The “iconic moment” when conservation legend Robert Webb first released Albert the albatross in Tutukaka about 18 years ago is now immortalised forever in bronze.
Unveiling the sculpture titled Moment of Release drew big rounds of cheers and applause from hundreds of people at Tututkaka Marina on Sunday.
The artwork honours the efforts of Robert and Robyn Webb for their unconditional love and lifetime work of caring for sick and injured wild birds. It was the result of a collaborative work between two talented artists, Susan Dinkelacker and Dell Pryor.
The sculpture was accepted by Mayor Vince Cocurullo who called it a gift to the people of Whangārei. He offered his thanks to the artists for their hard work and the Webb couple for their dedication to looking after helpless birds.
A visibly emotional Robert said, “I’d like to thank everyone who has helped make this possible. This revelation has come to us as a big surprise.”
About six months ago, the Webbs were approached by the artists who expressed their desire to dedicate a life-size statue of him and the albatross in Northland.
“They had seen the picture of me releasing the bird on the boat and felt inspired to bring it to life.”
When the sculptors searched high and low but were unable to find a home for the statue, Robert suggested “Why not Tutukaka?”
“After all that’s where the moment of release happened, and they readily agreed.”
He vividly remembers the time when members of the public brought a 5-year-old Royal Southern Albatross to their Whangarei Native Bird Recovery Centre in 2005.
The bird had developed a sore left wing after it had “hit something”.
Robert deduced it could be any number of reasons. The most common one, he felt, was when albatrosses swam their way to the shore and encountered big waves.
He recalled as the albatross recuperated. One fine morning the “great big bird” just sat upright and spread its massive wings.
Measuring nearly three and a half metres from one wing tip to the other, the “moment” made the 75-year-old conservationist realise the magnificence of the species considered to be the largest of its kind, rivalled only by the true wandering albatross.
During its month-long stay, the bird earned its nickname Albert, primarily because it rhymed well with its species name Albatross, Robert joked.
It’s didn’t take long before Albert became a popular celebrity among tourists and visiting Kiwis including a Dunedin resident who travelled all the way from down south to his centre just to be “awestruck” when he saw the albatross.
Robert fondly remembers Albert having a “tame personality.”
“I would usually put a big feed of fish on the grass and bait him with one of them to signal his food was delivered. But he would calmly walk over to me and stand in front of me so that I could feed him.”
He and Robyn would both keep an eye on Albert’s recovery by observing the way the bird flapped his wings and leaned forward.
“Releasing them at sea is the most rewarding part, I tell you. You feel like you have achieved something in life with those big fellas.”
It was on a warm summer’s day when the Webbs boarded the coastguard boat with Albert to set him free in the wild.
Back then he had advised the skipper to run the boat at 22 knots, a suitable pace at which most albatrosses feel comfortable to lift off.
However, to their surprise, Albert “seemed to have other ideas” and flopped clumsily straight into the water, sat still on its surface, and had a big drink of seawater before taking off after midday.
Within minutes Albert was out of sight and couldn’t be even traced with onboard binoculars.
“For tracking purposes, I had drawn a big round black mark on his beautiful white head. A month after his release, game and fishing boaters suggested he had reached the Three Kings Island which was 273km from Tutukaka.
A fun trivia about albatrosses was that they could fly up to 16,000km in a single journey while averaging an 80km/h speed.
“I think what made the moment of release so special was the massive size of the albatross. It’s not every day you get to release a royal one.”
While Robert’s contribution to the community and love for birds is well recognised and documented in the Northland community, his first act of conservation happened 35 years ago, when he was driving trucks for a living.
One morning, he was en route to Auckland, when his eyes fell upon an injured Harrier Hawk lying on the roadside. The inner bird lover within him couldn’t help but take it home and keep it safe until he got an appointment with a local veterinarian in Te Kamo.
As time passed by, he retired from his job and took up bird rescue and recovery full-time. With his wife Robyn supporting his decision, their house became a temporary rescue and recovery centre in the late 80s.
“We had over 200 birds in cages and us trying to help them out. If I could describe our enlarged family, I would say it was chaotic.”
After he offered to help the Department of Conservation manage some birds, Robert realised that he needed permits of all kinds to keep the birds and secure them.
Around the same period, members of the public brought two one-legged kiwi nicknamed Snoopy and Sparky.
“Apparently, they lost their legs to traps and I made it a point to take them to school for educational purposes and the dangers these birds face while in the wild.”
Eventually, they set up their rescue and recovery centre in 1992 and have had more than 1300 birds come in every year for recovery. The centre also has a dozen volunteers to help the couple with their recovery efforts.
On an ending note, he said, “I love doing what I do and wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Avneesh Vincent is the crime and emergency services reporter at the Advocate. He was previously at the Gisborne Herald as the arts and environment reporter and is passionate about covering stories that can make a difference. He joined NZME in July 2023.