The albatross: king of the seabirds?
What is it about the albatross that has attracted me for so many years? Ever since I became interested in birds, and sea birds in particular, the albatross has always figured in my mind as the king of them all. The Monarch of the Sea. And I had never even seen one.
Bird of myth and legend
For starters, the bird looms large in human mythology. It was always a good omen for sailors if they saw an albatross following their ship. And as we know, sailors took their superstitions seriously.
Then there was that literary brute, the ancient mariner, who got into truly deep do do for shooting one. (Didn’t get around to reading Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner like you were supposed to in Grade 9 English Lit.? Now’s your chance to redeem yourself. I’ll wait.)
Rulers of the southern seas
These are big birds. Spectacular birds. Some species of albatross are the largest extant birds on the planet—weighing 9 kg plus and boasting a mammoth wingspan of 3.7 m (12 feet!) Even from a distance, majestic, imposing, they rule the seascape.
But equally thrilling is that they fly, kilometer after kilometer, never flapping their wings, deftly harnessing the breath of the wind to master speed, altitude, direction and the ocean itself.
I was on a boat off the coast of Kaikoura this week clicking along at 20 knots or so, and one of these babies comes up from behind and soars past as if we were becalmed. Dead in the water. And not a single wing flap.
A metaphor for freedom
If you’re looking for a working metaphor for freedom, look no further than the sight of one of these soaring above your head over the horizon-to-horizon vastness of the South Pacific ocean.
Long distance wayfarers
You’ll never see an albatross on land, unless it’s young or nesting: when it’s not, the bird lives its entire life on the ocean. Or above it. And they have this staggering migratory pattern which, for those born in or around New Zealand, takes them right around the Antarctic to the waters off the southern coasts of Chile and Argentina where they stay until ready to come back again for the next breeding cycle. So adults circumnavigate the world every two years or so.
To be able to live for months—years—at sea, evolution has provided them, and other pelagics, with an an on-board desalination plant—a gland near the base of the beak—to manufacture fresh water from sea water.
One of the tricks to soaring long distances using very little energy is a tendon at the shoulder which locks the wings in flight so they behave somewhat like a fixed wing aircraft. But there’s more to the art and science of their remarkable flying abilities than that (see footnote: The Art of Dynamic Soaing).
Slow, slow breeders
Their breeding colonies are all on remote, barely-accessible islands, apart from one: the northern royal albatross colony at the tip of the Otago Peninsula, NZ, which I was able to visit. Unlike the 80,000 northern gannet colony off the east coast of Québec, this one has only a few dozen pairs. It’s an experiment, like many in New Zealand, to encourage population health of bird species. But it will be a long-term project: albatrosses are extremely slow breeders. Adults form long-term monogamous pairs and females lay but a single egg every two years. It takes about a year until chicks are mature enough to fly. (More here.)
There are 24, or maybe 18, or maybe 20 species of albatross: the ornithologists have been in a huge fight for years over the number, but it is not required that we get into their squabbles here. Because of the difficulty in identifying the various species—and my general inexpertise—I’ll not attempt to do so with these photographs. Enjoy!
A short clip showing albatrosses and other birds competing for food. Captain Gary Melville of the boat I was on (Albatross Encounters) put a line of fish over the side to attract the birds for the benefit of us tourists.
Footnote: The art of dynamic soaring
Some seabirds dynamically soar by repeatedly diving into the valleys of ocean waves, and then wheeling back up into the air. Albatrosses are particularly adept at exploiting the technique and they use it to travel many thousands of miles using very little energy from flapping. When the bird pulls up into the wind out of the still air in the lee of a wave, it suddenly becomes exposed to a head wind, so the speed of the air over its wings increases. It then turns in the other direction and, with the wind behind it, dives back into the shelter of a wave. This also results in an increase in its air-speed. So by repeating this “wheeling” pattern, the bird can continue flying almost indefinitely without having to put in much effort besides steering. In effect it is harvesting energy from the wind gradient. (Via Wikipedia)
Photographs were taken at three New Zealand locations: from a boat at the mouth of Doubtful Sound where it meets the Tasman Sea; by the nesting colony at Taiaroa Head at the the tip of the Otago Peninsula; and from a boat off the coast of Kaikoura.