With their streamlined body and spectacular soaring ability, albatrosses are feathered aeroplanes. They use the ocean winds to glide over the sea, travelling for hours without even flapping their wings. The largest of them all is the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) with a wingspan of up to 3.5 metres – the greatest of any living bird. Also called the snowy albatross, these mighty birds are found across the southern oceans where they spend most of their time in flight. They only land to breed and feed.
Wandering albatrosses are night feeders and their diet consists predominantly of small fish, cephalopods and crustaceans. They grab food from the ocean surface and make shallow dives. Due to their size and elegant manoeuvrability, these birds have very few, if any, natural predators. Their speed also makes them an impossible target for marine predators; they can reach flight speeds of up to 40 km per hour.
One of the most honourable aspects of the wandering albatross is their monogamous nature. Pairs will mate for life, which could end up being for decades since they can live for over 50 years. They often reinforce their pair-bonding through an elaborate courtship dance – they will spread their wings, wave their heads and rap their bills together. Once successfully re-bonded, they will mate.
Wandering albatrosses breed in colonies on isolated islands in the Southern Ocean. They build nests out of mud and grassy vegetation, and produce a single chick every other year. Incubation takes around 11 weeks with the parents taking turns to look after their offspring. One will sit on the nest whilst the other searches for food and vice versa. As the chick grows, both parents will begin hunting at the same time, visiting the chick at widening intervals. This will continue until the chick is ready to leave the nest and face the perils of ocean flight.
These remarkable seabirds are experiencing increasing threats due to human activity. Currently listed as vulnerable by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), longline fishing is one of the biggest challenges albatrosses, and other seabirds, are facing. However, there is another looming threat which is becoming increasingly sinister – plastic pollution. By eating plastic and other marine debris, mistaking it for food, albatrosses are slowly being poisoned. Adults regurgitate their food to give to their young, but if they’ve been eating plastic they are inadvertently poisoning their child too. To resolve this, we need to drastically cut down on our plastic usage, especially single-use plastics. Otherwise, our diverse, blue ocean will become a plastic-coated graveyard.
Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.