My introduction to the family of Albatross was while visiting the Sub-Antarctica Islands south of New Zealand, South Georgia Island and the Falkland Islands. Among the nesting locations of Albatross Steeple Jason Island was mentioned as where the largest colony of Black-browed Albatross, about 70% of the population, nested. We often encountered Black-browed Albatross when in the Southern Atlantic into the Southern Ocean. Watching any airborne Albatross became for me one of the main joyful poems on the many expeditions getting to “somewhere” from “where we started.” The Black-browed Albatross became one of the easiest for me to identify identify under all weather and sea conditions. There are 21 other species of Albatross and I found it difficult to become as comfortable in identification with many of the rare ones as I have become with the Black-browed Albatross.
Steeple Jason Island extends off the far northwest side of the Falkland Islands into the Atlantic Ocean. It is a “Should Be A World Heritage Site” and has some of the most restrictive rules about landing as any in the world. This is to protect the main nesting area for the 183,000 pairs of Black-browed Albatross who all nest along one side of the island—one elevated nest after another for miles. It is a noisy place of continuous Albatross chatter competing with Rockhopper Penguins squawking who have elected to nest on the ground beneath the elevated albatross nests. The screeching chorus that is often heard is from attacking Striated Caracara that also makes Steeple Jason the largest nesting colony of these aggressive birds of prey who continually patrol above and around the Albatross and Penguins looking for meals for themselves and their chicks. Even sitting quietly watching and taking photographs could get me dive bombed by these “bad” birds. The sound and smells of this huge bird aviopolas (city) were and even now, memorable.under all weather and sea conditions. There are 21 other species of Albatross and I found it difficult to become as comfortable in identification with many of the rare ones as I have become with the Black-browed Albatross.
I gained access to Steeple Jason through friends I had made and visited often in the Falkland Islands. Most of them always mentioned I should try to visit the sanctuary, but that it might take a long time to get a permit. This past year permission came through not only to land but to spend four nights with the island Ranger. I felt honored and excited because only 3 small groups of two or three people had visited in the past year. I also owe a grateful thanks to my friends and acquaintances that interceded on my behalf.
Getting to Steeple Jason Island was one of the most difficult times at sea I have experienced in a long time. We flew from New Stanley across the entire length of the Falkland Islands in order to meet a fisherman who had previously agreed to make the 6-hour rough crossing of the water separating the Jason Group of Islands from the West Falklands. Otto, a world-class bird photographer, was also on this expedition as we loaded our gear on the small fishing boat and the rains began. We bounced and were tossed around the entire 6 hours. Mickey was our assigned Ranger. The fishing boat cannot land on Steeple Jason; we had to transfer everything to a Zodiac gyrating alongside our fishing boat in what had become a wind driven, cold and drenching rainstorm. Mickey, the Ranger, and Otto gallantly clambered over the rails and standing in the Zodiac loaded the gear and provisions handed them by the fisherman. I was to be next to go. Mickey yelled, “Just get on the outside rail of the boat with your back to the Zodiac, when I shout jump fall backwards and away from the boat. I will catch you!” Falling into handsome rangers arms is not bad. The fishing boat captain got into the zodiac too and over the waves we went.
There is no easy landing on Steeple Jason…the landing site is a rocky cove, but up and behind the slippery, sharp rocks I could see a pleasant looking house sitting in the high tussock grass with a promise of warmth, dryness and a place to recover from the crossing, but we were not there yet. Mickey took a superman leap, rope to the zodiac in hand and landed safely among the uninviting jumble of slippery rocks. This time the instructions were for me to wait for the sea to lift the zodiac before I jumped into his waiting arms. It all worked safely and I slowly and cautiously climbed up and onto the grass behind the rocks and small cliff surrounding the cove. The camera gear and provisions still had to be unloaded in the rain and rocking sea. With enthusiasm the men soon made a line up the rocks and were tossing bags and boxes to me to pull them out of the way of the flying cargo. It was almost dark when the Captain returned to his boat with the zodiac for the terrible return crossing. Everyone waved and shouted our goodbyes into the wind and then continued to lift or drag our stuff to the house.
