Hunkering down: albatross research on the edge

The articles in this magazine describe Australia’s involvement in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Quite rightly, the emphasis is on science because science sustains the Antarctic ‘economy’ — it creates international credibility and political sway, the sense of responsibility that stems from the acquisition of knowledge, and much-needed insights for the protection of the Antarctic environments and Southern Ocean.

But there is more to science than the outputs suggested by the economy analogy. Sometimes the logistical operations that underpin the science are more complicated than the science itself. In this article I describe research aimed at reducing the mortality of Southern Ocean seabirds in longline fisheries. The research involved a field program in subantarctic Chile that required teams of people on three islands simultaneously and a transport system dedicated to them.

Albatrosses and petrels die in longline fisheries when they seize baited hooks intended for fish (see Australian Antarctic Magazine, Autumn 2001). For some populations current death rates are unsustainable. For example, at the Falkland Islands, in the south-west Atlantic, about 17,000 black-browed albatrosses are lost each year, most likely to longlines in some other nation’s fisheries. That’s about two birds for every hour of every day! Seabirds in the Australian sector of the Southern Ocean are also killed in other nation’s fisheries, particularly South Africa, South America and fisheries in the Indian Ocean. Mortality in these fisheries is central to the Antarctic Division’s Antarctic Marine Living Resources Program’s efforts to reduce fisheries-related mortality of Southern Ocean seabirds. The recently ratified Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels also aims to reduce the take of seabirds. The Agreement recognises that parochial efforts alone will not be enough and that to protect seabirds throughout migratory ranges nations must work together.

In September-November 2001 Australia and Chile put the Agreement to work. Chile is a hot spot for the Agreement because seabirds from breeding sites throughout the Southern Ocean flock to its coast. Chile also has its own albatross populations — at Diego de Almagro, Ildefonso and Diego Ramirez islands — which are under threat in local and distant water longline fisheries.

Our study involved four Australians — Barbara Wienecke, Roger Kirkwood, Kieran Lawton and myself — and four Chileans — Jose Valencia from the Chilean Antarctic Institute, and Javier Arata, Marcos Munoz and Marcelo Flores from the University of Southern Chile. Our main task was to determine, by satellite telemetry, if albatrosses from each island fed in the same areas of the ocean and, therefore, faced the same threats from longline fisheries. We also collected blood samples to determine if populations differed genetically (this has implications for conservation). And we counted the birds to assess population status.

Diego de Almagro lies at 51oS on the western side of the Chilean channels. It is a big island, 40km long and with peaks over 1200m high, uninhabited and inhospitable, wet, windy and, as we were to discover, infested with rats. Ildefonso and Diego Ramirez lie in the Drake Passage 100km south-west of Cape Horn and are the southern-most albatross colonies in the world (they're 450km south of Almagro). Diego Ramirez is a collection of small tussock covered islands and islets and is permanently inhabited by a detachment from the Armada de Chile which runs the light house and monitors the weather. Ildefonso is a tiny archipelago of nine rock stacks rising 112m from the sea. The largest stack is 1km long and 200m wide — the eastern side is near-vertical and the western side ramps down at a 45o angle to the sea. Both Diego Ramirez and Ildefonso are covered with albatrosses and penguins, whereas Almagro holds six albatross colonies — all on vertical cliffs or offshore stacks — on its rugged west coast.

When planning work on islands in the Southern Ocean it is essential to do your homework properly to know what’s feasible, but with Ildefonso the information needed to inspire confidence didn’t exist. We knew we’d have to swim on to the rock but didn’t know if the conditions would allow it, or if we could live and work there. But the work was important enough to try, and what we ended up doing was a feasibility study and science program at the same time. To ease the uncertainty, and leave only the vagaries of the weather to deal with, we chartered the Tooluka, a 14.5 m steel yacht owned by Roger Wallis of Victoria. Dedicated to the program, Tooluka taxied people as required and acted as safety back-up. And she made a logistically difficult program possible.

