Dolphins, playing in the pressure waves under the bow, never fail to raise a smile, even on the greyest day. Something about the sheer pleasure they seem to derive racing Kialoa, diving through the swells, generates big grins and loud whoops.
The Southern Indian Ocean has another of nature’s spirit-lifting creatures, a powerful warmer of the soul, the Albatross.
Greyness all around, damp, cold from the early dawn, with an hour or two to go before coffee and signingoff watch, all misery is wicked away by the sight, along the huge wave valleys, of effortless, gliding perfection, an albatross.
Shearwaters amaze with their aggressive cutbacks and wheels, turning back on themselves with masterful control and awareness. We marvel at how a little petrel can survive so far from land, so small, so frantic, so swift. Yet for all their individual evolutionary elegance they are dwarfed physically, metaphorically by an albatross’ sheer grace and power.
Even at great distance their size is blatant. Wing spans of 2 or even 3 meters and shoulders powerful enough to control them, as they curve and dip, following the contours of the waves.
Coming across them sitting on the sea surface, they seem comical: a child’s drawing of a seagull, completely out of proportion, too large, over emphasised. Stretching out those phenomenal wings, catching the breeze and kicking feet, the transformation is dramatic, lifting off the sea into their natural element.
Curving wing tips under themselves in the updraft off the back of a wave, reducing lift, they accelerate down, swooping into the next trough, straightening their span as they contour the wave. Shearing away to change direction, wings wide and flat with the tips flaring upwards as they generate huge forces in their turn.
It is hard to understand how man took so long to succeed in his quest for flight. Such an obvious solution right there, right in front of us, wings outstretched, hardly flapping, tendons naturally curving the wings downwards.
And smart. Here we are, orange sails up, 40 knots, wet, cold, slicing our way through a cold front and the albatross is nowhere to be seen. Swift, an innate understanding of Buys Ballots Law, gliding along the pressure lines, appearing as the weather improves, and the front passes, or so it seems to us, at the mercy of these things.
As we surge over the huge ocean swells, the young fledgling albatross, still skilful, still a sight to marvel at, stutters and even flaps on encountering the upwash off the back of fully set sails. The older, multi season veteran doesn’t even flick a feather, enjoying the lift generated by the air-wash, even wheeling to revisit the turbulence, an atmospheric mirror of that dolphin, enjoying the wake of Kialoa’s passing.