Albatross
Introduction

Photograph by Frans Lanting, National Geographic December 2007

The albatross, a large oceanic bird found mainly in the southern oceans but also in the North Pacific, wields the longest wings in nature. The wandering albatross and the southern royal albatross, each with a wingspan of up to 11.5 feet, are the largest of nearly two dozen species. The smallest, the Indian yellow-nosed albatross, has a 6.5 foot wingspan.

Albatrosses can cross oceans, flying for what seem to us inconceivable distances. Satellites have tracked these frequent fliers traveling 500 miles or more in a single day, and it has been estimated that a 50-year-old albatross has traveled at least 3.7 million miles. Laysan albatrosses of the North Pacific have been recorded flying at speeds of 70 to 80 miles an hour.

What makes these birds so comfortable in the skies? Albatrosses reduce muscle fatigue by locking their wings in an open position with a special tendon that runs between the shoulder and elbow. Additionally, their long, narrow wings are ideally shaped for the task, while their short, stiff feathers prevent the wingtips from fluttering, which helps the birds conserve energy.

In truth, albatrosses are less fliers than gliders. They sail on the wind, moving 20 feet forward for every foot they drop. On the open ocean, the birds fly into the wind to gain elevation, then turn back toward the sea to gain speed. This combination propels them along for great distances.

—Alice Jones, National Geographic staff, contributed to this GeoPedia

Bibliography

Safina, Carl. “On the Wings of the Albatross.” National Geographic (December 2007), 86-113.

Chadwick, Alex. “Up Close and Personal With the Albatross.” NPR Radio Expeditions.

Mating Customs and Raising Young

Albatross courtship rituals can be complex. After spending the first four or five years of its life at sea learning to fly and forage, an albatross usually returns to its birthplace and begins the search for a mate—a process that can take seasons or years. The bird can be anywhere from 6 to 12 years old when it finds the one and mates—for life.

Once paired up, the birds spend much time preening each other’s feathers, displaying wings, performing synchronized dances, and sky pointing. Only one egg is laid during the breeding season, and because of the time and energy put into raising a chick that matures slowly, most albatrosses breed only once a year or, in the case of the royal albatross, even every other year. The adults must take time off to regain weight and replace plumage.

The black-browed albatross builds its nests out of mud, in the shape of rounded pillars, on its nesting ground in the Falkland Islands, where the majority of these birds breed.

Chicks shelter under a nesting adult for the first three to four weeks of their life. Later, when left alone, the young birds are strong enough to protect themselves against predators as they await the next meal from a parent that leaves to forage for days or weeks at a time.

Albatrosses predigest the food they feed their young—a necessity for adults traveling long distances to bring back meals. Their digestive systems reduce the squid, fish, and crustaceans they eat to an oily substance that’s high in calories and dense in nutrients. The liquid is regurgitated into the maw of the waiting youngster. The adult may squirt an amount equal to a third of the chick’s weight, taking about 15 minutes to give the youngster a good feeding before taking off on another long journey. In their parents’ absence, the chicks grow so much that the parent may depend on scent and sound to identify its own young when it returns from cruising for food.

When the birds are young, they practice flying while still onshore, raising and locking their wings in position to glide upward and then settle back to the ground. Once they begin soaring offshore, life can be precarious. They must find enough food, avoid predators, and keep their distance from their biggest threat—being hooked on longlines. According to studies in the Indian Ocean, about 40 percent of young albatrosses are thought to perish in their first two months of flight.

—Alice Jones, National Geographic staff, contributed to this GeoPedia

Albatross Species List

Nineteen species of albatross are classified as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. Source

Amsterdam Albatross (Diomedea amsterdamensis): endangered
Critically endangered by a disease, the remaining population is 80 birds, which breed on Amsterdam Island in the southern Indian Ocean.

Antipodean Albatross (Diomedea antipodensis): vulnerable
An estimated population of 15,070 to 17,000 birds. Very small breeding area, on Antipodes, Campbell, and Auckland Islands.

Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross (Thalassarche chlororhynchos): endangered
With a limited breeding range, the estimated population is 50,000 to 99,999 birds, which breed on Gough, Tristan da Cunha, and St. Helena Islands.

Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophrys): endangered
Longline fisheries have diminished the population. The birds’ breeding grounds are the Falkland (Malvinas), Diego Ramirez, Ildefonso, Diego de Almagro, Evangelistas, South Georgia, Crozet, Kerguelen, Heard, McDonald, Macquarie, Campbell, Antipodes, and Snares Islands.

Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes): endangered
Longline fishing is the major threat; the estimated population of 109,000 is expected to decline by as much as 30 percent in the next few years. The birds breed on the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands, and three of Japan’s outlying islands.

Buller's Albatross (Thalassarche bulleri): vulnerable
Severely restricted breeding area. Estimated population of 64,000 birds, which breed on Snares, Solander, Forty-Fours, Big, Little Sister, Rosemary Rock, and Three Kings Islands.

Campbell Albatross (Thalassarche impavida): vulnerable
Breeding is restricted to Campbell Island and the tiny offshore islet of Jeanette Marie, New Zealand. Estimated population of 47,000 birds.

Chatham Albatross (Thalassarche eremita): endangered
Critically endangered, this species has a highly limited breeding area with habitat decline. Estimated population of 11,000 birds, which breed only on the Pyramid, a large stack rock in the Chatham Islands, New Zealand.

Grey-headed Albatross (Thalassarche chrysostoma): vulnerable
Longline-related deaths have contributed to a 48 percent decline in the population over three generations. Estimated population is 184,730, breeding on Diego Ramirez, South Georgia, Prince Edward, Marion, Crozet, Kerguelen, Macquarie, and Campbell Islands.

Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross (Thalassarche carter): endangered
A 63 percent decline over three generations has led to an estimated population of 73,000; breeds on Prince Edward, Crozet, Kerguelen, Amsterdam, and St. Paul Islands.

Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis): vulnerable
Longline fishing is the major threat. The estimated population of 874,000 is anticipated to decline by as much as 60 percent over the next few years. The birds breed in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands and U.S. Minor Outlying Islands and in small colonies in Japan and Mexico.

Light-mantled Albatross (Phoebetria palpebrata): threatened
Estimated population of 58,000 birds, which breed on South Georgia, Prince Edward, Marion, Amsterdam, St. Paul, Crozet, Kerguelen, Heard, Macquarie, Auckland, Campbell, and Antipodes Islands.

Northern Royal Albatross (Diomedea sanfordi): endangered
Tiny breeding range has contributed to decline, leaving an estimated population of 13,00 to 15,000 birds that breed on Forty-Fours, Big, Little, South, and Enderby Islands.

Salvin's Albatross (Thalassarche salvini): vulnerable
Breeding is restricted to one small island group—the Bounty and Snares Islands and the Pyramid—with an estimated population of 61,500.

Short-tailed Albatross (Phoebastria albatrus): vulnerable
Very small breeding range, but the current population of 2,100 is increasing. Birds breed on Torishima and the Senkaku Islands.

Shy Albatross (Thalassarche cauta): threatened
Historically, this species was killed for its feathers. Estimated population of 12,750 pairs breed on Albatross, Pedra Branca, and Mewstone Islands.

Sooty Albatross (Phoebetria fusca): endangered
After a 75 percent decline over 90 years, an estimated population of 42,000 breeds on islands in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

Southern Royal Albatross (Diomedea epomophora): vulnerable
Small breeding range and human impact on habitat. With an estimated population of 16,400 to 17,200, these birds breed on the Adams, Enderby, Auckland, Campbell, and South Islands.

Tristan Albatross (Diomedea dabbenena): endangered
Limited breeding range and longline fishing are contributing to species decline. Estimated population of 9,000 to 15,000 birds, breeding on Gough, Tristan da Cunha, and St. Helena Islands.

Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulan): vulnerable
Longline fishing is the major threat. Estimated population of 28,000 is decreasing. Breeds on South Georgia, Prince Edward, Crozet, Kerguelen, and Macquarie Islands.

Waved Albatross (Phoebastria irrorata): endangered
Critically endangered due to longline fishing. Estimated population of 34,694 breeds in the Galápagos Islands.

White-capped Albatross (Thalassarche steadi): near threatened
Estimated breeding population of 75,000 pairs, which breed on Auckland and the Antipodes Islands.

—Alice Jones, National Geographic staff, contributed to this GeoPedia

Bibliography

“Sir David Attenborough's personal plea for albatrosses,“ BirdLife International

Seafood Watch

“The fragile ecosystem of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean,“ Greenpeace

Chilean Sea Bass Are Really Patagonian Toothfish

Toothfish! This fish, caught in the southern ocean, is known in most U.S. restaurants as Chilean sea bass. Whatever the name, it’s the subject of increasing scrutiny. The fish is slow to mature and is being rapidly overfished, and the fishery is also responsible for the deaths of many seabirds. Environmentalists and conservationists are working to convince fishing fleets to change their methods of catching the popular and lucrative fish.

What can you do to help? Avoid eating the fish, or buy it only if it has been certified sustainable. (Some markets sell it only if it comes from a certified sustainable fishery, such as the South Georgia Islands.) Look for the Marine Stewardship Council logo (MSC) on the label.

—Alice Jones, National Geographic staff, contributed to this GeoPedia

Bibliography

“Toothfish back on the menu,“ BirdLife International

What Fish Is That?

TRAFFIC: the wildlife trade monitoring network

Conservation Organizations

The 24-nation Convention on the Conservation of the Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) was set up to protect the marine resources of the oceans surrounding Antarctica. It not only regulates fishing within its boundaries, but also works to conserve the entire ecosystem. It has been instrumental in reducing seabird bycatch within its waters.

Conservation groups such as Southern Seabird Solutions, BirdLife International, ACAP (Agreement of the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels), and Projeto Albatroz (based in Brazil) also work to reduce albatross deaths from fisheries.

Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources

The Largest Colony—Midway Atoll

The battle of Midway must have been distressing to the albatrosses that bred there, but the ongoing use of the island as a naval and army aviation base throughout World War II resulted in widespread fame for the albatross. Captured in personal photos, films, and newspapers of the day, and depicted as nose art on bombers, the “gooney bird” left an indelible stamp on the memories of many Americans.

Today, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is home to the world’s largest albatross colony, with nearly a half million adult pairs, both Laysan and black-footed. The birds have effectively taken over what was the naval base and are harassed no more, except when it comes to the lingering effects of the lead paint on the buildings. The lead is responsible for a condition called droopwing, which makes the birds unable to lift their wings to fly.

—Alice Jones, National Geographic staff, contributed to this GeoPedia

Bibliography

Safina, Carl Safina. “On the Wings of the Albatross,” National Geographic (December 2007), 86-113.

Illustration

Gooney birds during the battle of Midway:

The Albatross in the Arts

English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) never saw an albatross, yet he made the birds famous when he turned a beloved sailor’s symbol of loyalty and aid to the seaman into an icon of what can go wrong when one disregards a sailor’s good-luck charm.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
By thy long beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?

The Bridegroom's doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May'st hear the merry din.'

He holds him with his skinny hand,
'There was a ship,' quoth he.
'Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!'
Eftsoons his hand dropt he.

He holds him with his glittering eye—
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years' child:
The Mariner hath his will.

The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:
He cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner…

You can read all 625 lines of the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"— that delight of English majors all over the world— here