Saving the albatross: ‘The war is against plastic and they are casualties on the frontline’

Following his shocking photographs of dead albatross chicks and the diet of plastic that killed them, Chris Jordans new movie is a call to action to repair our broken relationship with planet Earth

We are living in a plastic age and the solutions may seem glaringly obvious, so why aren’t all 7.6 billion of us already doing things differently? Shocking statistics don’t insure effective change. So what’s the alternative? American photographer and filmmaker Chris Jordan believes the focus should be on forcing people to have a stronger emotional engagement with the problems plastic causes. His famous photographs of dead albatross chicks and the colourful plastic they have ingested serve as a blunt reminder that the planet is in a state of emergency.

While constructing his feature-length cinema Albatross, Jordan considered Picasso’s approach:” The role of the artist is to respect you, help you connect more profoundly, and then leave it up to you to decide how to behave .”

Most nature documentaries dedicate their final few minutes to hopeful solutions, but Jordan avoids this. He simply glistens a light on the crisis facing the huge colonies of Laysan albatrosses on the remote Pacific island of Midway.” There’s something so archetypal about these legendary birds and assuring bright colours of ocean plastic against dead sterility is a powerful symbol for our human culture right now. We’re in a state of emotional bankruptcy ,” says Jordan.

Jordan inspects the plastic ingested by a chick in Albatross. Photo: Chris Jordan

” This material lasts eternally, yet we throw it away after a single employ. But it’s not as simple as inspiring individuals to make small changes. We have to acknowledge that individuals cannot make a difference ,” Jordan says.” When 100 million people decide to do something differently, THAT is when real change happens .”

Jordan first visited Midway in September 2009, when the albatrosses were soaring above the waves, far out to sea- all he saw for two weeks were tens of thousands of dead chicks.” It was devastating and depressing and I questioned how to get to a place of hope from there .” When he acknowledged that this eerily silent scene was part of a much bigger narrative, he resolved to return to Midway and was greeted by” a deafening cacophony of a million animals singing and dancing all day and all night “.

Jordan is fascinated with these majestic birds. With no natural predators on Midway, Laysan albatrosses demonstrate no fear of humans, so his footage offer an authentic bird’s-eye opinion:” Albatrosses are so mysterious because they haven’t been on our radar. They live in places humen simply don’t go- yet when we appear closely, they are unbelievably magnificent ,” he says.

‘ It’s unbelievable what these birds can fit in their esophagus’ … Photograph: Chris Jordan

Albatross is slow-paced, poignant and poetic. Lying somewhere between arthouse cinema and narrative documentary, it was eight years in the making; Jordan expended 94 days on Midway over the course of eight visits. His lens lingers on moments of natural beauty, tuning into their behaviour and losing way of day. Midway is a tiny outpost in the middle of the world’s largest ocean, 2,000 miles from the nearest continent and halfway between North America and Asia.” Midway’s name also describes the place that humanity sees itself, midway to its own extermination. But at the halfway phase, everything can change- at half-time, a football coach-and-four tells his team that the game is not over yet .”

Jordan muses that albatrosses- with a brain the size of a walnut- experience the passageway of time more slowly than we do. He films their bonding ritual in slow motion, focusing on the dedication between males and females. These bonds last a lifetime, sometimes more than 60 years. Wisdom, the world’s oldest tagged bird, is 67 and still successfully breeding: an amazing accomplishment, considering that so many chicks succumb of dehydration and malnourishment, overheating or storm exposure.

” They are loving, sensitive and graceful- when you look at any creature this closely, it becomes amazing ,” tells Jordan, who believes we would fall in love with any animal if we only stopped to look at them with a similar childlike sense of awe. After five months, the fluffball chicks develop into comic, goofy-footed fledglings ready to take flight and begin their first 10,000 mile-long feeding craze over the open ocean. But some fail to take to the skies and the resulting demises are often slow and painful.

Jordan focuses on the bonds that last a lifetime … a scene from Albatross.
Photograph: Chris Jordan

The odds are clearly stacked against the birds but it’s difficult to assess the exact impacts of such widespread plastic pollution. According to Beth Flint, a biologist at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the biggest threats to Midway’s albatrosses are rising sea levels, increased cyclones and temperature changes. Yet plastic is found in every single albatross bolus or regurgitated mass of squid noses that chicks render. Scientists working across the north-western Hawaiian islands also found that more than 97% of dead Laysan albatross chicks- and more than 89% dead adult birds- contained plastic in their stomachs, so high incidence is undeniable.

Although his cinema highlightings the ubiquity of plastic, Jordan insists Albatross isn’t strictly about plastic pollution; it’s about our broken relationship with planet Ground.” This is a grief ritual. My intent is to help viewers reconnect on a universal level with living beings ,” tells Jordan, whose mother succumbed of pancreatic cancer while he was making the cinema.” Grief happens when we are losing love and it liberates us to feel it fully and therefore we can arrive home back to our core state of wisdom. Here , nothing stands in our style .”

Twelve years ago, ex-BBC wildlife camerawoman Rebecca Hosking filmed the pioneering Message in the Waves, a conservation documentary about surfers and scientists trying to protect Hawaii’s wildlife. In 2007, she campaigned to build Modbury in Devon the UK’s first ever plastic bag-free town after she returned from filming these same albatrosses. The anti-plastics movement has made progress since then but Hosking says there is still a long way to go:” Some might argue that traditional natural history movies constructed since the 1970 s haven’t worked- they haven’t triggered a revolution or dramatic change. Perhaps we need something more emotive to shock us into action .”

Hosking recollects strolling through the albatross colonies, assuring dead chicks on the ground:” Midway was a US naval air station and now it feels like a postwar battlefield, with dead albatrosses juxtaposed against old military houses. Now, the war is against plastic and albatrosses are the casualties on the frontline .”

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