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A good number of North Northumberland Bird Club members and visitors turned up at The Hub in Seahouses on Friday, May 11 to hear acclaimed wildlife artist Chris Rose talk about the amazing experience he had in 2012 when he sailed on the Golden Fleece, a 20m yacht, along with fellow artist John Gale and a small crew.
The trip lasted five-and-a-half weeks and was part of an RSPB project to raise money and awareness of the plight of the albatross as its numbers inexorably plunge towards extinction.
Sailing from the Falkland Isles, it took five days to cross more than 800 miles of the wild southern ocean to reach South Georgia, one of the most important wildlife sanctuaries in the world.
The narrow, crescent-shaped island is a stark and spectacular jagged ridge of ice and mountains, which rises up to 10,00ft, catching the full force of the prevailing westerly winds on its inhospitable South Western side. The North Eastern shoreline houses most of the remains of the historic whaling industry and holds the few sheltered bays and inlets where it is possible to land.
Whereas most commercial cruises might spend a couple of days exploring the wildlife of South Georgia en-route to Antarctica, for artists such as Chris and John several weeks are required to create enough time ashore to paint and sketch.
Using a clever mix of photographs, some short video footage and illustrations of their superb artwork, Chris fully engaged the audience with the prolific wildlife and stunning scenery.
A metal tape measure was used to demonstrate, in front of an image on screen, the actual size of the enormous 11.5ft wingspan of a wandering albatross, and later, the 21ft length of an elephant seal.
We were mesmerised by statistics: a wandering albatross recorded flying 15,500 miles in nine weeks; a 40-tonne southern right whale with each testicle weighing half-a-tonne, the heaviest in the animal kingdom; a picture of one rookery with an estimated 250,000 king penguins.
Chris amused us with anecdotes and incidents.
One photograph of the artist sitting under a rudimentary shelter fashioned from a poncho over a couple of walking poles, held up with makeshift guy ropes, seemed to be a triumphant solution to sketching and painting a nearby group of king penguins in the drizzly conditions.
But he had not factored in the attentions of a sheathbill (a hen-sized scavenger), who first stole a paintbrush, then a rubber, and finally removed one of the tent pegs holding the guy rope, causing his shelter to collapse.
He had us on the edge of our seats reliving the severe storm that nearly overwhelmed their yacht on the return journey – a narrow escape from what would have been a very different outcome to their mission, thanks to the skill of the skipper.
We loved his photos of the penguins, petrels and albatrosses, including such features as the subtle vermiculation of the plumage of an adult wandering albatross, or the sheer beauty of a light-mantled sooty albatross (perhaps his favourite).
We admired the little details in his paintings and sketches, such as the windward nostril of an elephant seal nonchalantly closed to the gale blowing across the beach, or the light reflecting from wet pebbles on the beach, so lifelike you felt as if you could stretch out and lift them up from the sand.
Naturally, he finished with more alarming statistics and a plea to help stop the relentless decline of the albatross, the victim of baited long-line fishing techniques.
He spoke of the various simple, but expensive measures being taken to save these beautiful birds from extinction, such as the use of Tori Lines, only fishing at night, or depthrelease hooks.
All proceeds from the evening were donated to the RSPB’s Save The Albatross campaign.
Our next indoor meeting will be held at Bamburgh Pavilion on Friday, June 8, at 7.30pm, when Mark Eaton, principal conservation scientist for the RSPB, will talk about The State Of Birds In The UK.