Albatrosses of the Antarctic Converge

Wandering Albatross Chick - too young to fly
Wandering Albatross Chick - too young to fly

These are some of the largest birds on the planet and the Wandering Albatross has the largest wingspan in the world:  almost 12 feet on a body that is almost 4.5 feet in length!  The smaller of the Antarctic albatross, the Light-Mantled Sooty Albatross, has a wingspan over 7 feet!  Albatross are giants whose true size is rarely shown in photographs.

The name “Albatross” is believed to be an early English sailor’s corruption of the Portuguese word alcatraz, which means pelican.  In the late 18th and 19th centuries albatrosses were persecuted for their meat and plumage.  Their webbed feet, due to sheer size, were also used as pouches.

Albatrosses spend most of their life at sea, in flight.  They are highly inefficient at flapping flight, so they rely almost completely on wind.  They become stranded when the wind isn’t blowing.

Food consists mainly of squid and small fish near the surface, but man has introduced a new element – garbage.  It is very likely a Southern Ocean-going ship will have a tail of albatrosses.

Wandering Albatross

Wandering Albatross pair on South Georgia by Art Wolfe
Wandering Albatross pair on South Georgia by Art Wolfe

Length:  53 inches | Wingspan:  142.5 inches

Weighing over 20lbs, the Wandering Albatross is the world’s largest flying bird.  They only come ashore to breed on islands near the Antarctic Converge (South Georgia).  Seldom will they be seen flapping their wings – mainly when they’re trying to slow down.  They are masters of riding the wind, making specific turns for altitude adjustments and speed corrections.  Their breeding grounds are chosen based on the kind of runway it has.  Because they need wind, they need a wind-swept piece of land that is typically high on a cliff side; with a good bit of room to run on for take off.  They lay one egg that hatches into a chick who needs parental care for a year, so they only mate every other year.  Wandering Albatrosses live to be 50 years old, so they don’t start mating until the age of 10.

The Wandering Albatross population is in serious decline.  Because they fish from the surface, and follow ships, they are constantly drawn to fishing lines and the fish that are caught on the hook.  The number one killer of Wandering Albatross is a fish hook, and it is taking a serious toll.  These fishing lines typically belong to fishermen from Chile.

Royal Albatross

Royal Albatross and chick
Royal Albatross and chick

Length:  48 inches | Wingspan:  138 inches

The Royal Albatross does not nest in the areas I will be traveling to.  They mostly keep to the waters around New Zealand, but do traverse the Drake Passage and Southern Ocean.  They are often in the company of other petrels and have been confused to be Wandering Albatross as they vary in appearance only slightly in the tail.  The Royal Albatross can live to over 60 years old and share many of the mating characteristics with the Wandering Albatross.  Unlike the Wandering Albatross, the Royal is actually increasing in numbers.

Black-Browed Albatross

Black-Browed Albatross
Black-Browed Albatross

Length 37 inches | Wingspan:  95 inches

Adults have a white head with a dark eyebrow smudge and a bright yellow-orange bill making it one of the pronounced looking albatross of them all.  It is an avid ship-follower, but is also found closer to land than most albatross species.  They will share nesting grounds with other albatrosses (typically grey-headed) and even some penguin species.  The idea is that there is safety in numbers, and the other birds seem to feel the same.   They’re found on both South Georgia and the Falklands, so I hope to have some good photos of this bird!

The Black-Browed Albatross is the most abundant of all albatross species with numbers over 1 million, but they are suffering from the same fishing lines Wandering Albatross are succumbing to.

Grey-Headed Albatross

Grey-Headed Albatross
Grey-Headed Albatross

Length:  32 inches | Wingspan:  87 inches

Unlike other Albatrosses, the grey-headed albatross is not keen on following ships.  As many as 10,000 pairs can be found in a single nesting spot, and those are typically mixed with Black-Browed Albatross pairs.  Grey-Headed Albatross live to be about 30, but do not start breeding until around the age of 10.

It is believed there are less than 200,000 Grey-Headed Albatross left in the world.  Fishing lines, again, being the cause of decline.

Light-Mantled Sooty Albatross

Light-Mantled Sooty Albatross making music
Light-Mantled Sooty Albatross making music

Length:  35 inches | Wingspan:  86 inches

Smaller than other albatrosses, the Light-Mantled Sooty Albatross, is more agile in the air.  They also do their courtships in the air, while other albatross species typically court on the ground.  They also breed more often than other albatross because their eggs are incubated for about 2 months and the chicks are fledged within 6 months of hatching.  Nests are built in much looser communal fashion than Grey-Headed Albatross.  Early explorers believed South Georgia to be a place of romance because the mating call of the Light-Mantled Sooty Albatross was like music.

There may only be 20,000 breeding pairs or Light-Mantled Sooty Albatross left.  These birds were highly exploited as food.

Albatross Conservation – this portion is from here.

“100,000 albatrosses die each year on fishing hooks. They are being killed in such vast numbers that they can’t breed fast enough to keep up. This is putting them in real danger of extinction.”

Drowned Wandering Albatross on fishing hook
Drowned Wandering Albatross on fishing hook

“Longline fishing fleets, which operate throughout the world’s oceans, target vast numbers of tuna, swordfish, Patagonian toothfish and other species.

The boats set fishing lines that can stretch for 130 kilometres (or 80 miles) into the ocean. Each line carries thousands and thousands of hooks baited with squid and fish. These attract albatrosses, which get caught, dragged below the water and drown.

The large fish these boats catch are in high demand. Single bluefin tuna have fetched as much as US$100,000 on the Japanese market.”

19 of the 22 species of albatross in the world are threatened with extinction largely because of longline fishing. BirdLife International compiles the official list of threatened birds. Currently, three albatross species are Critically Endangered, seven are Endangered and nine are Vulnerable.”

Click here to Read about Solutions.

Research for this article was done in the Bradt Antarctica Guide to Wildlife and on the Save the Albatross website.  Photos were found through Google searches, and can be replaced upon request from the copyright owner.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. kristina says:

    i wish there was something we could do about the fishing lines. even tho these birds take their own paths and follow boats and such, maybe there is a way to draw them away from the boats path? not sure but these are elegant and graceful species of birds, we should try and keep them more protected!


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