An awestruck yet intelligent study of the great sea bird and its environs, by award-winning ocean ecologist Safina (Song for the Blue Ocean, 1998).
Basing himself on a Hawaiian atoll called French Frigate Shoals, the author observes the activities of Amelia, a Laysan Albatross. She’s nesting as the book opens, and it is not long before her chick is hatched. Amelia and her long-term mate flash off on food runs, some as long as 2,500 miles (she has been rigged with a transmitter to track her movements). Safina tries to get into the bird’s head as she reads the ocean’s surface on her long glide for food. For the most part, this strategy produces an enjoyable travelogue layered with material on albatross biology and behavior, plus perhaps more material than necessary about its role as a literary metaphor. The goods on Amelia aren’t really enough to sustain an entire book, so Safina embellishes the proceedings with accounts of time spent with scientists and fishermen in pursuit of seals, sharks, turtles, halibut, sablefish, and other members of the albatross’s extended environmental family. His pacing is right, and the various narrative strands are well intertwined. Faults include ill-considered lyrical forays (“Beneath the daily overburden, our truer nature is this wandering spirit on expansive wings, hungering for a chance to search new horizons, hurtle along”) and an irksome tendency to consecrate the albatross (“Being near these birds touches people with something so profound it seems spiritual”). But Safina’s condemnation of the myriad factors contributing to the destruction of its habitat, from egg and feather hunters to global warming, is right on target. A scene in which an albatross chokes on a plastic toothbrush points the finger of shame squarely off the page.
Light on hard information and weakened by straining for poetic effect, but nonetheless a briskly companionable account of days in the albatrosses’ midst.