A few days ago, Chris Cook and I took the passenger ferry from Tokyo to Hachijojima and back, hoping to see three species of albatross: Short-tailed Albatross, Laysan Albatross and Black-footed Albatross.
And what a great day out on the ocean! We saw at least 10 Short-tailed Albatross, similar numbers of Black-footed, and over 150 Laysan Albatross as well as murrelets (distant views), quite a few Sperm Whales, and a few dolphins.
If anyone else is keen to give it a go, late winter/early spring is the best time to go for albatrosses. Jump on the ferry from Tokyo to Hachijojima (¥7000 one way): the trip out is overnight, leaving Tokyo at 10:30pm and arriving Hachijojima at 8:30am, so you won’t see much except as the boat nears Hachijo. On the return journey, however, you can scan the ocean to your heart’s content, and if you’re lucky you will spot some albatross. Because the ferry is a large boat, you will have to be content from observing the albatross from afar. All of the photos in this post huge crops even with a 400mm lens.
What’s in a name? The Japanese name for the endangered Short-tailed Albatross is アホウドリ (aho-dori) which means ‘idiot bird’ or ‘dumb bird’. They were considered dumb because they had no fear of predators, including the people who killed them for their feathers. In the late 1800s millions of birds were killed for the feather trade, resulting in a catastrophic population collapse.
The species was declared extinct post-WWII when visits to the breeding island, Torishima, failed to detect any breeding birds. Albatrosses, however, take a long time to reach sexual maturity, during which time they roam the oceans without returning to their breeding island. Although there may have been no breeding pairs immediately post-WWII, there were still an estimated 50 young birds roaming the ocean, waiting to return to breed. Eventually some of these young birds returned, and in 1954 the first egg was laid on Torishima. From these estimated 50 birds more than 60 years ago, there are now more than 5000 birds including 1000 breeding pairs on Torishima. It’s remarkable to think how close this species came to extinction, and what a privilege it is to be able to see them flying around today.
Back to the names. The English name of Short-tailed Albatross is also silly as nearly all albatrosses have short tails, and this one doesn’t even have the shortest tail out of the 4 Phoebastria (Northern Hemisphere) albatrosses. As for the other albatrosses, Laysan Albatross is named after one of its breeding grounds, Laysan, near Hawaii. In Japanese, it is called コアホウドリ (koaho-dori), meaning small albatross, which makes sense. The Black-footed Albatross is the only one of the three which has the same name in Japanese.