Albatross Amnesia

The power of the albatross to help you forget life’s problems.

I love Melbourne. I did not grow up in this city but it has been my adopted home for the last nine years. I grew up in the country three hours north of Melbourne, and as a young child I had endless opportunities to explore the bush across the road. Catching tadpoles, climbing trees and all of the other stereotypical activities that an inquisitive young boy can get up to fill many of my early memories. It was these experiences that eventually led me to Melbourne where I studied a science degree majoring in zoology and botany.

Sometimes, though, for someone who grew up with a love of natural places, the city can feel awfully claustrophobic. It’s times like these, when the city has become too much for me, that I find myself standing atop the sea cliffs along the coast of Anglesea. I look down at the swirling water as the waves crash into the rocks below, and then I look out further. I lift my binoculars and scan the horizon, looking for the graceful shape of an albatross sweeping just above the rolling ocean. It rarely takes long to spot one, and in an instant everything else you have in your mind is forgotten.

The long, down-curved wings of a shy albatross are all grey on top and mostly white below with a thin black edge. Photo: Rowan Mott

The long, down-curved wings of a shy albatross are all grey on top and mostly white below with a thin black edge. Photo: Rowan Mott

There is something romantic about the movement of an albatross that cuts through every other thought and makes you realise that the world is, as you knew all along, a beautiful place. As I extend the legs on my tripod and frame the bird in my spotting scope, all sense of time disappears and I can be captivated for hours.

Many people are surprised to learn that albatrosses can be sighted so close to Melbourne. Others will tell you that they saw one on the beach the last time they were there. The truth is that albatrosses are rarely seen on land unless it is their breeding colony. If we exclude birds breeding in the sub-Antarctic territories of Macquarie Island and Heard Island, there is only one species of albatross that breeds in Australia: the shy albatross. It breeds on three islands around Tasmania and is the most likely species you are to see if you look out to sea along the Victorian coast.

The ‘albatrosses’ that people tell me they have seen on our beaches are usually pacific gulls. They are impressive birds in their own right with their striking red-tipped, yellow bill and a size that dwarfs the silver gull (commonly referred to as seagulls). However, if you consider pacific gulls have a wingspan of 1.5 metres and a shy albatross has a wingspan of up to 2.6 metres, then you begin to get a sense of the true grandeur of the latter species.

Pacific gulls are large seabirds and often mistaken for albatrosses due to their imposing size. However, a shy albatross is much bigger and unlikely to be seen on the sands of Victoria's beaches. Photo: Rowan Mott

Pacific gulls are large seabirds and often mistaken for albatrosses due to their imposing size. However, a shy albatross is much bigger and unlikely to be seen on the sands of Victoria's beaches. Photo: Rowan Mott

If you want to increase your chance of seeing an albatross, the best time to head to the coast is after the worst weather. When a storm lashes the coast with strong southerly winds, it frequently results in many birds being pushed towards the shore from out near the continental shelf. The presence of a sea breeze also provides the most spectacular views; it is in windy conditions that an albatross’s mastery of the air becomes truly apparent. In still conditions, they do not receive the up-draft effect, as the wind is deflected upwards over the crest of the swell; when no breeze is blowing, they regularly loaf on the water surface. A strong sea breeze can make it very cold atop the cliffs, so dress sensibly.

Shy albatrosses are typically present in Victorian waters year-round but other seabirds come and go with the change of the seasons. Over the warmer months, you may be lucky enough to see an arctic jaeger harassing gulls and terns, or a flock of fluttering shearwaters out beyond the breakers. In the depths of winter, many species from the Southern Ocean move north to escape the cold. Some of them prefer to stay far out to sea but you may be lucky and spot a brown skua or a northern giant-petrel. If the seabirds aren’t showing, Australian fur seals and common dolphins can always liven things up.

If there aren't many seabirds around, Anglesea also offers the chance of seeing southern emu-wrens and other heathland gems, just metres from prime seabird-viewing spots. Image: Rowan Mott

If there aren't many seabirds around, Anglesea also offers the chance of seeing southern emu-wrens and other heathland gems, just metres from prime seabird-viewing spots. Image: Rowan Mott

If all else fails and it happens to be a very quiet day, you can always turn your back on the ocean and look for chestnut-rumped heathwrens, rufous bristlebirds and southern emu-wrens that inhabit the heathland atop the cliffs. This diversity of habitats is why I like Anglesea but Point Lonsdale and Cape Schanck also offer great seabird-watching. So the next time you feel that the hustle and bustle of the city is all too much, go and find yourself an albatross and, if only for a while, forget your troubles. 

Cover image by Rowan Mott.