The Albatross in the Cupboard

Victoria University of Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters is justifiably famous.  One of its innovative creative writing courses goes by the intriguing acronym of  ‘CREW352’.  CREW352 is creative science writing.

Recently, CREW352 student Nina Powles interviewed Dr Susan Waugh, Senior Curator of Sciences at Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Here is Nina’s creative writing piece of that interview:

The Albatross in the Cupboard

When I sit down to talk with Dr Susan Waugh about her research on New Zealand albatrosses, I am immediately distracted by several pairs of eyes looking at me from inside a glass cabinet. Susan sees me looking. She explains this is a set of bird specimens ready for display; mounted upright on wooden plaques, little bright eyes catching the light. “But we don’t study them like that,” she says. She opens one of the large cupboards in this vast, chilly storeroom and I’m so startled by the sight that I almost forget to listen. The cupboard is stacked uniformly with albatrosses lying on their backs – each one so large it fills a shelf – with wings pinned to their sides. They are clean and stiff with tags tied to their feet. They have a strong, sour smell. I’m so used to seeing pictures of the albatross in flight, its magnificent wingspan in full view. I feel strangely as if I’m looking at my first cadaver. I can suddenly imagine very clearly the albatross hanging limply around the neck of the ancient mariner, white dead weight.

“These are study skins. They’re much easier to measure and examine,” Susan tells me, while I stare at them and think about how awfully dead they look. But she says a lot of work has gone into preparing these birds; they rarely arrive in a presentable state. Blood, sand and dirt must be cleaned off.

Susan did her PhD research on the effects of fisheries on the Thalassarche impavida species that breeds only on Campbell Island. She tracked the impavida and the royal albatross by satellite. Te Papa has over 2,000 albatross specimens which has allowed scientists to identify many new species that were previously thought to be the same. “If I found an albatross washed up on the beach, I might not be able to tell which species it is,” Susan admits. The differences are nuanced: a thinner beak, a speckled feather, a subtle shift in coloration. To me, they certainly all look similar. But she is an expert at spotting them in flight, which much of her research entails. Recently she went on a two-month long research mission to the Crozet Islands where she studied the personality types of albatrosses. Susan and her team found that some were shyer than others. The research is still ongoing, and it raises interesting questions: does shyness have an effect on how successfully a bird raises its chicks? Is a bold, ‘outgoing’ bird more likely to investigate possible risks, such as fishing hooks?

I ask Susan if she remembers the first time she knew she wanted to study these birds. “I was nine. I remember looking at a big bird book my nana gave me. It had plates of albatrosses in it, and I thought they were so beautiful, so smooth with wonderful colour textures. They looked as if from another world.”

I’ve been amazed by albatrosses ever since my dad took me to see the colony at Taiaroa Head on the Otago Peninsula. Their sheer size and serene air stuck in my memory. “Why do you think the albatross has become such a symbol in folklore?” I ask Susan, and she has much to say. “When you’re with an albatross that’s alive, it’s beautiful and ethereal. They’ve got a wonderful presence about them; a real sense of mana.” It probably also has something to do with how solitary they are, lending them a “dignified air” unlike smaller birds living in big colonies. “It feels almost like interacting with an alien life form because you come from such different worlds, but you’re on the same planet.” Even in death, the albatross specimens seem to me to exude a kind of ghostly majesty. I feel like I should whisper around them.

The biggest conservation challenges facing the albatross are plastics pollution and long line fishing. North Pacific birds are badly affected by plastic pollution, while in the southern hemisphere, “we’re starting to notice pieces of trash around the colonies, and we find evidence of plastic in birds’ stomachs.” It’s not a huge threat yet, but soon it might be. Long line fishing is a threat to many different species of birds internationally. The long line has several thousand hooks on it. Each hook can catch a bird.

I want to know if Susan has a favourite specimen in this room, but she doesn’t. “Some scientists name their favourites”, she says, “but I’d rather not get attached.” Her clinical approach suddenly makes sense when she pulls out a drawer and shows me a small albatross with a rust-coloured string tied around its beak. A thin fishhook is attached to the end of the string. The string coils around the beak, across the round white belly and beneath the grey wing. Susan says the bird died when fishermen tied its beak shut. I catch a glimpse of the specimen tag: 1979. “This bird didn’t make it,” she says, “but some fishermen like to tie things to the birds before letting them go … as if to leave their mark.” In maritime superstition, it’s bad luck to harm an albatross because they’re thought to carry the souls of drowned sailors. An albatross overhead signals an oncoming storm.

The albatross also inspires wonder in traditional Maori culture and myth. Its Maori name, toroa, comes from the name of a chief who captained one of the great waka that first reached the shores of Aotearoa. He had incredible powers of navigation and wore clusters of snow white feathers on his shoulders. White albatross feathers came to be a symbol of peace, particularly for Taranaki iwi. In this room full of silent albatrosses with their wings folded away, this seems more apt than a symbol of misfortune and chaos.

Susan doesn’t have a favourite specimen, but she does have a favourite species: the Buller’s Albatross. It is the smallest species of albatross and has a distinctive black stripe running along its marigold yellow beak. She points me towards another favourite, the grey-headed mollymawk. It sits on an upper shelf all stuffed and mounted, looking quite sprightly. She points to the shadowy shades of grey that run fluid from its head to its back. To me, this grey albatross looks like a weird hybrid of its two white and black relatives: the royal albatross and the sooty albatross. I decide it’s my favourite. Susan says she loves it because the shading around its eyes looks like the smooth powdery makeup of Peking Opera singers. The yellow beak is very bright when it’s alive.

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