At length did cross an Albatross,
Through the fog it came;
As if it were a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God’s name.
–from “the rime of the ancient mariner”by samuel taylor coleridge (1798)
the albatross has captured the imagination of southern ocean seafarers since, well… ships. it certainly captured ours. a visit to aotearoa/new zealand was a chance to observe the “largest living thing in the air“, a sea bird with a three-meter wingspan.
like a horseshoe to a magnet, we were drawn to kaikoura, a seacoast village up the road from christchurch, the south island’s largest city. kaikoura bills itself as “possibly” the albatross capital of the world!
in nautical folklore, having an albatross hanging around your ship meant windy weather. it was a good omen back when seafaring vessels were powered by clean, renewable wind energy. in aotearoa’s maori culture, the majestic bird has been venerated since the first waka (boats) arrived from polynesia centuries ago.
conversely, having an albatross hanging around your neck; not so good. that’s what happens when you shoot the good luck albatross that’s been tailing your ship…
‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.
… and the bird dies and the fair winds fade, and your superstitious shipmates start giving you the evil eye. it’s a heavy burden.
that’s exactly the story of samuel taylor coleridge’s “rime of the ancient mariner”, a mainstay of english literature since nearly a century before clean but unreliable wind power was jostled aside by combustion engines that “fowl” the environment.
in his lifetime, coleridge never actually saw an albatross. nevertheless, it is through his poem that generations of english-speakers have come to use the expression “having an albatross around one’s neck” to mean “bearing a heavy burden”.
Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.
in coleridge’s “rime”, when the albatross dies, clouds evaporate and the air hangs like a blanket, turning the ship’s deck into a rotisserie.
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
without rain, fresh water supplies are gone with the wind. shipmates drop like flies, unlike albatrosses, who have built-in desalination systems that allow them to drink seawater and expel the salt through their nostrils. (really!) leading to perhaps coleridge’s most (mis)quoted verse,
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
and one of monty python’s hilarious sketches. (warning: rough language)
winter is off season for albatross watching, so it was just us and the skipper embarking on our “albatross encounter” from kaikoura.
the flock was waiting for us. five different species of albatross and all kinds of petrels made it a diverse group. (though lacking in equity or inclusion). unlike the human world, the laws of nature are unchallenged in the bird kingdom. survival of the fittest rules. as the albatross swoops in with a whoosh, smaller birds scoot out of the way.
“we come a-hunting coleridge’s bird
not with arrow and bow;
but camera in tow,
by combustion engine spurred.’
a bad coleridge impersonator, 2021
the skipper has brought along a net filled with fish scraps, and as he drops the scrap net in the water, a scrap begins. the scrappiest are the albatrosses, first in the pecking order. next are the black petrels, who scrap playfully among themselves while waiting for leftover scraps. smaller species hang around until the big fellows are done, then scrap among themselves for the scraps of the scraps. we have a front row seat.
graceful in flight, albatrosses are hopelessly clumsy on land. watch this short video clip recently captured by an “albatross cam” in new zealand.
coleridge’s influence on albatross mythology is so powerful i can’t help examining my own superstitions as we drive south toward our next stop, christchurch. the city has borne a heavy burden over the past decade.
the Ōtākaro/avon river drifts lazily through christchurch, probably the most english city outside england. punters in edwardian costume ferry tourists along landscaped river banks in handcrafted flat-bottomed boats.
at a bend in the river, the boat pauses at “oi manawa”, maori for “tremor” or “quivering of the heart”. it is a memorial to victims of the most violent earthquake to hit “the shaky isles” (as they are known) since the first european settlement more than 200 years ago.
it was lunchtime on a summery afternoon, february 22, 2011, when christchurch shuddered mightily. some of the city’s tallest structures crumbled in clouds of dust. entire districts were laid waste. on the streets, falling rock and debris crushed cars and busses.
the quake measured 6.3 magnitude, less than a 7.1 jolt five months earlier. but while the first tremor killed no one and caused minimal damage, the second was much closer to the surface, and its epicenter was just a few kilometers from the city’s central business district. when the earth erupted, structures weakened by the first toppled like bowling pins.
the riverside memorial wall bears the name of each victim etched in marble. it is a curious list. all names are written in latin letters, but many also in a foreign script. and rather than alphabetical order, the names of victims are grouped together with those they knew and loved.
of the 185 who died, 115 were in one building, the canterbury television headquarters. it was home also to a school where foreign nurses were studying english and taking medical classes. of the dead, 53 were nurses, 28 from japan. the victims included citizens of 16 countries.
a decade after the tragedy, the wounds still burn. healing, physical and emotional, is achingly slow. so many people moved away after the quake that christchurch shrunk. once new zealand’s second city, it is now third.
one healthy sign: the historic christ church cathedral and its magnificent tower had at first been written off as a total loss and slated for demolition. seven years later, that decision was reversed, and work on resurrecting the structures has begun.
still, however, a sense of foreboding hangs over the city. an albatross. everyone knows it’s just a matter of time till the next big shudder.
the entire length of the southern island is riven by one of the world’s most active geological break points, the alpine fault. geologists are expecting a great quake, the “once every 300 years” variety, at any time. the last “really big one” was in 1717. that’s 304 years ago.
a website tracking the island’s seismic activity shows more than 130 quakes of magnitude three or higher around aotearoa/new zealand in the past month. smaller tremors number in the hundreds.
a few miles from oi manawa earthquake memorial, another albatross roosts.
the canterbury islamic center sits on a broad suburban street directly across the city’s main park from the earthquake memorial. the cast iron entry gate to the al-noor mosque stands welcomingly wide open.
it’s been just over two years since 40 worshippers were mowed down in a hail of bullets during friday prayers. eleven others were slaughtered minutes later at another mosque nearby.
as in the earthquake, the victims had come to christchurch from many places: bangladesh, egypt, fiji, india, indonesia, iraq, jordan, malaysia, mauritius, new zealand, pakistan, palestine and turkey.
the only outward sign that this was the site of the country’s most heinous crime is a banner hung along the front fence, over a shelf filled with flowers and painted rocks. inside the gate stands a modest stone of remembrance, unveiled by prime minister jacinda ardern, who earned plaudits for rallying the country in its time of grief.
standing at the entrance, i am overcome at the enormity of the evil committed on that spot. the mosque seems encased in a bubble of calm drowning out the hustle-bustle of the city. cars appear to travel in slow motion as they pass. a stain touches the city’s collecive soul.
as i snap a final picture and turn to go, a woman walks by. as she passes, i manage a weak smile of acknowledgement.
“what are you smiling at? she snaps back.
time will heal christchurch’s wounds. but the “archangel wings” of that damn albatross cast a long shadow.
to paraphrase coleridge
“a sadder and a wiser man
i rose the morrow morn.”
Dear Peter, The pictures are fabulous. I realy enjoyed them. I loved the weaving of the “The Rime”
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