Saved by the Albatross - the Wreck of the Dundonald

Survivors of wreck of the barque Dundonald. From the album [1907 Sub Antarctic Expedition] circa 1908 November 1907 Auckland Islands by Samuel Page, Te Papa

White cap albatross and chick by Paul Sagar

Interislander 'OnBoard' magazine tells tales of survival from the survivors of the Dundonald who owed their lives to the white-capped albatrosses of Disappointment Island.

09.07.2015

Thanks to the Team at Interislander for featuring this story in their latest OnBoard magazine. It is not uncommon to see albatross on the ferry journey across Cook Strait today. 

Saved by the Albatross - the Wreck of the Dundonald

On 17 February, 1907 the barque Dundonald sailed from Sydney, bound for England with a cargo of wheat. Around midnight on 6 March, she ran aground in a gale on the western shore of Disappointment Island, seven kilometres west of main Auckland Island and 290 kilometres south of New Zealand.

As heavy seas broke over her, three of her crew managed to get ashore. Come morning, they helped another 13 survivors onto the precipitous cliffs. Twelve men had been lost. The survivors were in poor shape for the brutal subantarctic conditions: many had stripped off layers of clothing before jumping into the sea, and they had no food.

Fortunately for the castaways, white-capped albatrosses bred then, as they do today, on Disappointment between November and June, so they ate the chicks – raw – for three days until their matches dried out and they could light a fire. There were seals too, but the men greatly preferred the albatross chicks. There was, however, one problem: the young birds were growing fast, and would soon be ready to leave their nests.

So the men built a smokehouse of tussock, hoping they might preserve a few precious birds by smoking them. They hung thirty nestlings in it, and made a smouldering fire, but the young birds carried so much fat that it dripped into the embers, kindling them into a blaze that brought down the entire hut.

Through the bleak sub-Antarctic winter, the men huddled in burrows, roofed over with turf and tussocks. They ate the last of the albatrosses, along with other seabirds and the occasional sea lion, cooked in ovens fashioned out of the peat soil. The birds kept them from starvation, and provided other essentials. The survivors used their fine bones as needles to sew sails and shelters. The birds’ skins made useful mats – and a rather second-rate soap and towel: the men rubbed their faces with the greasy side, then dried themselves with the feathered side. At one point, they even tried to enlist adult birds as rescue beacons. The castaways attached pieces of cloth, bearing etched messages, around their necks. Unfortunately, the birds apparently found a way to rid themselves of the encumbrance: they always returned without their desperate missive.

After four months, the food ran out on Disappointment Island. The young albatrosses had all flown away, and in desperation, the survivors attempted several times to cross the perilous passage between Disappointment and main Auckland Island in makeshift boats. It was October before a party finally reached the head of Laurie Harbour, and a finger post pointing to a provision depot at Erebus Point. There they found a hut, a cache of food, a boat and best of all a tin of biscuits. That night they changed into clean clothes for the first time in seven months.

Life at Erebus Cove was much more comfortable, although the fifteen men had to share the twelve suits of clothing. Now, they could live on the wild cattle grazing on Enderby Island.

On 15th November, rescue arrived in the form of the Government steamer Hinemoa. She couldn’t accommodate the castaways immediately, but left them enough stores for two weeks, when she returned and bore them away from their grim detention.

The survivors of the Dundonald owed their lives in part to the white-capped albatrosses of Disappointment Island. Close to 91,000 pairs nest there – roughly 95 per cent of the world population – on raised nests of mud dotted along vertiginous cliffs. After they leave the nest, youngsters spend the next six years at sea, learning the arts of soaring and hunting squid and fish. Some will venture all the way to South Africa before eventually returning to Disappointment.

White-capped albatrosses are one of the most abundant albatrosses, and are often seen in Cook Strait. They are easily spotted, thanks to their large size and bright white underwings, finely edged in black.