I wandered into Steve’s studio and a casual glance at his computer screen revealed he was looking intently at the Kaikora Albatross encounter website.
I’ve often wondered about the Albatross Encounter tours that are run out of Kaikora and hoped that one day I would have the opportunity to partake and travel far enough off shore to come in contact with the really big sea birds, the Great Albatrosses that never come near dry land outside of breeding on some remote sub Antarctic Island.
The Great Albatross family comprises of two groups of birds, the Wandering and Royal Albatrosses and consist of six or seven sub-species depending on how pedantic you want to be.
When one becomes enthusiastic about wild life photography, it can become a bit like stamp collecting, when you finally secure a prized shot of one species you start thinking about getting a trophy shot of another species to add to your collection and on and on and on the process goes. I was instantly keen on the idea of an Albatross tours as I had photos of the Northern Royal Albatross which I got out at the Taiaroa heads in Dunedin.
Toroa the Northern Royal Albatross
Meantime back in the studio my focus switched back and forth between the computer screen and Steve as I waited for the inevitable. Let’s do it he says.
Well you never have to ask me twice and plans were immediately launched. Research consisted of hours of reading about the birds, their roaming range and where would they likely be at this time of the year. Very importantly size and the general appearance of each species were studied closely as most look very alike to the untrained eye.
Wildlife photography should be a lot more than just aiming a camera at a subject and proudly adding the image to your growing collection.
For myself, I’m keen to learn what I can about a target species with what little brain power I have left and learning about my subjects is half the fun. Learning their habits can spell the difference between success and big time suckymoto failure.
For me the Maori names must be memorised if there are any and in this case the name Toroa, has been attributed to both Royal Albatross species which the Maori ate in the old days (as you would…………. no KFC then).
Here are some Albatrosspical facts
New Zealand enjoys five of the six species of Great Albatross (Diomedea family) all of which can be encountered off the Kaikora coast and are as follows.
Wandering Albatross D. exulans
Sadly this bird was a no show.
Antipodean Albatross D. (exulans) antipodensis
All though the guide pointed one out and 99% identified it as such without knowing absolutely for sure it’s one, I’m not willing to post an image of what could possibly be one, such is my giant ego.
Gibson’s albatross (Diomedea antipodensis gibsoni)
Listed as Vulnerable and the smallest of the Wandering Albatross group.
Tristan Albatross D. (exulans) dabbenena
The silly Tristan Albatross is not willing to put in an appearance in New Zealand waters because it has personal issues, it sulks in seclusion somewhere else, missing out on all the free squid and jostling fellowship.
Northern Royal Albatross D. (epomorpha) sanfordi
Heres a photo of one taken in Dunedin out at the heads.
Southern Royal Albatross D. epomophora
The Great Albatrosses are the largest of the seabirds and along with all the other Albatrosses and belong to the Procellariiformes, or Petrel family, these birds are way cool and can be separated from other way cool birds by their even more way cool nostrils which are sheathed in Boney, horny, tube like thingies called naricorns that form at the base of the bill.
Because they swallow heaps of salt water while feeding, they have a salt gland that sits behind each eye; this gland removes salt from their bloodstream which is in turn eliminated via these tubes along their bill, the birds constantly emit the salty waste product looking like they all have bad colds with runny noses, which, believe me is nothing to be sniffed at.
The main menu for the Albatrosses are Squid, Fish and Krill and the lifespan of the birds average well into their 40s , some have been estimated to reach into their 70s. I wonder if raw, untreated, Squid could be the elixir of eternal youth.
The Snowy Albatross is the Big Daddy of the Great Albatross family as it boasts the widest wingspan of any living bird these oceanic nomads typically reach from 2.51 to 3.5 m wing tip to wingtip.
Unfortunately none turned up for us, much to our disappointment.
The largest (heaviest) bird on the ocean is the Southern Royal Albatross, the male can weigh in at a stonkin 10.3 kilograms (that’s a decent feed man) and has a wing span of up to 3.45 metres which shames their blood relatives the Northern Royal Albatross into second place, as the best they can manage is grow wings that span a mere 2.70–3.05 meters and weigh in at a miserable 8.2 kg, so they just pale in comparison and suffer badly from inferior complexes hence their cunning plan to invade the mainland starting with the Otago peninsular.
