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Albatross Colony at Steele Jason Island

At first Susan and I felt overwhelmed by the sheer size and scope of the colony.

Birds—big birds—crowded every inch of the sloping land between the base of the island’s peak and the shoreline. This is the largest colony of its kind in the world. More than 70 percent of the world’s black-browed albatross nest right here. They construct nests of mud, which look like stove pipes, and lay their eggs in the cup on top. Southern rockhopper penguins nest among them but can easily be overlooked because the albatross steal the show.

Penguins and albatross bear an unlikely yin-and-yang relationship. The Southern Ocean enticed penguins to quit flying and turned their wings into flippers. This same ocean and its storms enticed albatross to do the opposite: they grew perfect wings and became superb creatures of flight. The wings are long and bladed, up to thirteen feet in wandering albatross. They are made to glide on the stormy winds of the Southern Ocean. A bird may go round and round, chalking up a million miles. They are so comfortable on a glide that their heart rate is lower than at rest on land.

When Susan and I arrived, albatross were everywhere: taking off and landing, skimming above our heads, flying by at eye level. I kept waiting for an albatross to run into me. To graze me with a wing tip. One never did. But they cruised by me, close enough to touch. I kept waiting for an albatross to lift me up on those incomparable wings. How often, I confess, has my heart seemed to fly with the albatross. How often have they taken me for a thrilling ride. I love these birds, which teach the unforgettable lesson of the necessity of wonder.

From Every Penguin in the World, available for purchase now. Free reader’s guide, penguin photos, and other resources available at here.

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