By Hannah Piecuch
Long in flight, wingspan, and love, albatrosses of many species haunt the open water of the Southern Ocean. In a year, one bird might circle Antarctica two or three times, hunting in the stormiest seas on the planet.
Most human encounters with albatrosses take place on ships or fishing boats, as the birds ride the wind nearby foraging for squid. Above the open sea, an albatross can look slight, its lean wings outstretched as it cycles up and then drops to skim the surface of the water. Yet these birds have the widest wingspan on Earth. While size varies by species, wandering albatrosses’ wings stretch to over three meters (more than 11 feet).
When WHOI postdoctoral fellow and seabird scientist Francesco Ventura first saw albatrosses in flight in the Falkland Islands, what they were doing seemed impossible. “They can soar against the wind, faster than the wind, without flapping their wings,” he said.
The albatross uses the energy of the wind for a flight pattern called dynamic soaring. They start by flying into the wind to gain altitude, then they turn and descend downwind, using wind and gravity to gain speed. Then they hover along the surface of the water where there is less wind and less resistance. “There is a gradient, a band of different speed winds, and they gain aerodynamic kinetic energy from the wind by crossing that band,” Ventura said. “They are surfing.”
“Young albatrosses spend six years at sea, rarely touching land.”
When Ventura was working on his doctorate at the University of Lisbon, his advisor attached a global positioning tracker to a grey-headed albatross from South Georgia Island just before it flew into a storm. The bird had a cruising speed of 110 kilometers (about 68 miles) per hour for nine hours. What’s more, it didn’t just soar through the storm, it hunted, found food, and increased its bodyweight.
Even if they travel at great speeds, there is no rushing an albatross. This is a bird that takes its time: to learn flight, find a partner, and raise chicks. Young albatrosses spend six years at sea, rarely touching land. When they come back to the colony, courtship can take several years. Even after choosing a partner, they often don’t have a first chick until they are nearly a decade old. Once paired off, albatrosses are famously monogamous.
“Albatrosses live very individual lives,” said recent MIT-WHOI doctoral graduate Ruijiao Sun, who studied the population dynamics of a wandering albatross colony as a student in WHOI scientist Stephanie Jenouvrier’s Lab. “They only come back to the colony to bond with their partner, breed, and raise a chick. After a chick is raised, they take a sabbatical year and go back to sea.”
With such powers of flight and patience, what could possibly stress an albatross? Like many other creatures that live in the Antarctic region, these birds are impacted by human activity and climate change.
Fishing boat bycatch is a frequent cause of mortality. Some colonies are struggling because rats and mice have been introduced into nesting areas by humans and attack the chicks while the parents are out hunting. The rodents also bring new diseases. Both issues can lead to breeding collapse. Climate impacts are more complex to trace. In recent years, wind patterns in the Southern Ocean have concentrated towards the poles and wandering albatrosses have been observed taking faster, more efficient, foraging flights. Their colonies have experienced increased breeding success. At the same time, scientists anticipate that warmer sea temperatures are going to drive Antarctic fisheries into select regions, which could possibly increase the chances of seabirds getting entangled in fishing gear.
Population data is a powerful tool for conservation. These numbers can determine birds’ protections and endangered status. Sun—who entered this field because of her passion for conservation work—has seen this kind of research pay off. The wandering albatross colony she studies on Crozet Island had 500 breeding pairs when scientists first started observing it in the 1960s. By the 1990s, the number plummeted to 100. This was largely due to bycatch fatalities of female birds because they tended to hunt in the same area as tuna fisheries.
With guidance from scientists, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources and the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission required the fishing industry to change its practices. They now fish at night when albatrosses don’t hunt and have changed the hooks they use to minimize the chance of snaring one. As a result, the colony has begun to rebound, with about 300 breeding pairs annually.
The data that WHOI scientists like Jenouvrier, Sun, and Ventura gather about isolated albatross colonies tell a bigger story than the lives of individual birds. These seabirds travel thousands of kilometers across the open ocean. Observing them shows what is happening in the whole supporting marine ecosystem of the Southern Ocean.