The albatross has been a source of awe and superstitions among sailors for centuries. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
has captivated readers for over a century with its theme of Nature’s retribution for killing a harmless albatross. Of course, not all ancient sailors were superstitious and when they got hungry, these graceful creatures were often taken on baited hooks to form a tasty meal. The creatures' webbed feet were turned into tobacco pouches and the wing bones were ideally suited for Jack Tar’s pipestems.
Plume hunters also pillaged albatross breeding grounds and many Northern Pacific birds were killed for their feathers. This plumage was sold to traders for use in the millinery trade and was often referred to as swansdown.
But it wasn’t until recently that some species of the solitary and friendly albatross have been nearly driven to extinction by the work of man.
There are actually more that 12 different species of large seabirds called albatross, and many of them are often confused. Some smaller varieties are often referred to as Mollyhawks, a name derived from Dutch, loosely translated as "foolish bird." True Mollyhawks, however, are smaller than the great albatross and easily distinguished from them by their dark back, wings, and tails and usually more colorful bill. Because these long-distance fliers are well known for being tame and very awkward on land, many sailors have also named them "gooney birds."
Albatross are capable of flying many miles without flapping their wings. They soar and glide on the winds above the sea in a slow, zigzag path instead of flying in the direction they want to go. They will fly left and right, swooping up and down much like a sailboat tacks, to reach their final destination. By flying like this they let the wind do all of the work. While taking a very circuitous path, they arrive at their destination with the minimum amount of effort. Few animals exert less energy when traveling than do these graceful creatures, which may fly over the sea for months at a time.
With thin wings of up to 12-foot spreads, albatross are essentially gliders and cannot simply start flying. They have to take off in a way similar to an airplane, by running into the wind whether they are on land or water. They may also launch themselves by dropping off a cliff. Once airborne, albatross normally land on the sea only when there’s no wind.
These accomplished aviators have been known to overtake and circle a fast vessel at sea with long glides that are seldom interrupted by wingbeats. The ability of albatross to move upwind without flapping their wings depends on the fact that the speed of the wind is appreciably less near the waves than it is a few yards higher. Their flight pattern is a series of broad ellipses (see illustration) that usually includes (1) a fast downwind glide starting at the highest elevation where the wind speed is the greatest, giving the bird considerable speed with a small loss of altitude. As it dives and reaches its maximum speed, the albatross (2) turns crosswind briefly skimming the waves, then moves (3) upwind on a long, level glide through the slower air, losing speed in the slower air. As soon as its air speed reaches a critical low, the bird (4) climbs steeply crosswind to complete the ellipse, now at the same altitude as at the start of the previous downwind leg but having gained in position upwind. This same flight pattern may be used to travel crosswind or downwind.
|"The normal air speed of the royal and wandering albatross is 50 to 70 miles per hour"|
The normal air speed of the royal and wandering albatross, whose wingspans reach about 11 feet, is 50 to 70 miles per hour. Although the flight appears effortless, some energy is expended in the muscular action that keeps the long, narrow wings fully extended. Albatross have been recorded flying up to 550 miles in a day, and in a single foraging flight they can cover an incredible 9,300 miles, a distance greater than the diameter of the earth. While underway at sea these wonderful birds are perfect aviators and can ride out the severest storm with ease and grace.
The albatross's diet consists mainly of squid and fish caught by predation at night and by scavenging during the day. Wanderer albatross have been known to take squid of up to 13 pounds, but these are thought to be carrion, eaten and rejected by sperm whales. The bulk of the squid are seized on the move, and activity meters attached to wanderers have shown that they spend around 75 percent of their time away from the nest engaged in flight and search for food.
These graceful gliders only come ashore to breed in colonies that are established mainly on remote islands. A single, large, white egg is laid on the bare ground or in a heaped-up nest and is incubated by the parents who take turns sitting on it. The growth of the young albatross is very slow, and the larger the species the slower the growth. Its flight plumage is in place in roughly three to 10 months, after which the bird then spends the next five to 10 years at sea, growing several pre-adult feather changes before coming back to shore to mate. Albatross, like parrots, are very long-lived and some pairs on South Georgia Island have been recorded breeding at 35 years of age. Albatross have been measured reaching ages of up to 70 or 80 years.
Some of the best-known albatross species are the following:
- The sooty albatross, with a wingspread of about seven feet, has wings and a tail that are longer and more slender than other species. It nests on islands in the southern oceans. In the nineteenth century, sea hunters called this species "Blue Bird" because it looked blue in the strong Antarctic light. In contrast to other albatross, it makes a catlike wailing sound.
- The black-browed albatross has a wingspread of about seven-and-a-half-feet and wanders far offshore in the North Atlantic. A unique dark streak gives the black-browed albatross a frowning appearance.
- The black-footed albatross is one of three North Pacific species and has a wingspread of about nine feet. This bird is mainly sooty brown in color and nests on tropical Pacific islands. The black-footed is seen widely throughout the North Pacific but is currently considered threatened.
- The Laysan albatross's wingspread is the same as the black-footed species but it has a white body with dark upper-wing surfaces. It is found in the same geographical area as the black-footed albatross.
- The royal albatross is one of the three great albatross of the Southern Ocean, primarily known by its huge size and its coloring with an all-white tail and black upper wings. The royal has an impressive wingspread of about 10.3 feet. Royal pairs breed on islands off New Zealand (Chathams, Campbell, and Aucklands), while a small population gathers on Taiaroa Head near Dunedin on the mainland of New Zealand's South Island, as well as the southern tip of South America. The total annual breeding population is about 11,000 pairs, but biennial breeding means there are about twice this number of breeders. As with the wandering and Amsterdam albatross, the very long breeding season means royals, if successful, can only breed every other year.
- The wandering albatross is a magnificent bird—the bird of the Southern Ocean. To see one glide past your vessel, just a few meters away, as it watches you with its soft brown eyes, is a thrill few sailors forget. The species is easily identified from the smaller Mollyhawk species by its size, with a wingspan up to 11.5 feet, but distinguishing it at sea from the closely related royal and Amsterdam albatross is not easy and needs support from a bird reference book or expert.
Since the albatross's diet is mostly squid, fish, and crustaceans caught at the sea's surface, these birds have fallen victim to one of man’s most destructive modern practices—long-line and gill-net fishing. Between March 1996 and March 1999 an estimated 2,000 Laysan Albatross and 2,000 black-footed albatross were killed in the waters around Hawaii. Albatross like wanderers and royals are caught by tuna longlines when they attempt to feed on the fish being hauled up to the boat. The diving seabirds are attracted by these squid and fish that are caught and left hanging several meters below the surface in nets, where they become ensnared. The US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service estimate that in the Bering Sea/Gulf of Alaska area, 10,000 birds are killed annually. Short-tailed albatross, an endangered species, are caught in the waters off Alaska and have been seen around Hawaii. In the southern oceans, it is estimated that over 40,000 albatross of several species are killed annually, and it is possible that as many as 10,000 albatross are destroyed in Australian waters alone. Populations of wandering albatross, a species of special concern, are estimated to be declining by 10 percent annually owing to long-line fishing.
Given the long life span and slow reproductive cycle of these magnificent birds, rebuilding the albatross population after such decimation may require decades. New fishing regulations, technology, and practices will hopefully protect these splendid seagoing aeronauts from further losses in their battle with man.