Reflective Review of ALBATROSS: a Film, a Love Story, and a Witness Statement

2022-07-29

 |  Biodiversity/Conservation

I first saw ALBATROSS in 2018 when a friend of mine organised a local screening as part of her participation in the inspiring youth leadership program, Ocean Bridge. I was mesmerised by the expansive and immersive experience of watching ALBATROSS, which evoked a set of emotions in me that no other piece of documentary filmography had ever quite achieved. I immediately knew that this was among the most exceptional films that I would ever be witness to.  

I am delighted to be writing about ALBATROSS as part of an article series highlighting two documentary films focussed on water pollution, environmental injustice, and the power of emotional relationships with nature. This series will include personal reflections and emphasise key takeaways from the films, in tandem with delving deeper into the environmental issues that they raise. This article focuses on ALBATROSS, a self-proclaimed love story about beautiful birds whose existence is threatened by global plastic pollution. The second article of the series will discuss Water Warriors, an Atlantic Canadian documentary about an Indigenous-led movement to protect a watershed against fracking. Both Water Warriors and ALBATROSS are powerful portrayals of environmentalism grounded in intimate cultural and emotional value systems. 

I believe that we can foster the strongest and most sustainable relationships with nature when the basis of our relationship is emotional. When our relationships with nature are rooted in love, admiration, and gratitude they emotionally connect us to the tangible and terrifying consequences of environmental destruction. Across the globe, Indigenous peoples are at the forefront of an emotion-infused cultural understanding of their environment. As a settler in colonial Canada, I look forward to specifically reflecting on Indigenous perspectives on this topic in the second article of this series. 

For now, let us turn to the mighty and magnificent albatross. Chris Jordan and team’s compelling film ALBATROSS is this article’s guide to unpacking more about the potential for care and connection with all life on this planet. 

“What is it like to look out through the eyes of an albatross?”  

ALBATROSS is an astounding film in choosing this perspective to explore the life and death of a phenomenal bird. Director Chris Jordan calls ALBATROSS “a chance to face a global issue on a personal scale.” This intimate perspective of what it is like to live as an albatross contrasts a more traditional documentary style where the focus is primarily framed through the lens of science. Such an albatross-centred approach allows for a sense of connection to be built, with a basis in emotion and the vulnerability of life. 

In this film, we are intimately introduced to the powerful and graceful Laysan albatross, seen during their annual breeding period on Pihemanu – an atoll – of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Colonially, this atoll is known as Midway Island and is a part of the state of Hawaii, USA. However, albatrosses are pelagic birds, which means that they spend a substantial amount of their life on the open ocean, and specifically for the mature birds this means the entirety of July to November. 

Although they frequent the waters off BC, Laysan albatrosses are likely to be found further from shore than humans often travel. Pelagic bird tours departing from such areas as Tofino or Barkley canyons have the best luck of meeting one because deep waters are encountered relatively quickly. Otherwise, most Canadians and even BC residents have little chance of ever crossing paths with these fascinating birds 

With regards to Laysan albatrosses, the personal scale that this film provides should be especially cherished because of their distance from most of our lives. In contrast to this distance, the film ALBATROSS has been created with a focus on incredible intimacy. 

It provides viewers with close-ups so intimate that we see the very shade and texture of albatross feathers, marvellous plumage that darkens elegantly around their eyes, becomes so softly ruffled atop their heads, and graces their tremendous wings with an exquisite pattern of interlocking white and brown. (Photo credits: Forest and Kim Starr, Wikimedia Commons.)

Watching ALBATROSS, we get to gaze into the depths of sharp dark albatross eyes and hear the wide range of clicking, squeaking, and calling songs these birds share with one another in loving encouragement and verbal connection. This film shows viewers that albatrosses are curious, compassionate, and even sensuous.

We see so much nuance of albatross emotion in their radiant courtship, their tenderness towards their partners, and their devotion to their chicks. They sing, they dance, they snuggle, and sometimes it almost feels obtrusive, watching the film, how many of these profoundly personal interactions we are witness to. It is a gift that the albatrosses of Pihemanu have never known a natural predator there, so this film’s creative team did not inspire fear amongst the birds they followed and filmed. This fact, in itself, contributes to the magic and wonderment of these creatures, giving us cause for contemplation about how our animal-to-animal relationships with other species could be.