We reached Almagro on 26 September in mill-pond conditions. A local at nearby Puerto Natales referred to the weather as ‘three weeks of milk', unseen in 16 years living there. We made use of the conditions and sailed around the uncharted west coast of Almagro, took Tooluka within 100m of the cliffs and in one day completed photographic censuses of all six albatross colonies. We then deployed Roger Kirkwood, Barbara and Marcelo on the east coast where they camped for five weeks, making the ten-hour trek to and from the albatrosses on the west coast every second day to complete the tracking study. After deploying the Almagro party Tooluka sailed south through the Straits of Magellan to Ushuaia, Argentina, to collect other team members then to Puerto Williams, an Armada outpost on the island of Navarino in Chilean Tierra del Fuego. At Puerto Williams we received a special permit, called a ‘zarpi', to cross sensitive military zones to Ildefonso. With permit in hand we back-tracked westward through the Beagle Channel to a protected cove north of Ildefonso and waited for the weather.

The sea around Ildefonso in October is rough, heaped up by regular of 60–70 knot storms. We were prepared to wait up to three weeks for the right conditions, but needed only five days. The Ildefonso archipelago is broken into two groups — eight tightly grouped stacks to the north and a single big stack two km to the south. The big southern stack comprises about two-thirds of the land area of the archipelago. We sailed down the lee side of the first eight stacks scanning the cliffs for a landing place and found none. We were running out of options until reaching the very end of the southernmost stack: the rock face was steep but not impossibly so and the rise and fall of the sea was only two to three metres. Wearing dry suits against the cold Kieran and I jumped into the sea, swam onto the rock face and climbed, using the kelp as a ladder, to a ledge ten metres above the sea. We then hauled ashore 150kg of food and camping gear (in dry bags and plastic barrels) and 200kg of drinking water. The Tooluka then departed for the 60km voyage to Diego Ramirez to deploy the third party before nightfall.

The eastern face of Ildefonso lies about ten degrees off the vertical but it’s tussock covered and the grass provided a way up. We found a ledge 45m above the sea, hauled our gear up and made camp. To reach the albatrosses — 35m above the ledge — we bolted two pitches of climbing rope to the rock face, wore climbing harnesses and ‘roped up’ whenever ascending to the birds.

We spent five weeks on Ildefonso doing our research. The most time consuming part of the work was the satellite tracking. Although it takes less than two minutes to attach a transmitter to an albatross it can take hours to get your hands on the right one. During October and November albatross colonies are full of incubating birds sitting on mud nests. Incubation duties are shared by both sexes and sitting birds are relieved about every two weeks by their partners returning from feeding at sea. Inbound birds arrive in the early morning and late afternoon, find their mate and indulge in post nuptial behaviour that might take two hours to complete. Post nuptials are lovey-dovey stuff — birds groom one another around the head and face with tenderness and care — and are essential in maintaining a strong bond between couples (albatrosses shouldn’t be disturbed until this bonding ritual is over). Eventually the birds switch roles — the outbound bird climbs off the egg and the inbound bird climbs on. The outbound bird then grooms its partner and renovates the nest in case it falls to bits from being constantly sat on. It does this by stealing mud or grass from the nests of neighbouring birds that aren’t paying attention. At some point the behaviour of the outbound bird changes from incubation mode to flying mode, and that’s when you've got to catch it.

Once a bird was caught everything moved quickly to minimise stress to the bird and anxiety to the people. We placed a black hood over the bird’s head to eliminate light and subdue it. We then attached a 50-gram transmitter to the back feathers using cloth-backed sticky tape and a thin smear of Loctite glue. Birds were then released to forage at sea. For the next two weeks the albatrosses’ whereabouts were traced via a constellation of satellites, to wherever in the world they chose to fly.

