Wind, Waves and the Albatross

Wave, Isle of Barra © 2012 Ginny Battson


Poles are cold and the tropics are hot; continents and oceans absorb the sun’s energy at differing rates. The atmosphere is pulled hither and thither, and winds begin to form and swirl around our magnificent planet. A ripple appears far out in the surface tension of a millpond ocean and energy is rapidly transferred from the sky to water. The ripple becomes a wind wave, a heave of energy travelling across the water until it collides, reflects, rebounds and turns into other forms of energy, like sound. I love the sound of its energy crashing along the coast. It’s affirming; that the world is somehow still functioning in some way, as it has for eons.

Most waves making landfall are swells that have long since been set free from the winds that generated them. Waves create diverse habitats along coasts; eroding rock, forming cliffs, carving out sea arches, caves and sea stacks. They make beaches by transporting sand and shell particles from deeper down towards the shore, then blowing inland to create dunes and rich machair. At the surface of the oceans, wave action exchanges essential gases too: carbon dioxide into the oceans and oxygen out. We breathe the waves.

Currents help to mix the layers of water, spreading heat energy and nutrients across the globe, nurturing a plethora of life and trophic levels. Coastal inter-tidal species living in shallow water experience the brunt of the waves directly. To survive, they have evolved to be robust and adaptable. Wave disturbance means a proliferation of species from the surface to depths of 30m or more.

There’s a particularly exquisite example of inter-connection between wind, waves and animal, however, deserving celebration. In a seemingly fluid interaction, albatrosses can glide 10,000 miles in a single journey and circumnavigate the globe in 46 days without flapping their wings, and by action so efficient it takes less energy than sitting on a nest. Albatrosses are some of the most heavy birds, but also have the largest wingspans in the world, the Wandering Albatross of the Southern and Indian Oceans reaching up to 3.5m.

These sublime, global navigators exploit the waves and air currents in a type of flight motion called dynamic soaring. By locking their shoulders into position and allowing the muscles to rest, they are able to keep their large wingspan perfectly still for long periods of time. As they glide and naturally lose height, they dip down to soar between the waves where wind speeds are lower. Then they turn sideways into wind, gaining effortless lift into faster airflows and quickly rise to maybe 10 to 15 metres above the water. Once more, they glide down between the waves and repeat the cycle again and again, rising and falling across a pelagic expanse. They can fly faster than the wind’s speed, and around 110 metres along for every 5 metres of height they drop. If they flap their wings, they encounter resistance from the air and quickly tire. If wind speeds drop below 18 kph, they are forced to land on the water or remain stranded at their island breeding sites. In severe storms, winds may be too strong for them to fly, again forcing them to float in rough seas until conditions improve.

For such incredible beings, they endure many hardships. The tragedy is that they are also extremely vulnerable to unnecessary human threats, not least a fishing technique called long-lining, where a single vessel may use a line extending for 80 miles (130 km) from which can hang as many as 10-20,000 hooks, each baited with a piece of fish or squid. Albatrosses, along with many other seabirds, go for the bait, are hooked and drowned as the lines sink.

Every year longliners set about three billion hooks, killing an estimated 300,000 seabirds every year, of which 100,000 are albatrosses. (RSPB)

1280px-Diomedea_exulans_in_flight_-_SE_TasmaniaCredit ~ Creative Commons ~ JJ Harrison. Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans) in flight, East of the Tasman Peninsula, Tasmania, Australia.

Other hazards include ingestion of plastic pollution, disease such as avian cholera, invasive predators at nesting sites, climate change and associated changes in food distribution and increased frequency/magnitude of storms. There are 22 species in the albatross family, of which 17 are globally threatened according to the IUCN Red List. But there is still much we can do to tackle some of these threats and support others who are working for their survival.

These magnificent birds have evolved over 50 million years, have worth in their own right, and deserve all our efforts, respect and love. We can reduce our purchases of single-use plastic, which escape into our water courses and into the oceans. We can reduce our ‘carbon footprints’ and back campaigns to support clean, renewable energy and keep fossil fuels in the ground. We can support Birdlife International’s worthy campaign RSPB dedicated pages (in conjunction with Birdlife International) to save the albatrosses, working with governments and fisher communities, finding solutions to incidental seabird bycatch and developing alternative methods as mitigation for smaller scale fleets and families.


