The Cambridge Animal Alphabet series celebrates Cambridge's connections with animals through literature, art, science and society. Here, A is for Albatross – in sketches retrieved from Antarctica, research into migratory patterns, and Coleridge’s famous ballad.

In the inter-breeding period, the birds cover huge distances. One Grey-headed albatross circumnavigated the southern hemisphere in just 46 days

Tommy Clay

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In June 1910 Dr Edward Wilson set sail from Cardiff to Antarctica on board the Terra Nova as the Chief of the Scientific Staff on the British Antarctic Expedition led by Captain Scott. On 1 November the following year a group from the Terra Nova set out from Cape Evans across the ice with the intention of reaching the South Pole. The venture ended in tragedy. The members of the British expedition perished on their return from the pole having discovered that the Norwegians had got there first.

Wilson was a talented artist as well as a doctor. He began drawing as a child and throughout his life he made meticulous sketches and watercolours of the natural world.

After his death, his final sketchbook was retrieved from the tent where he and his companions spent their last days. His watercolours were returned from the Cape Evans hut where they had been produced.

Artworks made by Wilson on both the Discovery Expedition of 1901 and the Terra Nova Expedition are testimony to the spirit of discovery and the splendour of the Antarctic.

The Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) is fortunate in holding around 1,900 of Wilson’s drawings and sketches, the majority of them given to SPRI by his wife Oriana. Nineteen of these artworks depict the albatross – several species of which Wilson shows both in close-up studies and soaring above the ocean.

Mrs Heather Lane, former Keeper of the Polar Museum, says: "Wilson is undoubtedly one of the greatest artists of the heroic age of polar exploration. He was one of Scott’s closest friends and on expeditions the person to whom others looked for stability.

"As an artist he was self-taught yet he captured with stunning accuracy both the anatomical structure and the fragile beauty of living things. He was particularly fascinated by birds."

The wandering albatross has the largest wingspan (up to 12 foot) of any bird. Its flight is so efficient that it expends as little energy soaring on currents of air (a type of flight known as 'dynamic soaring') as it does sitting on its nest. In all, there are 22 species of albatross, most of them living in the southern oceans. The majority are under threat, chiefly from longline fishing. Attracted by the bait, the birds become entangled by the hooks and drown.  Estimates put the annual death toll at 100,000 birds.

PhD candidate Tommy Clay (Department of Zoology) is contributing to a British Antarctic Survey (BAS) programme that is creating a detailed picture of their migratory movements. The research is made possible by lightweight battery-powered devices capable of tracking the birds’ movements over multiple years.

Albatrosses pair for life: Wanderers raise at most one chick every two years. They spend a whole year incubating their one egg and looking after the chick. Once the chick is independent, its parents enjoy a recovery period before they breed again, returning to the same breeding spots on remote islands in the southern ocean.

"Until relatively recently, very little has been known about the pattern of albatross movements across their lifespans, which can be more than 60 years. We’re beginning to build up a picture of what individual birds do and why they do it. We now know that in the inter-breeding period, the birds cover huge distances. One Grey-headed albatross, for example, circumnavigated the southern hemisphere in just 46 days," says Clay.

"Albatrosses are regarded as sentinel species for the health of the marine environment. Albatrosses are scavengers – they follow ships and eat the debris thrown into the water. In the North Pacific, dead birds are found with plastic in their stomachs, showing just how widespread – and destructive – is our impact on the oceans."

The long association between the albatross and the seafarer was cemented in 1798 with the publication of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In the poem, which was dismissed by early critics as an extravagant cock-and-bull story, the eponymous mariner shoots an albatross in a seemingly motiveless act of cruelty.

When the ship is becalmed (Day after day, day after day,/We stuck, nor breath nor motion; /As idle as a painted ship/ Upon a painted ocean), the dead albatross is hung around the mariner’s neck by his shipmates.

The poem was famously illustrated by Gustav Doré in the 1870s and became one of the most quoted ballads in the English language. Images of the crew dying of thirst out at sea (Water, water, every where,/And all the boards did shrink;/ Water, water, every where,/ Nor any drop to drink) and the dead bird hanging around a man’s neck became embedded in the public imagination.

In the 1930s, albatross entered the Oxford English Dictionary as a word to describe an unshakeable burden.

“The indeterminacy of the mariner’s crime makes the story compelling: we don’t know what makes him pick up his crossbow and shoot a bird that the crew has befriended. Some scholars have read the poem as a Christian narrative in which evil is punished by God. Others, more recently, have argued for an environmental context in which mankind is punished for an attack on the natural world,” says Professor Heather Glen of the Faculty of English.

“Or possibly – and this is in keeping with the poem’s deliberately archaic ballad form – Coleridge is suggesting that the shooting of the albatross is a violation of a much more ancient tradition of welcome to the stranger. In the note with which he headed the poem in 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge announces that it will portray ‘how the Ancient Mariner cruelly, and in contempt of the laws of hospitality, killed a sea-bird; and how he was followed by many and strange judgements’.”

For a short time, Coleridge was a student at Jesus College, Cambridge, where he described himself as ‘a library-cormorant’ greedily devouring as many books as he could. The device of the albatross was suggested to him by his close friend William Wordsworth during a walking holiday. Wordsworth had been reading George Shelvocke’s Voyage Round the World (1726) in which an albatross is shot. Both Cambridge University Library and SPRI have early editions of the book.

Next in the Cambridge Animal Alphabet: B is for an animal that roamed Cambridgeshire 120,000 years ago, provided sport for the inhabitants of Madingley Hall, and became a friend to one eccentric poet at Trinity College.

Inset images: Diomedea melanophrys. Discovery 1901. Black browed albatross, by Edward Adrian Wilson. (Scott Polar Research Institute); Wandering albatross. (Robert Paterson, British Antarctic Survey); Gustav Doré's illustration from Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. (Cambridge University Library).


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