We caught BAS researcher and #AlbatrossStories’ photography legend Derren Fox for an exclusive interview before this intrepid traveller jumped on a yacht to Maine. Derren has spent over four years on Bird Island. As he leaves this pre-historic, sub-Antarctic wonderland for the second time, he reflects on his photography journey, what it’s like living alongside charismatic and magnificent albatross, and why campaigns like #AlbatrossStories are needed more than ever.
Tell us about how you came to be on Bird Island in the sub-Antarctic? We gather this isn’t your first trip - what drew you to this part of the world?
I first came to Bird Island in 2007 after working for the RSPB in Scotland for many years, where I had developed a love of seabirds on the Scottish Islands. When the opportunity came to work for BAS [the British Antarctic Survey], and experience a unique island while working with such spectacular birds as the albatross, it truly was the chance of a lifetime. This is my second stint on Bird Island - and I’m only here for one and a half years this time! It's quite amazing to think I've spent over four years of my life on an island only 5km long, with only three other folk for much of that time, but I must love it as I seem to be drawn to the remote and wild places.
You’re a brilliant photographer. Where did you pick up your photography skills and what role do they play in both your professional life and your personal life, in terms of your connection to nature and wildlife?
Thank you! I'm self-taught, mostly through a process of trial and error, but I’m also inspired by so many great photographers and filmmakers. The use of photography in my work mostly takes the form of monitoring images, where we monitor colonies or habitats over long periods of time, and occasionally it helps with accurate counts and surveys. Promotional work - as in this project - is where it really comes into its own though, as it's so satisfying to show the rest of the world (especially those who can't visit these special places) just how amazing and also fragile they are.
What’s the best thing about living on Bird Island?
The best part about living here has to be the wildlife - there can be few other places in the world where you can step out of your back door (stepping over the fur seal pups lying there) and within 15 minutes walk past penguin colonies and up to the ridges and meadows that are home to some of the rarest birds on the planet. To be able to sit amongst these incredible creatures and share a small part of their lives is a privilege indeed.
And the worst?
The worst part of being here is being so far from friends and family. Leaving loved ones behind for one and a half years is never nice, but you have to make certain sacrifices to come here. Also, our communication system makes it easy to keep in touch with home - even if you can't pop back for the weekend!
Tell us one stand-out moment you’ll always remember from this most recent trip.
The most memorable moment of this trip was unfortunately a rather tragic one, but perfectly illustrates the need for campaigns like #AlbatrossStories. A very good friend of mine who I worked with on another island had his birthday on the same day one of our wandering albatross pairs laid their egg. To celebrate this I took a photo of the birds and followed them throughout the season, watching the egg hatch and following the chick's development throughout the next year. As it came to about 8 months into the chicks growth, coming close to fledging, I was sent a photo of a wandering albatross that was caught on a longlining boat. Looking at our database and then going out to check the nest for myself, I was heartbroken to discover that it was, by chance, the female from the nest I had been following for the last year. The male of the pair had managed to singly provide enough food for the chick for the last month, so the chick luckily managed to fledge, but it was a very sad day indeed when I confirmed which nest the female wandering albatross had come from.
Do you get to know individual birds whilst you’re out there? Is there anything that strikes you about the characters of different species or particular individuals?
Absolutely! At some points in the season I have to visit different species and certain colonies every day, checking on their progress. You really get to know individual birds - especially either the very angry ones, who take a well-deserved snap at me as I carefully walk through the colonies, or the occasional really approachable ones who actively come over if you are sitting out of the wind in the ubiquitous tussock grass that blankets much of the island, having a much needed snack. The young wandering albatrosses are particularly curious. Many a time I have sat quietly as the young birds display to each other in large groups, trying to out-compete each other in order to attract a mate, and a bird will break off from the group to come and investigate what I am up to (usually taking photos of them, it has to be said!).
Which is your favourite of the four albatross species we’re following for #AlbatrossStories and why?
The light-mantled albatross has to be my favourite, but as you can imagine it's a hard choice to make. Their haunting calls that echo around the steep exposed cliffs of the island are a sign that spring is coming to the island, but have a real mournful and lonesome quality about them that is heart-achingly beautiful. They are fairly understated with their dark grey plumage, but up close they are truly magical, with a vibrant blue stripe on their bill and the subtle beauty of the different shades of grey across their bodies. They are a sight to behold.
What’s next for you?
Next is a real adventure on the way home… I’m sailing from the Falkland Islands all the way to Maine on a 54ft yacht called ‘Pelagic’. It’s going to be moved up to Greenland and I jumped at the chance to crew with the skipper. The two of us are heading non-stop to Bermuda (around 7000 miles) to pick up visas, then over to Maine for the boat’s refit. From there I’ll fly home to catch up with family for a few weeks before heading to Iceland to work on a project tracking guillemots there for the summer.
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