For the Birds Radio Program: Albatross Race

Original Air Date: Aug. 5, 2004 (estimated date)

Tracking White-capped (Shy) Albatrosses in a race raises a lot of money and awareness for conservation.

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Albatross Race

One of the issues facing seabirds today is longline fishing. Longline fishing is a technique used to catch fish in open waters, including those who live near the sea floor. A longline includes a main fishing line up to 100 kilometers in length, with secondary lines branching off it, each set with hundreds or thousands of barbed, baited hooks. This technique is used in international waters, as well as waters controlled by the United States, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and southern African countries, and targets fish species such as tuna, swordfish, and Patagonian toothfish. But it takes a tremendous toll of sea turtles, seals, and birds. When the lines are set, sea birds are attracted to the bait, get caught on the hooks, and drown. An estimated 400 albatross die this way every week.

In order to learn more about the migratory pathways of albatrosses, to figure out the most important places to regulate longline fishing, this past April, in Tasmania, 18 juvenile seabirds of a species called Shy Albatrosses, were each fitted with a satellite transmitter to enable scientists to precisely plot their 6,000-mile migration from Australia to South Africa. Then conservationist Tim Nevard, from Queensland, Australia, had a scathingly brilliant idea. As long as the birds were being tracked anyway, why not let people follow their progress on the Internet, and let them bet on which one would arrive at the destination first? Suddenly, bird enthusiasts and celebrities were following the event on their computers.

Ladbrokes, a major British bookmaker and Internet betting service, ran the race in cooperation with the Conservation Foundation, a British organization based at the Royal Geographic Society), and profits were placed in a fund for global seabird conservation. Organizers hope that the resulting publicity will encourage more countries to sign the Agreement for the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP). Odds for the Internet betting were determined in part from information provided by consulting ornithologists, as well as any lead an albatross had by being “quick out of the traps.”

The initial contributions from the albatross race came to almost $30,000. And the first marked Shy Albatross to reach the destination in South African territorial waters was “Aphrodite,” a bird sponsored by Texas model and actress, and Mick Jagger’s ex, Jerry Hall. A relative long shot, with initial odds of 20-to-1, Aphrodite apparently took an early lead and maintained it, despite some technical problems midway through the race with her electronic tracking device.

Nicholas Coleridge’s bird, “Xanadu,” came in second. Nicholas Coleridge is the great, great, great, great, great grandson of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote the classic “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” first published in 1798, a poem that featured a murdered albatross and the lovely lines,

He prayeth well, who loveth well Both man and bird and beast. He prayeth best, who loveth best All things both great and small ; For the dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all.

Third place winner was Susan Hampshire’s “Monarch of the Glen,” and “Daniphobouska” came in fourth. Other albatrosses were sponsored by Australian rugby star David Campese and Jordan’s Queen Noor. The Duke of Edinburgh will present Jerry Hall with a silver trophy later this year.

The race of albatrosses from Tasmania to South Africa will become an annual event if bird conservationists get their way.