How we fell in love with five birds in the South-Atlantic

In celebration of #WorldMigratoryBirdDay this weekend, Noa sheds light on #AlbatrossStories (one of our most adorable projects), coins a new word, and talks the importance of positive messaging in conservation communications.

Deep in the Southern Antarctic ocean is the aptly named Bird Island, an isolated piece of land dusted with mossy greens and yellow meadows (and, sometimes, deep drifts of snow) that houses some of the rarest creatures on our planet. Fur seals and penguins form just a small proportion of its wildlife – but the real star of the show is the albatross. Disclaimer: I am incredibly biased.

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Childhood readings of Michael Morpurgo’s Alone on a Wide, Wide Sea had already inspired a foundation of fascination for the albatross in me, which, with my now daily interactions with the inhabitants of Bird Island, has flourished immensely.

So efficient at gliding on the sub-Antarctic breeze that they use more energy sitting down than in the air, these magnificent birds spend most of their lives at sea or circling their island home.

But I have never been there – and I never will. Only a handful of humans live on Bird Island, who monitor and study the four different and completely distinct species of albatross that are found in this part of the world.

The wandering albatross – the cultural icon that has inspired superstition, English poetry, Fleetwood Mac songs, and children’s books – is the wise elder of the island, residing over their nests with a calm serenity (and giant 3.5m wings).

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Elusive and adorably timid, the light-mantled albatross (or ‘moon-faced goddess’) is so shy that it is the only bird here that won’t nest in colonies, while the black-browed albatross is our resident troublemaker – literally snatching food from other birds’ beaks. Soaring through the sky at an impressive 127km/hr is the grey-headed ‘golden-mouthed’ albatross, who can circumnavigate the globe in just over a month.

There are few things to worry about as an albatross on Bird Island, but, once they leave, there is the increasingly prominent threat of being killed by tuna fisheries as bycatch. Over the past few years populations have been declining; the most recent chick census from Bird Island told us that wandering albatross chick numbers have decreased from 1,090 in 1990 to just 539 in 2019 due to parents not returning to the island to bring up their young.

This is not a sad story, and the future of the albatross remains hopeful. Groups like Albatross Task Force, who have successfully reduced the number of albatross killed as bycatch by around 29,000 per year, show us what we can achieve when we act as the voice for these birds.

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And that’s where we come in. Behold: the ‘socumentary’. (Yes, I think I’ve coined a new word).

Through (1) distinct and intricate characterisation of five individuals (two wanderer parents, a grey-head Dad, and their chicks), (2) a constantly developing narrative, and (3) a definite sense of optimism, our digital storytelling for the RSPB’s Darwin-funded albatross conservation project is helping the public engage and fall in love with a species on the other side of the world.

Albatross are not hard to identify with; they can live well into their 70s, form strong and often lifelong bonds with their mates, are brilliant and loving parents and, just like human hair, their feathers even grey and whiten as they grow older. But in an age where the majority of emotional engagement and information-sharing takes place on your phone screen, our modern and innovative communication removes that fundamental barrier of geographic disassociation and allows full immersion into the lives of these species.

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Using a wide range of multi-media (including HD photography, illustrations, videos, gifs, and camera-trap timelapses that wipe out Bird Island’s bandwidth in order to reach us) and interactive competitions and campaigns, we have watched as the public has grown more aware (and more obsessed with) this species that occupies their feeds. From art submissions to the naming of our five albatross ‘stars’, our online #AlbatrossStories community is as much an author of this narrative as we are.

We have watched as our wanderer parents have laid an egg, waited for it to hatch, and protected it as it grew big enough to be left alone. We’ve seen chicks’ first flapping of wings and worried when they disappear from their nests only to return a few hours later. It’s no wonder that whole families have followed our accounts in succession (can you blame me for noticing this when it’s so exciting?!) and first-time social media users have set up brand new accounts especially to follow the campaign – presumably at the recommendation of our other fans (again, yes, this deduction has taken some minor stalking on my part).

The key to this success and our number one rule is positive messaging. The future of this species is not bleak, and there is so much that can be achieved if we can help tuna supply chains see the intrinsic value of a creature so loved by their consumers.

#AlbatrossStories ultimately helps the online community see the humanity behind a creature not only vastly separated from us geographically but also, at least on the surface, completely different from everything we know. Yes, this campaign may involve crude anthropomorphism – but it is also the kind of anthropomorphism that induces real empathy and care and minimises the space between us and the ‘non-human’. It reminds us that these species, like us, need to survive. They are fundamentally not just visual playthings but real families that people need to know about and want to protect.

While it may be true that platforms like Instagram and Twitter facilitate our narrative, this kind of storytelling goes far beyond ‘just social media’. Behind the analytics platforms, there is a dual meaning to the word ‘reach’ – at once signalling the number of people who have seen our content and, to me at least, all those who we may have convinced to love these birds as much as we do.


Make sure you follow our #AlbatrossStories campaign on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. All 📷s by Derren Fox and Rosie Hall.