“I now belong to a higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross.”
~Robert Cushman Murphy
It was the photograph that had eluded me. After more than two weeks of travel in Antarctica and southern South America, I had memory cards brimming with pictures of penguins, sea lions and sea birds…but none of the great albatross. Although the spectacular soaring birds with wingspans as wide as 11 feet had been spotted throughout our voyage, I hadn’t spent any time watching them, let alone photographing them.
We were in the waters around Chilean Patagonia, somewhere in the Strait of Magellan, when I stepped out onto the aft deck where expedition team members were available to answer questions and talk about wildlife. “I’m here to photograph the albatross!” I announced to Brent Houston, as I laughed at the mere idea that I could just order up the perfect shot. But it turned out my request wasn’t as naïve as I had imagined. An albatross was sailing overhead just as I was speaking, and Brent explained that they fly along the moving ship in hopes of catching fish that have been stirred in the wake.
Brent suggested that I spend time with expeditioner Moira Le Patourel, who was taking photos nearby for Seabourn. “You know, the best place for photographing the albatross is down on deck five,” he said, almost as an afterthought. “Why don’t you head down there with Moira?” I followed Moira down the stairs, incredibly surprised and grateful for what was beginning to feel like a private photo session with a wildlife expert. We passed through the ship’s boot room, its lockers clean and ready for the next Antarctic voyagers, and made our way back outside.
About a half dozen albatrosses were flying quite close to the ship as I steadied myself next to the railing. At first, they hovered just above the water, almost blending in with the waves. Then all of a sudden they began to soar, gliding gracefully and displaying their magnificent wingspans.
I’m not sure how long I spent on deck five that afternoon, but I know the albatrosses captured my attention much longer than I could have imagined. Following these magnificent Southern Ocean birds as they effortlessly soared between blue sky and white-capped waters was mesmerizing. And until that moment, the only thought I had given to the word albatross was as the definition of a burden. I later learned that mariners once believed that the albatrosses were the souls of lost sailors, and anyone who harmed an albatross would be destined to bad luck and misfortune…an albatross around his neck.
My photographic mission accomplished, I thanked Moira and headed back to our cabin for the rest of our time in the Strait of Magellan. Herb and I watched from our verandah as we cruised past green rocky shorelines, vast open waters, even a shipwreck. The sky was continuously changing, moody and overcast one minute, bright-blue with billowy clouds the next.
And then, as if on some perfect-day-ending cue, a rainbow appeared, stretching across the landscape in a splendid arc of color that disappeared into the water.