With respect:

In 2003-4, adventurers John and Marie Christine Ridgway helped to raise awareness of the plight of the albatross by circumnavigating the globe on their sail boat English Rose VI (photo of her at Ardmore below), with a team of volunteers, concluding with a presentation of a petition to UN FAO headquarters in Rome. There were over 100,000 signatures from 131 countries, a huge achievement before the advent of dedicated online petition websites. For more detail on their astonishing journey, please visit Save the Albatross Voyage 2003-4

6772377817_b26371979f_bEnglish Rose VI at home, Ardmore, Sutherland © 2012 Ginny Battson



Finally, for some glorious albatross footage of Albatross in flight by ‘Macgellan’ , please visit YouTube


Monknash and the Anthropocene


I am at Monknash SSSI on the South Wales coast, protected for its abundance of special geology and rare species. A handful of humans and our canine companions are wandering the beach towards Cwm Marcross, beneath magnificent Liassic cliffs just West of Nash Point. We are all separate in our own worlds, though sharing the common experience of listening to the cackling of fulmars on narrow ledges and tracing our way along the shore. The steep, stratified layers of the cliffs are a rhythmic repetition of limestone and mudstone, and formed as a late Triassic desert was inundated by ocean. Molluscan faunas found here by paleontologists have provided a surprisingly detailed record of environmental history, particularly in rarer tufa limestone deposits. They mark the Boreal/Atlantic climatic transition around 8,000 years ago, when rising global temperatures meant further retreat of ice to the North and a rising sea.

At that point in time, Mesolithic humans, dark skinned hunter-gatherers along with, perhaps, a few early settlers, populated what we now describe as Britain only sparsely. The sea had begun to inundate the good hunting grounds of the marshes, lakes and rivers of Doggerland, disconnecting us from mainland Europe. The Welsh shoreline had extended in plains out beyond what we see now as shore, into the Severn Sea (or in Welsh, Môr Hafren). These flatlands were also being swallowed by rising water levels. The newly forming coast would have provided an important source of marine food for early tribal groups, evidenced by middens of cockle and oyster shells discovered in estuarine zones. The temperate post-glacial climate would have encouraged more people to migrate and succeed.

Some 3,500 years before that, at the end of the last Ice Age, marks the beginning of what the International Commission on Stratigraphy accept as the beginning of the Holocene epoch, the geological time period in which we now exist. Climate has been fairly stable over the Holocene, but things are changing rapidly.


As one stands now between the cliffs and the shoreline, it’s as if time is materially trapped in the strata. Listen carefully, and you’ll hear the wind, rain and sea recounting narratives of antiquity, released in little whisps around you. There’s evidence here of glacial retreat, lost ecologies of marsh and woodland communities instead of the hinterland of farms we see today. And there are ancient human stories too, no doubt, the joys and struggles of life, to which I think we still may relate.

Here on the edge of things, magic still dwells, as ever.


Today, intricate honeycomb worm reefs (Sabellaria alveolata), smother wave-cut platforms, thrusting out into long shore drift when tides are low. Their brown planes intersect the water with plumes of sea-spray, the final sigh of waves that may have begun thousands of miles away in the Atlantic Ocean. These are great hiding places for many other intertidal species, part of the reason they are formerly protected from human interference by Law.



It’s a wonder these reefs aren’t smashed to bits by erosion. But they remain firmly in tact, for now, the colonies of tiny worms resiliently rebuilding their feeding tubes with sand particles and shell remains at every chance.

Sadly, if you look closely, you’ll see brightly coloured plastic rings, toys (some even with faces), bottles, caps and inexplicable mouldings that have become entwined deep in the honeycomb. I feed my hand into the reef to pull a few out, and fail. I can’t damage the reef. They are cemented, ensconced behind the living colonies, leeching out their chemicals as they slowly break down with unquantifiable consequences. It’s as if only another epoch of sea erosion and the loss of the worms themselves would ever see them gone.