The Taiaroa Heads colony of Northern Royal Albatross is the only mainland Albatross colony in the world and well worth spending the time to visit. I’ve spent many happy hours there looking out over the cliffs, facing out to sea, waiting for a huge Albatross to gracefully glide, gently past below me and have been rewarded for my patience a few times with some lovely shots of these birds.
Royal Albatross usually mate for life and despite parting ways once junior has flown they meet up again every second year to get it on and make another single, fluffy, bone ugly, little baby Albatross.
One Lady Royal Albatross was known to hatch and raise her last chick at the ripe old age of 62 years old, perhaps it was the long separations out at sea that helped her longevity.
Although it was the Great Albatross that were our main focus we would also have a chance of seeing many of the smaller Albatrosses, also known as mollymawks (genus Thalassarche)
The Black-browed Albatross Thalassarche melanophrysSalvins
The White-capped Albatross, Thalassarche steadi
The Cape Petrel (Daption capense) also called Cape Pigeon
Daption is derived from Ancient Greek for little devourer and with a population of around 2,000,000 these are successful horny little blighters.
The Northern Giant Petrel (Macronectes halli)
This bird has a reputation for being extremely aggressive to the point of being almost comical and has entertained many a salior it is a glutton at heart and will kill birds even young Albatrosses, it is a master of scanvege-ry and will even tackle penguins.
The trip report
We took the 3am ferry out of Wellington and having arrived around 7am in Picton we hit Kaikora in glorious weather and with most of the day ahead of us. Never one to leave the weather to chance and with a dodgy weather forecast prophesied we headed straight for the Encounter Kaikora headquarters and booked a tour for just for the two of us as we wanted to go farther out to sea than the main tours so we would have a better chance of encountering the bigger birds and we wouldn’t be getting in the way of the any other paying customers. We knew the shooting would be hard and fast, getting around the back of the boat, changing positions and trying not to become tangled up with each other would be critical.
So we powered out of Kaikora on a sea that had fairly large but gentle swells. Not a breath of wind ruffled the water’s surface and the sun was beaming down. A few birds shadowed us as we got further from land and eventually we stopped amidst the gentle rolling lumps of water and the giant birds came from seemingly nowhere hidden behind the mountainous swells and attracted by the burley bag of frozen squid bait they knew would be with us. Each bird seemed to do a few circuits of the boat and then ploughed in feet first, using them as skis, wingtips kissing the water helping them to keep themselves upright, with some landing within arm’s reach.
One thing I learnt fast about these birds was that although appearing incredibly gentle and graceful in the air they became nasty dirtbags once on the water constantly gripping each other around the neck with their wicked beaks or ripping into each other over some tasty morsel that had been prized loose from the burley bag.
they became nasty dirtbags once on the water constantly gripping each other around the neck with their wicked beaks
I don’t think I’ve ever filled my 12 gigs of space on my cards so fast before and although the birds were still willing participants in the drama, but after a hour or so we were spent and headed for home. Our Guide had lacked no enthusiasm at any part of our trip, happily pointing out the species and providing heaps of encouragement and handy tips as we were absorbed by the comical antics of the great birds.
We had encountered The Gibson’s, and Southern Royal Albatrosses and perhaps one Antipodean Albatross along with the Petrels of both the Giant and cape varieties. The Black brow and White Capped Albatross dropped in for a visit and all this action was for the price of what many would spend on a weekend of drinking and hangovers. Simply put this was one of my exciting experiences with a camera and the birds were a truly testing target.
On a constantly moving sea those big birds can close the distance from 50 meters out to within feet away with a deceptively fast approach speed, it took every skill I have learnt over my years pressing the shutter. Both Steve and I learnt heaps and just like the terminator we will be back.
Never been out there?? Do it, you’ll never regret it.
Nothing like a death grip to the neck to show the love
The use of wings tips are used to steady the approach
A Southern Royal just gliding past
A juvenile Gibson glides in
The memory of these huge birds coming in to land an arms length away will not leave me anytime soon