Albatross Island

Rachael Alderman wears no protective gear as she clambers over the rocks, moss and guano towards a nesting albatross. They might have wing spans almost twice her height, they may have beaks capable of breaking bones, and they may be in nature’s most vulnerable state of protecting their unborn, but still she wears no protective clothing.

Alderman knows the bird will not leave its nest as she approaches. She knows this characteristic made them easy prey for hunters in the early days of colonial settlement, and makes it easy today for scientists, like Dr Alderman, to tag them and conduct their annual population counts.

However, she also knows, better than most, that these are big, powerful birds and serious injury could be inflicted if one decided aggression was the best way to greet her. “I’ve had some superficial wounds,” she says with a laugh. Protective clothing? “I don’t think that’s necessary. You get very good at learning to read the bird’s behaviour. Occasionally you cop a bite, resulting in a bruise or two.”

Calmly, slowly, she gets close enough to the bird to read the information on its tag. The information is noted, and she moves on. One bird done, a few thousand to go.

Albatross Island is an 18-hectare nature reserve in Bass Strait, about half-way between Smithton and King Island. It is one of three places in the world where the shy albatross breeds. The other two are also Tasmanian islands, named Mewstone and Pedra Branca, both off the south coast.

The shy albatross is therefore as Tasmanian as the thylacine and, as Rachael Alderman’s numbers show, it is heading in the same direction.

Albatross Island was well-populated with shy albatross until Europeans arrived and started slaughtering them for feathers and eggs – “as we slaughter most things,” Alderman says. The population fell to just a few hundred pairs in the early 1800s. Such small numbers made harvesting uneconomic and the killing stopped.

The recovery was slow (there is a 1905 estimate of about 300 breeding pairs on Albatross Island), but in recent years the numbers were up to an estimated 5,000 pairs on Albatross Island, 7,000 pairs on Mewstone and about 200 pairs on Pedra Branca.

The recovery, however, has stalled.

Dr Alderman has been conducting annual counts for Tasmania’s environment department for more than 10 years, and her annual census of shy albatross shows the numbers declining again. Sadly, science can not yet tell us why.

The problem is in the fledgling survival rate. Shy albatross are long-lived – about 35 years – and mate for life. Pairs produce only one egg at a time, however, and they don’t mate until they are anything between seven and 10 years old.

Shy albatross eggs are laid in September and that’s when Alderman makes one of her two annual visits to the nests to collect and data. She needs to visit each nest at least twice because parents take it in turns to sit on the egg. While one is sitting, the other is at sea seeking food. They swap roles every few days.

The chicks hatch in December, and by April are ready to leave. So just before that Alderman makes her second annual visit, to band the chicks.

The first time shy albatross chicks leave their island is critical. They will stay away for years, flying vast distances, until one day some ancient instinct says it’s time to head home to Tasmania and find a mate.

Fewer than 50 per cent survive those years away. That’s always been the case; natural attrition and commercial fishing are to blame. Recently, however, when Rachael Alderman returns to Albatross Island to count returning young albatross she last saw as chicks up to 10 years ago, she finds the survival rate is “well below” 50 percent, and declining.

Science may not know exactly why, but it has a pretty good general idea why.

The shy albatross is a “pure marine creature”, in Alderman’s words, relying totally on the marine environment. The waters where shy albatross forage – mostly southern Australian waters – have experienced among the highest rates of environmental change on Earth, and the shy albatross, as a long-lived species, has limited capacity to adapt to change. They can’t relocate – their instinct to return to Tasmania, to the same breeding place where they were born, is immutable. For survival, therefore, they must depend on an environment which is changing inexorably and alarmingly. The villain is climate change.   

. . .

Rachael Alderman was born in Perth, but with a father in the military, she lived in many places. About the only regular in her mobile childhood was the naval base at Nowra. She didn’t recognise at the time the irony of its name, HMAS Albatross.

She discovered a love of zoology early, and by university years, spent in Canberra, was volunteering for scientific trips to Macquarie Island. Following completion of a doctorate based on the shy albatross, she did the logical thing and called Tasmania home.

For the past 13 years home has also been a tent on Albatross Island. Getting there for her twice-yearly visits is a saga. She has to pack for several days, then drive from Hobart to the far north-west. After a good night’s sleep she makes her way early next morning to Woolnorth for the boat trip. The boat owner knows the way – the same man has been ferrying Alderman on this journey for all these years.

The trip should take about 90 minutes, but it’s variable, depending on the roughness of the sea. It’s “finicky” around these parts. Hunter Island and Three Hummock Island are just offshore, and it’s a shallow, tidal stretch of water given to turbulence. It can make for an interesting commute to work.

That work is running the Tasmanian government’s long-term monitoring and conservation program of shy albatross. The program has been in place since 1980, when concerns about declining albatross numbers first became widespread.

An important part of the job is sourcing funding for conservation work. Alderman is a public servant working for a government department, but it’s the way of the world these days that our scientists, working on the front line of conservation and environmental issues, must take time out from that work to raise money to fund it. And it’s an uneven playing field, with public awareness not always matching needs.

“We have an endemic albatross species in Tasmania whose numbers are declining,” Alderman says, “and nobody knows about it. The Tasmanian devil is endangered, and everybody knows about it. Few people want to protect and conserve something they nothing about.” So Alderman must devote time to educating the community.

“Conservation can’t be just about government. Other people must get involved. And it can’t be just about money. It’s about awareness, it’s about asking if your seafood is sustainably caught, it’s thinking about plastic debris in the marine environment and young kids telling their parents that they shouldn’t be throwing their plastic down the drains because birds will ingest it, and it’s about getting on board with and lobbying to try to curb climate change. There are all sorts of ways people can get involved.”

There is a conundrum. You can not go to Albatross Island to see shy albatross in their natural environment, the way you can go to a wildlife sanctuary to see Tasmanian devils. Albatross Island is off-limits to the public because the birds are vulnerable to disease and other human influences such as clumsiness. Therefore, the birds are safe while no-one knows about them, but they will remain endangered unless the word is spread about the need to study and protect them.

Rachel Alderman is working on it. “Tasmania has an amazing environment,” she says. “We have albatross, we have whales coming in our front door, we have seals – nowhere else in Australia has what we have.”

It’s a home worth protecting.  


Matthew Newton is an independent photographer and cinematographer based in Hobart. His focus is telling Tasmanian stories. He has shot many documentaries that have been broadcast nationally, and has worked in about a dozen countries, often in remote locations. More of his work can be seen at matthewnewton.com.au.

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