Of Aloha and Albatross

By Hob Osterlund, Safina Center Fellow

One night after I finished a Holy Mōlī reading at Third Place Books in Seattle, a young woman shyly told me the Cornell “TrossCam” had saved her life. She’d been darkly depressed for so long she wondered if she’d been born that way. When she somehow discovered the albatross, she felt an unfamiliar stirring of hope, like there might be a way she could feel a ray of love again.

Mōlī mates reunite. Photo: Hob Osterlund

She shared the cam with her ailing grandmother—the woman who had raised her—and together they watched the chicks grow up. Her main wish? That her grandmother would live long enough for all the chicks to fledge. That wish came true. Not long later, when grandma herself fledged to another realm, the young woman felt an unexpected strength.

Other stories, equally touching, have been shared over the five years the TrossCam live-streamed from Kauaʻi to the world. There was a woman from the Rockies who wrote to say her winter had been horrific. It had it been too cold to leave the house. Worse, her constant companion—a Quaker parrot—had died. The woman was further devastated because she considered his death her fault because she cranked the heat up too high. Already she could barely stand the ice and isolation, but the guilt? Over the top.

Still, the mōlī managed to soothe her soul. “What a supportive community the other tross are. Stopping just shy of communal,” she said.

Day-old chick already alert under his mama. Photo: Hob Osterlund

There were other sights and sounds. Early morning birdsong. Gentle trade winds in palm fronds. Sheets and buckets of rain. Roosters crowing at all hours. The distant hum of a lawn mower. The roaring surf. “You have NO idea how sweet it is to sit here in the Rockies with snow everywhere and see the new babies and the green of Hawaii. I’m 68 and don’t take this modern stuff for granted,” she said.

She wondered if we could use a donation. Ten dollars, she said, or maybe even twenty. She was sure the cam could use support.

Five month-old chicks have a territorial dispute. Photo: Hob Osterlund

When I initially contacted the Cornell Lab of Ornithology back in 2012, neither Charles Eldermire—the Lab’s cam coordinator—nor I had the slightest idea how far the idea would eventually extend. It took more than a year to identify a safe site with a receptive homeowner and adequate bandwidth. Plus we needed to pitch the idea and raise funds. Thanks to the generosity of several individuals from the Kaua’i Albatross Network, most of the equipment costs were easily covered.

In late January 2014, we brought the world of Laysan Albatross to the global online community for the first time.

Two month-old chick does a “sky moo” for her parent. Photo: Hob Osterlund

Highlights included:
• Live streaming for thirty months (out of seventy-two)
• During those months, the stream was viewed 60 million times
• Those 60 million views equaled 450 million minutes of viewing
• Viewers represented one hundred and ninety countries
• Cam operators posted more than twenty thousand tweets
• Volunteers shared more than nine thousand images on social media

Image courtesy: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The stats, of course, never tell the full story. Here’s another message I got via email:

A woman wrote from rural Pennsylvania. She said her husband was disabled and homebound, and they lived in a small house in an old coal mining town with a dwindling population. They lived with two parakeets. They too had had a difficult winter. Once they discovered the TrossCam, they left it on all day everyday—in part because it cheered up their birds, who chattered with mynas and finches and cardinals six thousand miles away. Then, after the cam went down for the season, they just kept replaying highlight clips. The parakeets went right on singing.

What better discovery than feeling a deep essence of Aloha? Of realizing it’s not just fear that metastasizes? Courage and love metastasize too, and they’re a million times sweeter.

Three month-old chick spreads her wings. Photo: Hob Osterlund

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