Antarctic region, Christmas Day 1959, Dr Mary Gillham, Macquarie Island, Mary Gillham Archive Project, Wandering Albatross, women scientists in Antarctica
A snippet from my volunteer work on the ‘Dedicated Naturalist’ Project, helping to decipher and digitise, record and publicise the life’s work of naturalist extraordinaire, Dr Mary Gillham. In December 1959-January 1960 Mary made history as one of the first British women to conduct scientific research in the Antarctic region, as part of the ANARE expedition to restock the Australian Antarctic base on Macquarie Island.
Here we were in the “albatross latitudes”, where these greatest of all seabirds soar overhead like living sail planes. Albatrosses do not fly in the ordinary sense, but utilise air currents and turbulence. When the wind drops they are becalmed on the surface as surely as any sailing vessel.
It seemed incongruous that such noble birds should deign to eat the scraps from our table, in company with the scavenging host of smaller fry – the cape pigeons, giant petrels and Antarctic skuas. Although they did not scorn the scraps, they had, in fact, other motives for following us. They were cashing in on the fishy morsels such as squids which were churned up from below on the wake of our propellers.
The wandering albatross is a magnificent bird when viewed at close quarters and has no fear of man. I spent part of a memorable Christmas day within a yard or two of an old male bird with a wing span of eleven and a half feet. He had just started to nest on a level area of spongy bogland which provided an admirable landing field for his clumsy homecomings. He could only become airborne direct in a very high wind: usually he must walk several hundred yards to the sea.
On Christmas morning his mate had not yet arrived from her long sojourn at sea and he was whiling away the time by preparing a home for her. He did this in the easiest possible way, scraping a circle of mosses and sedges towards himself as he sat. This would build up into a miniature volcano, sufficiently tall to raise the chick above the snow.
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