Despite the seemingly vast remoteness of albatrosses from our lives, they are not removed from humanity’s plastic pollution. A global headline of our times, plastics have been found widely throughout nature, including in the air, the soil, and water systems, with ocean microplastics perhaps receiving the most attention. We tend to view these issues from a systems perspective or with a focus on what the individual can do. However, we often lack the deeply personal perspective of beings who live through some of the most ghastly effects of this crisis. From a very young age, albatrosses are introduced to plastic when their parents, unknowingly, feed them microplastic pieces. Since albatrosses catch their food “in quick swooping grabs at the surface of the ocean” they are particularly vulnerable to the presence of a microplastic layer there. This layer is so pervasive in large swaths of the Pacific that it clouds the water, and even Laysan albatrosses’ massive range cannot escape it.

Photo credits: Dick Daniels, Wikimedia Commons.

As the film ALBATROSS tells us, there is “no boundary or separation between the albatross and the ocean.” When the ocean becomes imbued with plastic, so do the lives of albatrosses. Like humans, they cannot digest plastic, but the effects of this toxin are very drastic and immediate. Adolescent birds cannot take to the air and reach the sea, their fundamental life source, without their body first ejecting the weight of all the indigestible material that they have consumed since birth. Historically, albatrosses’ regurgitated indigestibles were organic matter, like shells or pebbles, but more recently sharp, angular, and highly damaging pieces of hard plastic are the inhibiting factor, and they are much harder to cough up.

Furthermore, with plastic fibres the most abundant microplastic pollutant, albatrosses’ bellies have become filled with a tangled mass of mess. The photo on the right is an example of plastics that were inside an albatross. These plastics are on the smaller end of the pieces that have been found in the guts of these birds. (Photo credits: Wmpearl, Wikimedia Commons).

This plastic mess is both impossible for them to digest and extremely difficult to expel, so many are left choking and suffering upon the beaches in a terrifying display of the destructive power of plastic on a bodily level. In this film we watch the tender conception and coming of age of beautiful baby albatrosses, and then watch as they agonisingly starve to death. Every year more young birds remain stranded on the land where they were born moments from the sky and open sea where they belong. 

Still, as the film narrates, albatrosses “trust what the ocean provides, as they and their ancestors have done for millions of years.” An albatross has no concept of what plastic is and cannot possibly know what is killing them. These facts are what filmmaker Chris Jordan shares as the hardest aspect of this story for him to grapple with. The severe pain, terror, and lack of autonomy inflicted by plastic pollution are an injustice to albatross life. As Jordan also states of the film itself, “In this act of witnessing, a doorway opens.” If this film is a love story, an ode to the mighty and magnificent albatross, let it also be a witness statement for those of us who walk in the human realm that created this catastrophe. 

As both a horribly factual witness statement and a powerful love story, ALBATROSS motivates activism that is rooted in immense love and admiration for a phenomenal bird whom most of those activists will never get to meet. This film then closes with a reflective connection between grief and love that most humans can connect to on a deeply personal level around loss. In extending these feelings to a bird and an environmental issue, which most would think such personal emotions are very far from, there is much hope for a better future for albatrosses, and a better future for humanity’s fate on this planet as entwined with theirs. 

ALBATROSS can be viewed at www.albatrossthefilm.com where you can also learn more about sharing it with others, donate to the project, or delve deeper into the many themes and rich emotional landscape, only touched upon in this article, that ALBATROSS embodies.

Albatrosses ponder plastic debris, mostly discarded pocket lighters, that were collected during a shoreline cleanup. As this film so candidly and tragically points out, albatrosses have no idea what plastic is and no idea that it is what is killing them. Photo credits: David Slater with NOAA, Wikimedia Commons.

References

https://www.albatrossthefilm.com/watch-albatross
https://ibis.geog.ubc.ca/biodiversity/efauna/documents/LAAL-article-RT.pdf

https://www.plasticsoupfoundation.org/en/plastic-problem/plastic-soup/plastic-is-everywhere/

https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/great-pacific-garbage-patch
https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0040517521991244