By Joan Larsen
A faraway island at the very bottom of the world –far off Antarctica – was destined to have a singular impact on my heart and mind forever. On any map, it would remain a dot. A small dot. Eight of us bobbed in the sea in a small Zodiac raft as the sandy shore of a tiny beautiful island came into view. The many residents – thousands of fur seals – took note of the first humans they had ever seen. For hundreds of years, the seals had owned this island. For generations, this island was their family home.
It was time to defend it against the intruders.
Those of us on the raft had really come to climb the small mountain center of this small island. We were there to see the most magnificent and largest birds on earth – the elusive Wandering Albatross – who may have never seen humans up close before either.
I am not a “birder”. But high on this mountain, we entered the forever home of these birds – there in the hundreds. These albatross mate for life . . . and they live almost as long as humans. We had entered the private world of male and female birds that continually did courtship dances – real dances – that stirred their love over and over. . . as humans do in other ways. We were voyeurs – almost feeling we should not be there for this private ceremony going on everywhere.
On nests scattered all over the mountaintop, little babes peeked out from the warm feathers of their parent, keeping them warm. We were not pecked or chased. Instead, the new parents seemed to want to show off their beautiful child, gently pushing the baby forward to be praised… just as humans do. We sat with them, became at one with them.
In all of our lives, there are moments in time that forever will stand out among all of our days. . . tender moments that are unforgettable.
This was one of them.
We were eight warmly-clad Robinson Crusoes, bobbing in a raft a distance off-shore from a modern-day desert island, eager to be the first to leave our prints on the pristine sand beach that lay before us. We had no idea that the natives had spotted us and they were restless. From that distance, they were hidden. . . but not for long. This was not to be exactly “a day in the sun”. We were still innocents, eager to explore this tiny beautiful isle.
The only thing that gave away that this was not a beckoning tropical isle was the absence of those clumps of palm trees – well, any trees at all to be honest. The beautiful small mountain behind the beach was covered with green though, making the setting a thing of beauty. We had long forgotten that the temperature stood at 40 degrees.
Coasting in for a landing, we were excited. Stepping off the Zodiac in our attractive, matching green knee-high Wellington boots, we waded into shore, secretly claiming this beautiful faraway place as our very own.
It had already been named Bird Island – which seemed fitting. We were there to be one of the first present-day explorers to climb the mountain and see the dream home of the largest birds in the entire world: the Wandering Albatross – 3000 of them. We were still innocents. We had no idea that with no distinct trail upward, we were to have more excitement than we had planned for.
“The natives” on this island were Antarctic fur seals. After hundreds of years when they had been hunted in these waters to almost extinction, they had made a comeback. Most of the millions of fur seals had always claimed Bird Island as their own. They seemed to be all here.
I am afraid of them. Really afraid.
They may look like other seals but they are not: they have finger and toe nails, and they have ear buds. We had been warned to be very alert around them. “Scared to death” would be more like it! The young seals were like small dogs, and will charge you without warning. I found myself running the beach, with these very aggressive animals able to move just as fast, chasing me down. We had been told that they love to bite, and if they have you cornered, will leap at your chest, sinking their teeth in. The bacteria in their saliva is deadly, leading to far too many OMG moments for me.
I had too many close calls. . . and I was really getting winded. The young fur seals were small but incredibly fast.
Climbing up to the heights and away from them fast seemed a good idea. The way up seemed to be a drainage area, almost hidden in the tussock grass. The twists and turns and high steps in rough soil were fine. But like a fun house amusement park, young fur seals were found to be adept at climbing upward also. They would spring out of the high clumps of tussock grass – well – any time they wanted.
I screamed a lot.
The rolling terrain on top was worth it. You could see the world in any direction. But everywhere I looked there were these beautiful huge birds – the Wandering Albatross – demurely sitting on nests, proudly looking down at a darling babe, peeking out.
“Do you mind if I sit with you?” I asked a beautiful bird who was incredibly proper. They were tame, glad to have company — as 7 months is a long time to sit on a nest. “Will you show me your baby?” And as if the albatross understood, she rose up, stood on her tiptoes, look downward, and proudly displayed her baby. I was enthralled by the behavior, the love of child. For it was love. There was no doubt.
Wandering albatrosses mate for life. Signs of affection between the couple (who can live 60 years) take place when they change places on the nest over the weeks and months. It goes on for an indecent time. The mating dance is frankly erotic. The visitor almost feels like a voyeur. For this is a very private place they have chosen to return to every two years to mate and raise another chick. It is hidden for good reason. This is their time to be together.
And then, once they see their child will be all right, you will see them run down the runway at the cliff top, spreading their 9 foot wings, and take to the skies for many months, alone. They fly 6000 miles every 10 days without a rest – mind-boggling.
For those of us who have travelled to this sub-Antarctic island called Bird, 800 miles from Antarctica, it was like a visit to an isle of fur seals and albatrosses that was meant to be in nowhere. Hidden from the human world. Forever. It was almost primeval.
Soon after we left, the island’s fur seals claimed complete dominance of the beaches and mountain side. Visitors now have been prohibited forever after.
For those few of us who were the fortunate ones to land on this exotic place in our world, we carry with us memories of the forever kind.
Never ever to be forgotten.
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”