Shades of the Ancient Mariner

Shades of the Ancient Mariner

For many centuries sailors have believed the albatross to be a reincarnated mariner following ships to warn of danger and storms. To kill one would bring eternal bad luck. The legend was detailed graphically in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous epic poem "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," written in 1798.

As recently as 1959, when a ship developed chronic engine trouble during a voyage, belief in this legend resurfaced. When the vessel limped into port for repairs, the crew deserted the ship en masse. The reason? The ship was carrying a caged albatross, and the men believed this abuse of the bird was causing the bad luck the ship was experiencing. They anticipated a major disaster if they were to put out to sea again.

The superstition surrounding the albatross also played a role in an incident that occurred during World War II. When a scout bomber plane was downed in the Pacific in 1942, the crew survived and drifted in the open sea on a large raft. On the edge of starvation, they managed to shoot an albatross, which they hauled aboard. They skinned it and ate the internal organs, setting the remainder aside.

During the night one of the men awoke and became possessed by supernatural terror. The remains of the bird were glowing so brightly that the raft and the sea around it were brightly illuminated. The fright of the man caused him to suddenly remember the saga of the ancient mariner. His screams quickly awakened his companions. Although they were starving and had no prospects of finding any additional food, they immediately threw away the remains of the bird overboard. Later, when they were rescued, they learned the skin of the albatross is often highly phosphorescent because the species preys primarily on luminescent fish. The phosphorus is absorbed by the skin of the bird, so when its feathers are removed it glows in the dark.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth