We've been watching them all day, and to be honest have been gradually falling in love with them. Seeing them up close as they soar up huge wave faces, or cruise past the ship almost peeking in the windows. Learning more about each species, until we can identify them at a glance - Shy Albatross with the black wings and dark back; Southern Royal Albatross with it's huge wingspan (the largest wings of any bird) & elegant soaring; Giant Petrel whizzing by irrationally fast for such a huge solid bird; and jumping with excitement at an elusive Salvin's Albatross, with it's gray-ish face and yellow striped beak.
Shy Albatross "allopreening" - social behaviour at sea.
So when we see a Shy Albatross picking up a squid from the water and shaking it around, I'm excited to get another glimpse into the lives of these incredible seabirds. The albatross, bobbing on the surface of the waves, flicks the squid around and we notice it trailing some sort of tail. Must be a jellyfish. Another flick, and suddenly the orange "squid" comes into clear focus - a ballon, shredded, with a trailing white plastic string.
My stomach sinks - years of picking these balloons up on beaches; showing them at school talks and public presentations; lecturing friends, strangers, business owners, anyone with helium balloons, about exactly where they go when they stop going up, pop, sink down into the ocean - resembling the squid or jellyfish preyed upon by sea turtles, seabirds and seals. It's somehow surreal to now see this end of the story, the reality of the situation.
A Shy Albatross carrying an orange balloon trailing a string.
"Pristine" Locations & Plastic Pollution
Chris Jordan famously portrayed the albatross of Midway Atoll in the northern Pacific ocean - his photographs of the skeletons of young Laysan albatross, filled to the brim with bottle caps, cigarette lighters, toothbrushes, and other plastic pieces, captivated and shocked millions and was a vital part of the movement to recognise the threat of marine plastic pollution. Earlier that day, we'd also observed a group of birds playing with a soft drink bottle, throwing it around - with bottle lids a common object ingested by birds (and the broken down pieces of plastic bottles ingested by almost everything else).
Chris Jordan's albatross - parents feed plastic to chicks, which then starve to death
As someone who has been researching and working in public outreach around this issue for several years I've seen a lot of videos & photos of animals harmed by plastic. I've pulled chunks of plastic out of dead birds and fish. I've seen countless ocean trawls come up and not one without a plastic piece. But somehow seeing this one bird, with this one shredded balloon, is still a solid punch in the gut. This beautiful animal, in this "pristine" environment. Miles from land or people or just anything other than our research vessel, the wind, the waves and these birds. And now this plastic, even tricking us into believing that it's food. How do the birds stand a chance?
Two shy albatross investigating a floating plastic bottle - they were also observed picking it up and throwing it around.
There was no way to go back and retrieve the bottle and balloon, so I did what I could - working with our on-board journalist to prepare a blog & press release, and speaking to ABC Radio Hobart (which later became part of the daily news Australia-wide). Hopefully the more awareness we raise about these issues, the more behaviours will change. We have all the solutions we need to make a huge difference with this issue, helping the amazing albatross and ourselves!!
Shy Albatross are perfectly adapted to life at sea, travelling thousands of kilometres of the world's oceans in a single voyage.
What Can You Do?
If you agree that albatross should be able to live in the wild oceans, unencumbered by our trash, then there's a few things you can do:
Don't use balloons, or at least don't release helium balloons!! What goes up, must come down.
Avoid single use items. Go reusable.
Support legislation like container deposit systems (refunds for bottle & cans) and balloon-release bans (which currently exist in NSW & are being considered in other states).