Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean

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Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Aug 08, 2013

Laysan albatross chick nears fledgingI’ve been thinking about the ocean a lot lately. Last year, it seemed like my summer was spent mauka--on the hiking trails around Hawaii. But this summer, my adventures have been of the watery nature--makai. I’ve kayaked Napali Coast. Surfed a long board and an outrigger canoe. Snorkeled and just basically splashed along the coastline. Then, too, there was Tropical Storm Flossie. But there have also been Laysan albatrosses.

Huh, albatross, you ask?

Well, they do spend something like 95% of their life at sea. Hence, seabird.

I am also thinking about something Hawaiian storyteller—and an all-around fascinating and friendly man--Pono Shim said to me. When he was growing up and learning to swim, he was told, “Don’t turn your back on the ocean.” It’s not like I haven’t heard this refrain before. Most every ocean safety pamphlet, video and sign includes such advice. And while Pono meant it literally, he also meant it figuratively.

Twenty-nine Laysan albatross chicks hatched earlier this year in the colony that I monitor. All but two chicks survived the five months it takes to go from fluffy, downy chick the size of a croquet ball to feathered-out birds with six-foot wingspans. All but two took to the sea in flight, where they will cruise the north Pacific living as albatrosses do before returning to land and, at that time, getting down to the business of finding a mate.

But two did not survive. Their nubby wings had grown to their full length. Their adult plumage had come in on their bodies, although they still had down on their heads and necks. They were days away from fledging. Both birds were packed on ice and sent to Oahu for necropsy (animal autopsy) to determine cause of death. I suspect they died of malnutrition. It could be that one parent died—maybe entangled in fishing line or marine debris. Maybe of old age. It could be that one parent wasn’t able to find enough food for itself, let alone another mouth, er, bill. It could also be that the chicks died with a full belly—of plastic.

These two dead chicks are as important as the 27 that fledged. Their deaths tell us what’s happening out there—in the big blue, beyond the horizon, deep into and high above the sea, those places we mere humans have a hard time getting to for any length of time.

That’s why it’s important to study nature, to protect endangered species, and to conserve habitat for birds like these to breed. First and foremost, for the simple fact that they exist—and are amazing creatures. But, also, because they have messages for us. Important ones. And that's why we should never turn our backs on the sea.

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