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Images: Of Wings, Waves, and Winds

A pilot, sailor, and oceanographer, Phil Richardson studied the interactions of winds, waves, and albatrosses and constructed a new picture to explain the dynamics of albatross flight. (Photo by Heidi Richardson)

Albatrosses are consummate fliers, spending the majority of their long lives soaring above the ocean, rarely resting or using their wings. By the age of 50, an albatross has typically flown at least 1.5 million miles. WHOI oceanographer Phil Richardson examined the physics of their remarkable flying abilities. (Photo by Phil Richardson, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

The wingspans of wandering albatrosses can reach 12 feet, but they rarely flap their wings. Instead they take advantage of winds and waves to remain aloft without expending energy. (Photo by Phil Richardson, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Albatrosses extract energy from winds to soar, as seen in these diagrammatic views from the side (left) and from overhead (right). Above a wave, winds blow progressively faster the higher you ascend. As albatrosses rise at an angle from a relatively windless wave trough, they cross a boundary into an area of brisk winds. They abruptly gain airspeed, giving them a burst of kinetic energy that allows them to climb to heights of 10 to 15 meters above the ocean. Then they bank downwind and swoop down into another wave trough, adding airspeed as they cross the boundary in reverse, and begin the cycle again.

After the birds gain height, they can proceed in any of three directions. They can turn downwind, getting a boost from the tailwind (orange). They can swoop down into the same wave trough, flying parallel to the waves and perpendicular to the wind (green). Or, like a sailboat, they can tack to the right or left of the wind and  head generally into the wind (yellow). (Illustration by WHOI Graphic Services)

Albatrosses exploit a phenomenon called dynamic soaring. They ascend from an essentially windless trough of a wave into an area with strong winds blowing above the wave. Crossing the boundary gives the birds a burst of kinetic energy that they use to climb to heights of 10 to 15 meters. (Photo by Phil Richardson, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Through his career, Richardson made pioneering investigations of the major currents in the Atlantic Ocean. Since his retirement, he has pursued other interests, such as albatross flight and photography. He is seen here in the South Georgia Museum housed in a former whaling station building in Grytviken, South Georgia Island, in the Southern Ocean. (Photo by Heidi Richardson)