Graceful as angels and tough as leather, all albatrosses—about two dozen species—spend months and sometimes years beyond sight of land, able to take the most hellacious punishment the ocean can hurl. While living in the windiest regions on Earth, they seem to inhabit another plane of existence. Writing home from the South Atlantic to his new wife, Grace, in 1912, American ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy exulted, "I now belong to a higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross!"
The places of albatrosses are beyond the inhabited limits of humanity, on spare, elemental islands that feel like the center of a waterbound planet. Yet humans touch them in all their haunts. As a result, almost all albatross populations have declined significantly in recent decades. I sought out the densest, most populous remaining albatross colonies in the world. Everywhere, I encountered threats to the birds, but also people working to blunt those threats. To restore their numbers, we need to offer albatrosses a new truce. Otherwise, they'll have to find another world, and even albatross wings can't get them there.
At 51° south latitude, the bare shoulders of the Falklands' Steeple Jason Island shrug gracefully toward a coast wreathed with emerald, head-high tussock grass. Walk around the island's north end and behold a living spectacle: Black-browed albatrosses so crowd the ledges and shoreline, the birds are the shoreline. This main colony runs two and a half miles (four kilometers).
The birds' softball-size heads are slashed with signature black brow stripes above dark eyes. Their four-inch (100 millimeters) bills are airbrushed tones from pastel mustard to translucent pink to a rosy blush at the hooked tip. Dusky-billed adolescents that have lived at sea four or five years are back on solid land for the first time. It's the season for courtship. The youngest ones are trying out moves, like 14-year-olds at the mall. Long-term relationships appear unlikely. But valuable social skills accrue. Like Kabuki dancers, they show off in exaggerated movements, turning preening into choreography, fanning tails, cooing, mutually extending their necks and laying bills together. They accentuate flawless wings, healthy plumage, and attentive grooming the way young teenagers accentuate skin and vigor, displaying precisely those body parts that indicate fertility.
Many of the adolescents seem decidedly undecided about which they fancy. But fickleness is actually a critical assessment for a momentous decision: A bird's choice of mate largely determines whether its chick survives. Raising a chick requires both parents, so courtship often spans two years. Those in advanced courtship sit long intervals in close contact, tenderly preening each other's heads and necks. This reinforces reliability and mutual care. Thus they begin a lifelong bond that will keep the wheel of life in motion.
Each sweep of vision takes in hundreds of commuting birds—but scarcely a flapping wing. Wind powers this mass-transit system. Many hurtle downwind; those going upwind weave into the air currents, catching the crosswind and sailing upward with their bellies windward, then turning downward into the breeze. Masterfully playing these two great forces of wind and gravity, they make near-effortless progress.