Birds have long been a source of inspiration for the arts. One of the most common bird motifs found in maritime literature, adventure stories and travel journals is that of the albatross. The name comes from the Arabic al-qādūs or al-ḡaṭṭās, which might be translated as the diver. Linnaeus gave the albatross the generic Latin name Diomedea, which is a reference to the mythical Greek warrior Diomedes, after whose death his mourning companions were turned into birds.
The name of the order – Procellariiformes – derives from the Latin word procella, which stands for high wind or storm. One could hardly think of a better name for these formidable seabirds, which spend much of their lives over the open ocean. Referred to by sailors as the wandering king of the ocean, the albatross represents freedom, independence and good luck.
The family Diomedeidae includes 22 bird species, the majority of which are now in danger of extinction. Most species of the albatross range widely in the southern hemisphere, from Antarctica, through Australia to South Africa and South America, while four species inhabit areas further north. Three of them can be found only over the North Pacific, from Hawaii to Japan, California and Alaska, whereas the fourth species (the waved albatross) nests on the Galapagos Islands and forages off the coast of South America.
In terms of wingspan, albatrosses are among the largest flying birds and the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans), which measures 250–350 cm from wing tip to wing tip, takes the cake for the largest wingspan of any bird species alive today. The largest individual ever recorded had the wingspan of 370 cm! The life cycle of the albatross is just as remarkable. The birds lay a single egg, which is then incubated by both parents. The egg hatches after two months, after which the parents spare no effort to feed their ever-hungry chick. For five months they to and fro between the ocean and the colony, which provides a safe haven for their growing offspring. While waiting for the food, the chicks make practice jumps and flap their wings in preparation for winter departure.
The birds leave the colony to spend the next six months on their own, soaring over the open ocean. To do so, the chicks must brave the wind, which is a challenge even after months of practice. During their first clumsy flight attempts many young birds fall prey to predators, drawn to the colonies by the prospect of an easy meal. Those youngsters which manage to master the art of soaring will spend the next three to five years over the ocean and, after reaching sexual maturity, return to their colony in search of a partner.
Albatrosses forage in open ocean. Outside the breeding season, many species migrate over large distances, with some (like the wandering albatross and the grey-headed albatross) flying freely over the Southern Ocean. The birds may travel 1000 kilometres in a day, with one grey-headed albatross known to have circumnavigated Antarctica in as few as 46 days. The birds are some of the most intrepid travellers among all vertebrates and their unique wings make it possible for them to fly with almost no effort. To find its food, the albatross relies on the sense of smell. Being particularly sensitive to the smell of decay, the bird can not only locate carrion, but also rotting algae, which are food for animals the albatross feeds on. The smell of sulphur compounds, given off by decomposing algae, is a telltale sign that there’s a meal to be had. The birds can smell food from a distance of up to 20 kilometres and they eat everything that they manage to catch from the surface of the ocean – squid, crustaceans, fish and fish eggs.
Albatrosses pair off for life, which is quite a commitment as they live, depending on the species, from several years to several decades. When spring is approaching, the birds return to the colony and the first of the pair to make it back waits patiently for its partner. The pair welcomes each other with a dance full of bowing, wing-flapping, beak-rubbing and shouting. The ritual has deep significance, as it helps to renew and strengthen the bond between the partners. And the bond is crucial to the survival of their chick, which takes a lot of effort to look after. So much, in fact, that many species of the albatross take a year off between subsequent breeding attempts.
It is not, however, the harsh environment that is the major threat to the albatross. It is the modern world. For decades, the birds were hunted by sailors and locals alike. The introduction of invasive species (such as rodents and cats) to islands where the colonies are located poses a serious danger to nesting birds, unaccustomed to land predation. Albatrosses lay their eggs on the ground or in burrows, as most species nest on islands completely devoid of trees. A great success was a multi-year rat eradication programme carried out in South Georgia, thanks to which, in 2018, the island was finally freed of rats, which had wrought havoc in bird colonies for almost 250 years. The rats came to the island with the first whalers and seal hunters and flourished on a diet of seabird eggs and chicks.
The large-scale fishing industry is also a threat to seabirds, including the albatross. The birds are not only affected by local overfishing, but also frequently become entangled in longlines and fishing nets, which they are drawn to by the smell of fish and bait. According to the estimates of BirdLife International, fishing fleets kill as many as 100 000 albatrosses a year, with the actual number being quite likely much greater than that. It is this fast-growing mortality that is a real threat to the albatross population. Only in the area of South Georgia, within the last 40 years the population of the albatross fell by 40–60%. To halt the trend, marine wildlife conservation organisations cooperate locally with representatives of the fishing industry to develop fishing methods which would be safe for albatrosses and other seabirds.
As if this was not enough, more and more often, instead of cephalopods, fish and molluscs, albatrosses feed on… marine litter, which take mistake for food. What’s interesting is that they hardly ever get fooled by organic material, such as driftwood of seaweed. Research shows, however, that plastic items drifting in the ocean are much like a Petri dish, with multiplying bacteria giving off a smell which may attract seabirds. Plastic items found in the stomachs of dead albatrosses included balloon pieces, lighters, toothbrushes, bottle caps or even intact toy soldiers. Adult individuals unknowingly feed plastic to their chicks, which seriously compromises their chances of survival. Seabird monitoring is a source of indirect information on the amount of anthropogenic pollution in ocean water. The increasing frequency of plastic ingestion by seabirds is a clear indication of the world’s growing plastic pollution problem.
In “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the narrator confesses to having killed an albatross. In the maritime folklore the albatross was a lucky bird, so killing one was believed to bring bad luck upon the entire crew. To atone for his deed, the mariner was forced to wear the dead bird around his neck: “Ah! well a-day! what evil looks / Had I from old and young! / Instead of the cross, the Albatross / About my neck was hung.” Sir Ernest Shackleton also wrote of the albatross, claiming that, unlike the slightly smaller Cape petrel, it lacks the aura of friendship. Over a century later, when hundreds of thousands of albatrosses die annually as a result of human activity, it is indeed hard to blame them.
Photo: The black-browed albatross – a common visitor at the Henryk Arctowski Polish Antarctic Station on King George Island.
Text: Dr. Katarzyna Tołkacz
Translation: Barbara Jóźwiak
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