Last week in Dunedin, I learned why I saw so many Royal albatross sailing across the Tasman Sea and along the east cost of the South Island of New Zealand.
Upon arrival, I joined a tour that made its way out to the Otago Peninsula, a place that has become well known for its special inhabitants. At the very end of the Peninsula is Taiaroa Head, where the Royal Albatross Center is located. The woman who guided us through the center showed me an exhibit that had been created by another staff member from her visit to a Laysan albatross colony in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. It was a display of colorful plastic peices that had been recovered from inside the skeleton of dead bird, revealing its stomach contents upon its death. She said they used the display for their school programs to encourage kids to be conscious of their plastic use. Their hope is that the same fate doesn't become of albatross in the South Pacific Ocean. Here, although there are concentrations of plastic debris in certain areas of the surface of every ocean basin, fisheries pose a bigger threat.
As sad as it was, I'm glad the example could send an effective message. For kids, or anyone that visits, it would be hard not to be enamored with these three meter wingspan boasting birds, when you have the opportunity to see them breed, nest, soar, and socialize up close. The colony here is incredibly unique. Most albatross choose to nest far from anywhere easily accessible by continental land. They love the open sea, and choose their breeding locations accordingly. In fact, this is the only of its kind. Although the South Island is an island, it's hardly remote by albatross standards. And interestingly enough it's only recently been established, and may not have been had the land not been cleared for pastureland, providing the ideal barren coastal bluff exposed to onshore winds. The place and the animals that live there have an interesting shared history that is detailed wonderfully in the book Seabird Genius.
It's not just albatross here that people have recogned the value in and looked out for, or that visitors travel great distances to see. Penguins have their place here too, as well as a host of other seabirds that require space on land, free of predators to nest and raise their young. New Zealand fur seals also happily share the coastline.
The next day, a bit north in the natural port of Akaroa, onboard a vintage sailboat, I met Hectors Dolphins. Rare and endemic to New Zealand, several have found refuge in the flooded ancient caldera. These tiny marine mammals seem to welcome visitors, as if they're sending the same message as the birds of Taiaroa Head, that it's possible to achieve a balance between people here and the other life that is unique to New Zealand. At the end of our sailing, my eyes were dry and my heart was full ... Of delight, and of hope.
What we understand now is that it's not about the individual species that regulations and restricted areas are built around. It's about the systems that they represent. They're indicative of the health of a greater coastal and open ocean ecosystems upon which we depend. For more information on how plastics debris in the ocean are affecting marine life and people, Plastic Ocean by Captain Charles Moore is a good read. Or for simple everyday things you can do to make a difference, check out: http://plasticparadisemovie.com/take-action/