08 August 07

I Saw a Bird Today

As autumn nears the vast North Pacific turns gray, sunny days and star filled nights are rare. After seeing nothing but this ocean for ten days it is easy to forget that anything else exists, so when a bird appears 1000 miles from the nearest land it is a fast reminder of the outside world.

Albatross are amazing masters of flight. They fly effortlessly for weeks at a time and stay at sea for months. Sometimes they land in the water but usually they keep aloft, they eat flying fish that they catch in mid air and I have heard that they have a minimal form of sleep that they do while aloft too.

My friend Peter has been looking for ways to feed his flying addiction in the face of ever increasing fuel prices and so he has begun looking into flying gliders to mimic the flight of the albatross. The albatross doesn't flap its wings to fly but uses the changing wind speeds at various elevations above the water to gain lift and propel itself forward. The theory is that if you can mimic the flight of an albatross (called "dynamic soaring") in a glider than once you are airborne you should be able to stay that way indefinitely and never use any fuel. Peter directed me to a few web sites that describe the various flight patterns (as I write this I am at sea and miles from an internet connection so I can not lookup the URLs to share; you, my dear reader, will have to search for yourself. To aid in your search look for a paper called "How Flies the Albatross, the flight mechanics of dynamic soaring" by J. Philip Barnes).

I have watched albatross soar as long as I have been going to sea and were amazed at how effortless it appeared and now after have read about this special flight I am even more in awe. The more I learn about nature and the incredible adaptations that eons of evolution have produced the more amazing nature seems. So now I stand and watch these birds with the knowledge that they have mastered flight in ways we humans probably never will. We can go fast, we can hover, we can do a number of amazing things but we can't do any of it without barrels of fuel.

In this vast ocean we are also joined by whales and dolphins. The whales this trip have only shown a few blows and not enough for my untrained eyes to identify. The first dolphins came to visit yesterday. From the distance we saw splashes as they raced for our ship, then they joined us and leapt in our wake. I was on watch and went out on the bridge wing to watch them as they played. I may be anthropomorphizing, but I really believe they were playing: they raced from the distance then turned and followed our ship zipping up to leap out from our wake and dive into the next swell coming off our bow and stern. For twenty or so minutes they did this then almost as a group they all fell off and went on their way.