Came to the mariner's hollo!'
And then the disasters which ensued when
——'With his cross-bow
He shot the albatross.'
Whatever delight might be experienced in contemplating the bird under the mysterious point of view suggested by the poet, would be rather heightened than diminished by a knowledge of its real natural character; and this we may obtain from that valuable and highly-meritorious work, 'The Birds of Australia,' by Mr Gould. According to this enterprising naturalist—
'The Diomedea exulans (wandering albatross) is by far the largest and most powerful species of its tribe; and, from its great strength and ferocious disposition, is held in terror by every other bird with which it is surrounded. It is even said that it will fearlessly attack and tear out the eyes of a drowning man, a feat, from what I have observed of it, I can readily imagine it would attempt. It is most abundant between the 30th and 60th degrees of south latitude, and appears to be equally numerous in all parts of the ocean bounded by those degrees; and I feel assured that it is confined to no one part, but is constantly engaged in making a circuit of the globe in that particular zone allotted by nature for its habitation. The open sea is in fact its natural home; and this it never leaves, except for the purpose of breeding, when it usually resorts to rocky islands the most difficult of access.
'The powers of flight of the wandering albatross are much greater than those of any other bird that has come under my observation. Although, during calm or moderate weather, it sometimes rests on the surface of the water, it is almost constantly on the wing, and is equally at ease while passing over the glassy surface during the stillest calm, or sweeping, with arrow-like swiftness, before the most furious gale; and the way in which it just tops the raging billows, and sweeps between the gulfy waves, has a hundred times called forth my wonder and admiration. Although a vessel running before the wind frequently sails more than 200 miles in the twenty-four hours, and that for days together, still the albatross has not the slightest difficulty in keeping up with the ship, but also performs circles of many miles in extent, returning again to hunt up the wake of the vessel for any substances thrown overboard.
'Like the other species of the genus, it is nocturnal as well as diurnal, and no bird with which I am acquainted takes so little repose. It appears to be perpetually on the wing, scanning the surface of the ocean for molluscs and medusæ, and the other marine animals that constitute its food. So frequently does the boldness of this species cost it its life, that hundreds are annually killed, without, however, its numbers being apparently in any degree lessened. It readily seizes a hook baited with fat of any kind; and if a boat be lowered, its attention is immediately attracted, and while flying round, it is easily shot.' It is not surprising that a poetical imagination should have been excited by such a subject, and Coleridge is not the only bard who has shaped it into verse. Another writes—
'Now upon Australian seas,
Wafted by the tropic breeze,
We salute the southern cross,
Watch the wondrous albatross—
Circling round in orbits vast,
Pausing now above the mast,
Laving now his snowy breast
Where the billows sleeping rest.
Now he skims the surface o'er,
Rising, falling evermore:
Floating high on stillest wing,
Now he seems a guardian thing,
Now a messenger of wrath,
Cleaving swift his airy path;
Bearing o'er the liquid plain
Warning of the hurricane.'
Mr Gould's description of the Diomedea melanophrys, black-eyebrowed albatross, exhibits other characteristics:—'Of all the species,' he observes, 'with which I am acquainted, this is the most fearless of man, and it often approaches many yards nearer the vessel than any other. I have even observed it approach so near, that the tips of its pinions were not more than two arms' length from the tafferel. It is very easily captured with a hook and line; and as this operation gives not the least pain to the bird, the point of the hook merely taking hold in the horny and insensible tip of the bill, I frequently amused myself in capturing it in this way, and after detaining it sufficiently long to afford me an opportunity for investigating any particular point respecting which I wished to satisfy myself, setting it at liberty again. I also caught numerous examples, marked, and gave them their liberty, in order to ascertain whether the individuals which were flying round the ship at nightfall were the same that were similarly engaged at daylight in the morning, after a night's run of 120 miles, and which, in nearly every instance, proved to be the case.'
Angling for albatrosses is no modern art, as appears from the narrative of Sir Richard Hawkins' voyage to the South Sea in 1593, in which it is pretty certain that these birds are spoken of. 'Certaine great fowles,' says the narrator, 'as bigge as swannes, soared about us, and the winde calming, setled themselves in the sea, and fed upon the sweepings of our ship; which I perceiving, and desirous to see of them, because they seemed farre greater than in truth they were, I caused a hooke and line to be brought me, and with a piece of pilchard I bated the hooke, and a foot from it tied a piece of corke, that it might not sinke deepe, and threw it into the sea, which, our ship driving with the sea, in a little time was a good space from us, and one of the fowles beeing hungry, presently seized upon it, and the hooke in his upper beake. It is like to a faulcon's bill, but that the point is more crooked, in that manner, as by no meanes hee could cleere himselfe, except that the line brake, or the hooke righted: plucking him towards the ship, with the waving of his wings he eased the weight of his body, and being brought to the sterne of our ship, two of our company went downe by the ladder of the poope, and seized on his neck and wings; but such were the blows he gave them with his pinnions, as both left their hand-fast, beeing beaten blacke and blue; we cast a snare about his necke, and so triced him into the ship. By the same manner of fishing we caught so many of them, as refreshed and recreated all my people for that day. Their bodies were great, but of little flesh and tender; in taste answerable to the food whereon they feed. They were of two colours—some white, some gray; they had three joyntes in each wing; and from the pointe of one wing to the pointe of the other, both stretched out, was above two fathoms.'
Similar instances are recorded, though not in language quaint and tedious as the above, in Cook's Voyages. The great circumnavigator's crew were glad to regale themselves on albatross roast and boiled, after having been many weeks at sea, and confined to salt food. Sir James Ross, too, after stating that when off the Aguilhas bank, 'the gigantic albatross was seen in great numbers, and many of them taken by means of a fishing-line,' remarks—'these birds added a degree of cheerfulness to our solitary wanderings, which contrasted strongly with the dreary and unvarying stillness of the tropical region.'
Most marvellous accounts have been given of the spread of wing of the albatross, rivalling the wonderful roc of the 'Arabian Nights.'