Model Jerry Hall's Albatross Wins the Big Bird Race

Leon Marshall in Johannesburg
for National Geographic News
July 13, 2004
Aphrodite, an albatross sponsored by Jerry Hall, the former model and
ex-wife of Mick Jagger, has won the 6,000-mile (10,000-kilometer),
11-week Big Bird Race across the Indian Ocean.

The 18-bird event was organized by conservationists and backed by celebrities to promote conservation of albatrosses. Tens of thousands of the giant seabirds are drowned each year when they become entangled with long fishing lines.

Hall's albatross was declared the official winner yesterday after the organizers detected that signals emitted by a radio collar on the bird were coming from South Africa's waters. It meant that Aphrodite was the first of the 18 collared albatrosses proven to have made the long migration from Australia.

The 18 Tasmanian shy albatrosses started the "race" from Australia across the Indian Ocean to South Africa on April 27. Like racehorses, each bird had an "owner" (a celebrity sponsor) and a "jockey" (the transmitter). Bets on which albatross would be first to cross the finish line were accepted over the Internet by Ladbrokes, a British bookmaker that sponsored the event.

Profits from the gambling are to be donated to seabird conservation.

Radio contact was lost with all but three of the birds, and it is not known how many albatrosses have survived, let alone made it all the way to South Africa.

Tim Nevard, the project director and race steward, said the celebrity sponsors were chosen from a wide variety of fields—including entertainment, sports, and the media—to attract as much attention as possible to the conservation issues which the race was intended to highlight.

Nevard is a professional conservationist from Queensland, Australia. He runs a firm that advises governments, business, and nongovernmental organizations on sustainable development.

"The idea behind the race was to create a project which would draw attention to the issues in ways and places which conventional messages do not reach," he said.

Queen Noor and the Ancient Mariner

One of the most prominent racing bird sponsors was Jordan's Queen Noor, a patron of BirdLife International. She named her "steed" Ancient Mariner after the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem about an albatross.

A descendant of Coleridge, Nicholas Coleridge, "owned" Xanadu, the albatross that placed second in the race.

The U.K.'s Prince Philip will present Jerry Hall with the Duke of Edinburgh's Challenge Cup, a trophy he donated for the Big Bird Race. The prince takes a keen interest in bird conservation.

Conservationist David Bellamy, another organizer of the race, said at the launch event in April: "This is the largest seabird tracking project ever, and certainly the first to be sponsored by a bookie. We expect to gain a unique insight into the migration patterns of Tasmanian shy albatrosses and to be able to use this data to better protect what must be one of the world's most iconic birds from extinction."

The Plight of Albatrosses

Ladbrokes spokesman Damian Walker, explaining the bookmaker's involvement, said, while it was intrigued by the betting angle, it also saw a good opportunity to play a part in highlighting the plight of albatrosses. Of the 24 species of albatross, all but three have been listed by the World Conservation Union as globally endangered, vulnerable, or threatened

According to the Ladbrokes Web site, an estimated 300,000 seabirds get drowned yearly through long-lining—the fishing method whereby thousands of hooks are baited and dragged on lines of up to 60 miles (100 kilometers) long behind fishing vessels. The birds scavenge the baited hooks and get caught, leading to drowning.

It is estimated that as many as 80 percent of these deaths may be avoidable by weighting the lines, defrosting bait, flying bird-scaring lines, and setting hooks at night. Governments can help by ensuring that longline fishing is done in such environmentally friendly ways, and by clamping down on pirate fishing boats, which are responsible for almost half the fatalities.

The albatross race was also aimed at highlighting the Agreement for the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP). The document requires countries that sign it to take steps to reduce seabird deaths from longline fishing and to improve the conservation status of the birds.

Australia and South Africa are signatories, along with New Zealand, Ecuador, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Many other countries have not signed the agreement.

According to the Ladbrokes Web site, Tasmanian shy albatrosses (Thalassarche cauta) were selected for the race project because it is the only albatross species that breeds off Australia outside the sub-Antarctic region, which makes the birds more accessible for researchers. They nest colonially on three small islands off Tasmania—Albatross Island, Mewstone, and Pedra Branca. Juveniles set off on a three-year peregrination after fledging, some flying as far as South Africa, or even farther.

By tracking the birds' travels, valuable insights may be gained into their migratory patterns and the dangers they and other species face. By identifying where the biggest threats from longline fishing are, pressures can be applied to reduce such hazards.

Shy albatrosses are killed by longline operations off both Australia and South Africa, according to BirdLife International.

Michael Rands, chief executive of BirdLife International, said: "The race provides a wonderful opportunity to raise awareness of the dreadful plight of some of the world's most majestic, and yet globally threatened, birds. All 21 species of albatross are now on the international Red List as a result of being caught and killed on longlines.

"It is perfectly possible to avoid this killing, which is unnecessary. Taking measures to prevent the accidental capture of birds benefits both the albatross and the fishermen, since they can catch more fish if the hooks are not catching birds by mistake.

"The data from tagging the birds in the race will provide unique information on the flight paths of young shy albatrosses so we can see where they go after leaving their nests and whether they enter areas of high-intensity fishing. Such information is vital for our planning and discussion with the UN on regulating the fishing industry, and for our understanding of the biology and needs of these remarkable birds."

Nevard said scientists from Australia's Tasmanian state government tagged the 18 birds in the race before the start of their migration. They were fledglings, hatched late last year, and were only handled briefly to fit the satellite tracking devices to feathers between their wings before taking off on their first flight.

Most of the birds were out of the race, because their signals were lost, some because of technical difficulties. Bad weather played its part, and a few died even before leaving the nest.

Queen Noor's Ancient Mariner made excellent progress along the Australian coastline before inexplicably doubling back. Its signal, too, was subsequently lost.

For more albatross news, scroll down.

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