Few sights are as breathtaking as an albatross in flight. In addition to its overall beauty and grace, the albatross has the largest wingspan of any bird, measuring as wide as 12 feet. Weighing up to 20 pounds on average, they're difficult to miss on your polar expedition.
Photo credit: Ian Robertson
Thanks to their vast wingspan, the albatross is able to glide for many hours without rest. Dynamic soaring and slope soaring, two unique flight techniques, enable the enormous birds to stay airborne with very little exertion. When it comes time to take a break, they can touch down both on land and water, though they tend to spend time on land only to breed (usually on remote islands).
Loyal albatross are partners for life
The albatross has one of the longest lifespans of any bird, often times reaching 50 years or age in the wild.
Albatross take to remote, isolated areas like the Falkland Islands (black-browed albatross) and South Georgia (wandering, black-browed, grey-headed and light-mantled albatross) in the South Atlantic, to breed. When albatross mate, a single egg is produced. Both mates then watch over the egg until it hatches. After birth, most albatross take to the air within three to 12 months (depending largely on the species).
Once the young albatross is able to comfortably fly on its own, it leaves land for up to 10 years, not returning until it reaches peak sexual maturity. Many species of albatross are believed to mate for life.
Carnivorous, imposing albatross
Albatross are carnivores and feed primarily on schooling fish, crab, shrimp, lobster and squid. Passengers shouldn't be surprised to see one or more these birds flying overhead, hoping to swoop in for an unattended bite.
They'll also scavenge carrion and dine on krill and other zooplankton, as required. What we know of the albatross diet reflects only their choices during the breeding season, however. Because they spend the rest of their time at sea, scientists haven't yet been able to study their diet year-round.
Different species enjoy different fare. Experts estimate there are between 13 and 24 species of albatross, with 21 being the most widely accepted figure. Even albatross in the same area can have quite different diets; in Hawaii, the black-footed albatross dines mainly on fish, while another resident, the Laysan, prefers squid.
As imposing as they are in flight, albatross exist in a delicate balance, where currently 17 of those 21 species are threatened with extinction.
Why are albatross endangered?
Many years ago, the albatross was hunted for its feathers, which were used in a variety of apparel, including women’s hats. Furthermore, fossil remains indicate that Inuit once hunted the bird for its dietary benefits.
Today, the University of Southern California estimates that albatross are dying at a rate of one every five minutes.
The threat of extinction for albatross
There are 21 global species of albatrosses, 19 of which are threatened with extinction.
Threats to the long term sustainability of the bird include loss of habitat, oil spills, environmental changes, climate change, new predators, and human waste. However, longline commercial fishing practices top the list. Since 2000, over 3.9 million albatross have died as a result of longline fishing, a practice in which long branch lines lay on the water. These are, of course, tempting to sea birds – particularly albatross.
For this reason, Quark is a proud sponsor of the Underwater Bait Setter project, an innovative system designed to set hooks under the water safely. Over several years, we've raised more than $230,000 to support the project; last year alone, we raised $58,014 with our summer fundraising. Albatross conservation and the sustainability of the Polar Regions are issues near and dear to Quark staff and passengers alike.
Ancestors of the albatross soared the skies more than 50 million years ago. A lot has changed since then, but this majestic bird remains one of the most beautiful and intriguing in the world. For birders, spotting that first albatross soaring and gliding over the churning ocean waters is an unforgettable, once in a lifetime experience.