While Mickey went about starting the generator, lighting the water heater and pilot lights of the stove, Otto and I moved everything into the house. We had lights and soon hot water for a cup of soup that did not splash all over us, but we all felt the house was moving like the bouncing boat we had just spent 6 hours on. Mickey asked our plans and as soon as we knew the sunrise was at 4:30 we said we would like to be up by 4, have some porridge, and set out for the colony. After an indescribable hot shower I got into my dry bed and was asleep. (I did want to thank all the gods of nature for allowing us to arrive safely with many, many incredible close calls and memories; exhaustion took me off to sleep.)
Where did the sleep time go? With our still dark morning came porridge and tea. Then it was off to the colony through a forest of old growth tussock grass. The tussock was almost as much of a barrier as the rough seas surrounding Steeple Jason. The old growth tussock grass was giant. Each clump was over 7 or 8 feet high and growing very close together with a tangle of wet and slippery roots at ground level. There were dead bodies in this forest—Fur seals that must have gotten lost in the “forest” and could not get out. There was mud of the most sticky and slick kind that impeded any effort to move quickly. Mickey led the way and Otto followed, but the forest was so thick and tall I often lost sight of the six-foot plus men as they worked their way toward the colony. Tussock is like serrated swords by the thousands and if one is not careful they slice your hands, face…anything that is uncovered. It seemed like an endless trek, but in 20 to 25 minutes we came through onto the edge of the colony—covered in dirt, pooh, mud, slightly cut by tussock fronds and completely wet, but what a sight.
One can never be prepared for the drama of arrival at something that exceeds expectations and the imagination. This was the sort of event that can bring tears to my eyes at the moment of discovery and then even years later as I reminisce and remember the panorama. I have had the good fortune to have had a number of such extraordinary experiences. I have even had a few successes in capturing these events with my cameras and then the privileges bestowed by others to show them in art and natural history museums, institutions and educational settings, and invited lecture presentations.
The nests are elevated like large mushrooms and they are nearly equally spaced. It looked to me that all 183,000 nests were occupied by one of the parent birds and the other 183,000 parents were in flight. There were a few birds sitting below the nests, but not many…that’s the territory of the 100,000 Rockhopper Penguins that live there. It is the nesting time and it does not appear that there were any vacancies. The nests near the edge made it possible to see either the eggs or very young albatross in them. There were chicks working to get out of their eggs with a parent standing near the edge of the nest vocalizing “encouragement.” The carpet of Albatross stretched left and right to the horizon and up the mountain ridge for at least a number of miles.
Steeple Jason is a small island almost divided in two with the largest colony of Black-browed Albatross occupying one side. Steeple Jason is the name of the rocky ridge that is the uplift in the center of the island. The Jason Island Group is remote by any definition. It was always uninhabited but at one time domestic sheep were left to graze. The sheep destroyed parts of the island by consuming the tussock grass. They were removed a number of years ago and the tussock has recovered in some parts. The islands are rat free, but there is a population of introduced house mice.
The island is also the home of the largest breeding group of Striated Caracara. They are Mickey’s specialty. The Striated Caracara is also known as “Johnny Rook” and is a bird of prey similar to a falcon. This bird of prey is not limited to taking only the weak or injured, but in groups will attack newborn penguins, fur seals and albatross…in the past lambs too. They are fearless and bold. The Caracara is attracted to red objects and clothing. It is speculated, but unproven, that this is because meat is red. Mickey believed the population is 97 breeding pairs on Steeple Jason…individual birds that are not banded are difficult to count in such a place with the forest of tussock grasses. The Caracara would often walk next to me when I was returning from the Albatross colony. The time I walked around the island to see another Penguin Colony and Giant Petrels in my red jacket it was if I was the drum major with a parade of birds following me.
Until a year ago Black-browed Albatross were listed world wide as "Endangered to Near Threatened.” In 2013 the evidence was that the population was no longer declining. Most feel that they began recovering when measures were taken with the long-line fishing fleet around the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island and the Southern Ocean. Long-line fishing appears to have been the cause of thousands of accidental deaths of sea birds that sought to capture the bait only ending up to be drowned. Albatross were especially vulnerable.
Getting to Steeple Jason Island is a complicated act. For me it was a harrowing voyage to and from the island. However, the treasures of Steeple Jason made it all worthwhile and coming back to New Stanley in time to share Christmas with families and friends there was as they say, the cherry on top of the Sundae. If you put a cherry on top of your Sundae on Steeple Jason Island I think you would have to battle a whole flock of Striated Caracara.