When the albatrosses returned to their nests one to two weeks later we’d retrieve the transmitters. If they looked relaxed and secure on the egg we’d remove the transmitter in daylight, but if they looked nervous we’d work at night. Working at night saved eggs. Nervy birds might step off the nest, leaving the egg vulnerable to attack by striated caracaras, which are raptors that live on the eggs and chicks of albatrosses and penguins. Bold and fearless, they're adept at flying in gale force winds and making dive-bomb descents, using an arsenal of talons in their undercarriage to catch and kill prey. But they're neutralised by the night, which gave us freedom to retrieve transmitters from nervous albatrosses without fear of egg loss.

The rewards for working at night weren’t limited to the easy retrieval of satellite transmitters. After retrieving a transmitter I’d sit on a tussock and scrape residues of glue and feather off the device with my pen knife. I’d do this for longer than needed, to drag out the pleasure of having another $3000 transmitter back in hand from a bird still faithful to the egg. One night while sitting there scraping, the wind subsided and the clouds parted enough to reveal the Southern Cross. Then the night birds started arriving — blue petrels, sooty shearwaters and Patagonian diving petrels — circling around calling to burrow-dwelling mates. I was half-way down the ropes towards bed before deciding that the conditions deserved more time, so I climbed back up and sat on the tussock again to make the most of it.

Experiences like that remind me why I work on albatrosses. The immediacy of the conservation issue is compelling, but there is another side to the attraction. Years ago when I first saw an albatross colony I was overwhelmed by the remoteness and wildness of their breeding places, their powers of flight, courtship rituals and jam-packed breeding style. But mostly it was their impeccable beauty that got me in — the ice-cream cone heads, sharp eyes, delicate feather structure and perfect proportions created the impression they’d been sculptured from marshmallow. Back then I couldn’t conceive how growth and differentiation could produce thousands of individuals that looked identical, all equally stunning. I still have trouble with that.

Our study yielded the tracks of 40 albatrosses from Ildefonso, 20 from Almagro and 15 from Diego Ramirez. Though there are some site-specific differences, early indications are that albatrosses from the three islands overlap to a large extent at sea. Interestingly, one bird from Ildefonso flew east around Cape Horn and north over the Argentine Patagonian shelf to southern Uruguay. Managing fisheries-induced effects on albatrosses with this flight path requires the co-operation of at least three nations, highlighting the importance of the Agreement mentioned above. Blood samples taken from the three islands will be analysed at the Australian National University to assess the genetic diversity of the populations. As analytical techniques improve, the samples might one day enable the breeding sites of albatrosses caught by longline fishing vessels to be identified and risks to populations more finely assessed.

After a few weeks camping on Ildefonso we became a bit drag-arsed. It takes energy just staying alive, you tire of being wet and cold, hit by bullets of wind and walking on rocks that are angular, wet and slippery. Inevitably lassitude sets in, simple things take twice as long. For pleasure we watched albatrosses battle wind and sea, learnt Spanish, thought about things the hustle and bustle of normal life rarely allows time for, looked forward to the next fine day. When the weather was screaming we paced up and down camp ledge, boiled the billy and ‘talked the talk', as blokes inevitably do. An inspiring environment, meaningful work, regular physical activity and a simple, uncluttered agenda. Hard to beat.

Finally, a word about Ildefonso itself. I remember it as being hard, raw, rugged, punished and vulnerable, the latter description deserved because the west coast is constantly punished by big seas and it’s obvious from the fissures that traverse its breadth that one day the sea will have its way and the big southern stack will be cut into free standing stacks, like the others in the archipelago. As a breeding site for albatrosses Ildefonso’s aesthetic qualities are remarkable. The sea and its spray are hostile and in the birds’ faces always, the wind is strong and persistent and the tussock that creates the veneer of organic material for nest construction and subsequent renewal of life must cope with slopes that are almost too sheer to hold onto and a water table that is high and loaded with salt. Due to the force and relentlessness of the sea and the strength of the wind it is easy to gain a temporary feeling about Ildefonso. It would be difficult to imagine another area in the albatross world where birds, wind, rock, tussock and sea interact with one another in such a raw and intimate way.

Graham Robertson, Antarctic Marine Living Resources Program, AAD