Issue 176: 2018 11 01: Eye in the Sky

01 November 2018

Eye In The Sky

The Albatross’s Revenge.

By Neil Tidmarsh

It’s Halloween. The darkness is falling as I write and I’m too frightened to look up from my computer.  I’m feeling

“Like one that on a lonesome road

Doth walk in fear and dread

And having once turned round walks on

And turns no more his head

Because he knows a frightful fiend

Doth close behind him tread.”

Because, after all the stories in the news this week about hi-tech surveillance and spying, I don’t know who might be watching me.

The lines above are from Coleridge’s The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.  Remember that spine-chilling tale of a ship on an illicit voyage, blessed at first by the presence of an albatross which follows it for food and company, then cursed because a sailor kills it?  The ship and crew are punished; they find themselves doomed to a voyage of the damned, haunted by ghosts and spirits and the triumphant figure of Death…

Well, come closer then, and let me tell you another version of that story, a twenty-first century version about high-tech spying.  Let me hold you with my “skinny hand”, let me hold you with my “glittering eye” (no, I’m afraid I don’t have a “long grey beard”). “You cannot choose but hear…”

Actually, it isn’t a scary story (unless you happen to be an evil fisherman illegally plundering maritime resources).  Sorry to disappoint you.  But it is in fact one of the most satisfying stories in the news this week, as reported by Adam Sage in The Times (I wonder if he has a long grey beard?).

Away we go on albatross’s wings to the vast and remote southern Indian Ocean, home of the Patagonian toothfish.  It’s a tasty fish, “prized for its buttery and sweet taste” and “smooth texture”, and hence a valuable catch – for fishermen, it can fetch up to $150 a kilogram.  Inevitably, therefore, unlicensed fishing boats are ruthlessly pillaging the ocean for it.  The future is looking bleak for the poor Patagonian toothfish.  And not only for the fish – the longlines laid out by the trawlers also kill albatrosses.  The albatross covers the area in its epic migratory flights; it can spot a fishing boat from as far away as 30km, and will descend for company and food only to meet a tragically Coleridgean doom.  As long ago as 2004, one of Prince Charles’ infamous “black spider” memos drew our environment minister’s attention to this threat to the existence of the toothfish and the albatross.  But because of the area’s very remoteness and vastness, it is very difficult to police.

This week, however, French scientists at the Centre of Biological Studies in Chizé (much of the southern Indian Ocean is French waters – the French Southern and Antarctic territories) announced their development of an ingenious and fitting solution, which they should dub “The Albatross’s Revenge”.  They’ve hit upon the brilliant idea of recruiting the albatrosses themselves as policemen.  The scientists are planning to equip the birds with high-tech kit to detect trawlers fishing illegally.

Every trawler has to have an automatic tracking system by law; this enables the boat to be tracked for its own safety, should it get into trouble in a storm, for instance, or to prevent collisions with other vessels.  But it also enables the authorities to follow its activities; so unlicensed boats fishing illegally will turn the automatic tracking system off.  However, trawlers also have radars, to plot their location and the locations of other boats in the area and shoals of fish under water etc; and unlicensed boats will keep their radar turned on, for navigation and fishing, but primarily so they can spot any navy or police vessels approaching.

So – the albatrosses are going to be equipped with electronic kit which will survey vessels as the birds fly overhead.  The kit will detect a ship because of its radar transmission, and will then check for a signal from the ship’s automatic tracking system.  If there is no signal – i.e. if the ship has turned its automatic tracking system off – the kit will send the vessel’s location and details to officials by satellite.  A French navy patrol boat will then be despatched to detain the dodgy trawler and investigate its activities, and if not condemn it to a voyage of the damned through hell then at least bring it to justice.  Genius.

Albatrosses nest on the French territory of the Crozet and Kerguellen islands and Amsterdam Island in the area.  Researchers there will recruit 250 of the huge birds and stick the kit, which weighs a mere 60g or 2oz, onto their backs.  The birds cover vast distances – up to 10,000km each week – and the kit can detect ships from as far away as 5km, so those birds will be sufficient to monitor the whole of the French Southern and Antarctic territories.  The batteries which power the kit should last all year, and will be replaced when the birds return to the islands for the next nesting season.

There were other stories of hi-tech surveillance in the news this week.  A commune of anarchist artists in Germany was criticised by the authorities for developing a real-life digital “marauders’ map” which tells the user the location of any policemen, patrol cars and undercover detectives in the area (“We solemnly swear that we are up to no good…”).  President Trump insists on continuing to use his iPhone, even though US security officials have warned him that Chinese and Russian agents can listen in on any phone calls he makes on it (and he attacked Mrs Clinton for using an unsecured email server…).  But none of them was so interesting or satisfying as the Revenge of the Albatrosses.

Of course, the scheme could lead to a savage retaliation against the birds.  Illegally-fishing sailors armed with rifles rather than crossbows could…  But no, let’s hope not.  Fishermen are famously superstitious, after all, and thanks to Coleridge everyone knows what Halloween horrors follow the deliberate killing of these magnificent creatures.

“Alone, alone, all, all alone,

Alone on a wide, wide sea!

And never a saint took pity on

My soul in agony.”



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