June 27, 2016

The Albatross Hero of Torishima Island

There’s an old saying, something along the lines of having an “albatross around one’s neck.” Sounds a little odd, right? The Short-Tailed Albatross, or Steller’s Albatross, of the North Pacific is one of the largest birds on the planet, they can have a 13 foot wingspan and weigh up to 25 pounds. Having one around your neck would certainly be a burden if not massively inconvenient for you and the bird…


And that’s just what the idiom implies. The saying stems from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 18th Century poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a tale of a sailor who shoots an Albatross which brings him some really bad luck as well as an early demise to the rest of the passengers on board the ship. Albatross were viewed as a good omen by mariners sailing the Pacific throughout the pre-industrial eras, but by the 20th century the Short Tailed Albatross was nearly extinct.

An illustration from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
An illustration from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

It’s estimated there’s around 5,000 Short Tailed Albatross surviving in the wild today (around 2,500 breeding pairs). This might seem like a small number but at the time of the Second World War that number had plummeted down into double digits. In the early 1950’s, due to excessive hunting and the fragile breeding habitat of the birds it was believed that the Short Tailed Pacific Albatross had all but disappeared for good. That is, until a minute colony was discovered on a small volcanic island off Japan called Toroshima. Upon the discovery the birds were declared a Japanese national monument and put under immediate protection. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done, it was assumed the bird had gone entirely extinct.


Often times these stories end sadly, many species have gone the way of the California Grizzly Bear or Baiji Dolphin due to the greed and carelessness of mankind. Though by the 50’s the Japanese had banned hunting albatross and their fragile breeding grounds now a protected safe haven, the birds faced insurmountable odds as each pair lay a single egg and the survival rate of albatross chicks is low. Though the albatross’ breeding grounds had been designated a national monument, the population of birds on Torishima had mostly vanished. Enter Hiroshi Hasegawa, at the time a graduate student at Toho University in Tokyo who, for one reason or another, decided to dedicate the remainder of his life to saving the stricken albatross population on Torishima.

According to Hasegawa his reasoning behind a lifelong and often frustrating mission to save bird:

“I’ve liked birds very much since childhood. And when I was a graduate student we had two endangered species in Japan. One was the Japanese crested ibis, and the other was the short-tailed albatross. The Japanese crested ibis was first protected and a recovery program was started at that time, but none studied the short-tailed albatross. So I started the short-tailed albatross conservation study.”


Though pragmatic in his declaration, Hiroshi Hasegawa was a man who dearly loved birds, and perhaps felt some collective responsibility for the demise of the such a magical sea bird at the hands of his countrymen. Hiroshi set off for Torishima prepared to fight an uphill battle and undo generations of over-hunting and negligence. Albatross are quirky birds, they may follow a ship for days on end, gliding effortlessly through howling trades and gales while the vessel they escort pitches rolls in the oceanic turmoil below. They also, unfortunately, chose a barren volcano as their primary breeding ground and Hasegawa found that often albatross eggs would roll down the steep rocky slopes to their doom before they even hatched.


His immediate solution was to plant grasses on the steep hillsides of Torishima, increasing the hatch rate of albatross chicks from 30 to 60 percent in his first year. But with each step forward came new hurdles to overcome. Torishima is an active volcano which has erupted several times in the past century. The ground, though fertile for the grasses was unstable and, “in 1987 a landslide took place on the upper slope of the colony. Mud flows buried the chicks and washed away eggs.”


Though experiencing major setbacks Hiroshi never wavered in his belief that the Steller’s Albatross would one day return to sail the skies over the Pacific. Hasegawa returned to Torishima Island with government grants and permission to terrace the slopes of the volcano to provide more stable nesting for the chicks. Hasegawa even attempted to lure the birds to flatter and safer areas on the island to roost by placing hand painted decoys and playing recorded mating calls over hidden speakers, with a surprising measure of success. Slowly but surely the breeding population on Torishima continued to grow, and soon spread to nearby atolls.

Now, the Steller’s Albatross is no longer situated on the critically endangered list. If you’re lucky you can spot the huge birds soaring from Torishima to Kamchatka, from the Aleutians to British Columbia and even the West Coast of the United States. There is a second generation of conservationists and a “healthy” population with which we as humans can coincide. Programs have been initiated to move albatross populations from the highly active volcanic Torishima Island to nearby locations that provide more stable breeding grounds and even to Kauai. Hiroshi Hasegawa’s personal sacrifice and effort to save the Short Tailed Albatross is a true success story. Mr. Hasegawa is a shining example of how we can change our habits and direct our energy in positive ways to undo some of the harm we’ve caused our planet, he truly is The Hero of the Albatross!

Steller's Albatross

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