Briefly last week the nation chortled over its cornflakes at newspaper headlines about the ‘black spider’, and reports of letters to ministers from the Prince of Wales, and pictures of letters from ministers to the Prince of Wales heavily annotated in the sort of spidery black ink, which did look obsessive when spread across the front of a newspaper above a giggly caption, but hardly differed from the exasperated marginal scribbling we all produce but never expect to see in newspapers. I found my mind wandering to a different scene. I had described it in The Spectator at the time, six years ago.
I was wintering in the sub-Antarctic on an island Captain Cook called Desolation and which the French, who own it, call Kerguelen, about 4,000 miles south of India in the Southern Ocean, in the path of the Roaring Forties. There are no roads there; but driving a tractor along the beaches a French comrade and I reached the extreme east of the island, a vast flat wetland, strewn with lakes and tufts and bogs, on whose shore (first mapped by Cook) the freezing ocean pounds. Two thousand miles of angry sea heaves between the multitude of penguins and elephant seals, which winter there, and Western Australia.
A blizzard was blowing. We could see only a few yards. Snow stung eyes and faces. Our tractor was stuck by the shore, its fuel frozen. Our shelter was a mile inland: a little wooden hut constructed for scientists and expeditionaries. There was no path from shore to hut, and though the journey from hut to shore could be reliably navigated by the perpetual roar of the surf and scream of the penguin colony, finding the hut in a white-out, with the ocean at our backs, was difficult.
It was getting dark. Renaud and I stuck together, stumbling across bog and tussock. All at once and almost beneath our feet we came upon a remarkable sight. Sitting on a small raised dais of mud, about the size of a lavatory pan but only half as high, sat a snowy-white creature about the size of a goose, its down as fluffy as dandelion seed, lightly garnished in frozen snow. It had an enormous, soft-looking beak, which was snap-snapping at us with a soft sound, as it craned its head to left and right in obvious and helpless alarm. It was perfectly defenceless, and alone.
This was the chick of a Great Albatross. These birds, who mate for life, lay only one egg every two years, and the offspring hatches to a life as solitary as it will remain for the 60 years it may live. On this part of Kerguelen there were perhaps 100 chicks in about as many square miles, but none closer to another than about 50 yards, and most completely alone. Each sits on his little observation tower, looking around him, craning his downy neck and scanning the horizon restlessly, relentlessly.
He is looking for his parent. Soon after hatching, both parents begin to leave the chick for increasing spells, flying off in search of food — fish — which, partly digested, is disgorged in an oily mash from parent’s to baby’s beak. As months pass and the chick grows, mother and father wheel off in increasingly long circuits across the ocean, out over the deep seas, sometimes travelling halfway across the bottom of the world for up to 20 days before returning.
For weeks at a time they are gone. The flightless chick is left alone, grounded — he cannot even walk — peering into the skies whence parent and his next meal will hopefully come. He can do nothing for himself. Down turns to feather as he grows. Instinctively he trusts. Only very late will he fly — even his parents are unable to launch themselves into the air without a stiff breeze — and that will be after a parent’s last visit. Then he may never see them again.
In the storm that evening, this chick, about half-grown, was distressed only by the intrusion of two strange wingless beings in Gore-Tex. The blizzard (one night exposed to which would have killed us) was his home and, by navigation systems nobody understands, his parents would be able to find him from as far away as Tasmania. To find him, that is, if they had not perished. Still on their little mud thrones we had seen the down-flecked skeletons of chicks whose parents had never come back.
There are more and more of these. Across the world albatross populations are crashing. One hundred thousand albatrosses are now being killed every year. We know exactly how. Long-line fishing boats, often pirate craft, fishing mostly for tuna, are hooking and dragging underwater the birds — which take their bait and drown. We know the solution, too. Lines can be weighted so they travel too far beneath the surface to attract albatross. There is no need to stop tuna-fishing; only to modify it.
I will not belabour you with statistics. The RSPB or their partners, BirdLife International, will give you these; or you could look at savethealbatross.net. There are many different kinds of albatross; all are endangered and some are now close to extinction. It seems incredible to me how few of us have awoken to the disaster looming for these nomads of the ocean, our largest seabird, noblest of species. Don’t people know? Don’t they care?
The Prince of Wales does. As with so many things, Prince Charles worried early, and worried rightly, and acted on it. He has done all he can to draw attention to a catastrophe we seem almost casually to be overlooking. He keeps talking about the albatross’s plight; he keeps turning up at events and functions; he keeps writing on the subject. I dare say he writes in spidery black ink. Then God replenish his inkwell, I say. I dare say ministers consider his interest in nature obsessive. Then God feed his obsession.
As I left the eastern shore of Kerguelen two days later, to cut across a headland named by Cook (and still called by the French) the Prince of Wales Peninsula, the snow was still blowing and the chick was still there, craning its neck, softly snap-snapping its beak, searching the sky. If I could speak its language, and if it could know what ‘the British media’ meant, I might have asked if it shared the media concern that the Prince of Wales was obsessive. And the chick might have replied that it too was feeling a bit obsessive — about whether its parents would ever return.
Were the British monarchy headed for extinction — well, the world would continue in its orbit. But were we to lose for ever the albatross, king of the air, would that not be a terrible thing? If Prince Charles could help save this species, then by that alone he would have done more with his life, and more for his office, and more as a man, than any Prince of Wales who ever lived. God speed his spidery pen.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.