Moreover, I look around me and imagine worse to come. Oceanographers are now clear that anthropogenic climate change will bring the seas in higher and harder across these shores. More intense storms will wither the roots of all the rare life I observe today. The intertidal ecological zones will become permanently submerged and the cliffs will fall more rapidly back into the high energy waves that batter their foundations. Species will have to adapt as best they can.

I feel ashamed of my own species. It’s all so unnecessary.


In altogether different parts of our Earth’s biosphere, as part of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, there are a number of academics scattered in universities worldwide who call themselves the Working Group on the Anthropocene. Anthropocene is a term first used by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and ecologist Eugene Stoermer in 2000 to delineate a ‘present time interval’, yet to be fully sanctioned or determined, in which many geologically conditions and processes are profoundly altered by human activity. The evidence, however, is mounting.

The Group plans to assemble later this year to decide whether the Anthropocene is to be ‘set in stone’. The case will be reviewed by the International Commission on Stratigraphy and, if approved, the new epoch will have to be ratified by the International Union of Geological Sciences before formal adoption.

A paper published recently in Science provides further evidence of human impacts upon the lithosphere, the rigid outer part of our planet Earth. Various biogeochemical cycles have ensured our pollutants have reached far and wide. The plastic I find trapped today in the honeycomb worm reefs are only what I can see with my eyes. There are far more profound changes occurring beyond my senses that not only future geologists thousands of years from now (indeed, if our species has rallied), might discover in core samples and geochemical surveys, but modern Earth scientists are already uncovering.

It appears there are indicators in recent lake sediments in Greenland, which distinguish them from the rest of the Holocene epoch,

“The appearance of manufactured materials in sediments, including aluminum, plastics, and concrete, coincides with global spikes in fallout radionuclides and particulates from fossil fuel combustion. Carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus cycles have been substantially modified over the past century.”


“unprecedented combinations of plastics, fly ash, radionuclides, metals, pesticides, reactive nitrogen, and consequences of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations. In this sediment core from west Greenland (69˚03’N, 49˚54’W), glacier retreat due to climate warming has resulted in an abrupt stratigraphic transition from proglacial sediments to nonglacial organic matter, effectively demarcating the onset of the Anthropocene.”

Salutary stuff. There’s still much debate about the precise point in time the Anthropocene is supposed to have begun. Some argue it should be traced back to the Neolithic conversion from human hunter-gathering to farming, whilst others look to the more recent Industrial Revolution and the beginning of the fossil fuel era and greenhouse gas emissions. The Great Acceleration” since the 1950s, a period of exponential economic growth and consumption of resources, looks to be a prime candidate, and even the dropping of the first nuclear bomb in New Mexico 1945 has been suggested. The ‘Subatlantic’ is the current climatic age of the Holocene. It started at about 2,500 years ago, but the data sets will surely no longer be the norm as we move forward in time. Even in the UK, we are already facing what meteorologists describe as ‘unknown extremes’ in terms of climate volatility.

Perhaps, by declaring a brand new geological epoch because of the impacts of one species, our own, the act itself will induce a re-imagining and re-forming of human-Earth relations. As a part of nature, we are cheating ourselves if we think our own dominion above all other life remains the route to living within our planetary boundaries instead of exceeding them as we do. We share one biosphere, we need to respect the precariousness of our situation, but remember our responsibilities to our evolutionary kin, both human and non-human.


Back to Monknash, and the tide is turning; significant, as it’s the second largest tidal range in the world after the Bay of Fundy in Eastern Canada. As I look West along the vista of cliffs, the light is fading to pink with the onset of evening, and it’s time for me to return home. I can’t help feeling that we could somehow learn from this coast as it reveals secrets of past changes whilst recording new climates and adapting species of today and into the future.

This particular section is declared by Cardiff Vale Council to be unprotected from the onset of the sea, left to ‘natural’ processes which would have otherwise shaped our coasts for eons. We are, of course, part of nature, so our impacts may also be perceived as ‘natural’, though does not, I’d assert, make them anymore just. In other places nearby, where humans reside near current sea levels, there are, at least some plans afoot to provide defences and support. But we collectively haven’t the funds to fend off the mass of an expanding ocean for long. I can only hope that 2016 and the declaring of the Anthropocene Epoch will not go unnoticed for real change is now long overdue.