can now see, they were also up to it.  Here is a collaboration born in heaven (as I might say if I believed in heaven).  The visual arts communicate truths in a way that sits radically apart from the empirical rigours of the scientific method, but which entirely complements it.  An image communicates instantly, acting as a stiletto penetrating instantaneously to the bright heart of a truth.  This is an ineffable insight, its impact working slowly through the viewer’s constructed reality long after the initial exposure, quietly reconfiguring sympathies and core understandings.  The communicative effect of a skilfully wrought visual image may be immeasurable, but it is of great potential power.

Albatross Island is an extraordinary place, the shy albatross an extraordinary creature, Rachael Alderman and her team of extraordinarily dedicated scientists at work on an extraordinary project.  They deserve the talents of these extraordinary visual artists  Here is a collaboration that will ink the shy albatross upon that list of icons that constitute an island’s soul, and position the shy albatross at the centre of Tasmanians’ constructed sense of their vibrant home.

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