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Meet the Albatross: An Imposing Sight

4 min read

Few sights are as breathtaking as an albatross in flight. In addition to its widely-recognized beauty and grace, the albatross has the largest wingspan of any bird, measuring as wide as 12 feet. Weighing up to 20 pounds on average, they're difficult to miss on your polar expedition.

Albatross in flight - Photo credit: Ian Robertson

Albatross Facts

Albatrosses are the largest family of seabird, and are among the largest living birds.

There are several albatross species, including the wandering albatross, laysan albatross, waved albatross, amsterdam albatross, southern royal albatross, short tailed albatross, sooty albatrosses, and more.

Most albatross species live in the southern hemisphere, though some can be found further north, such as the Waved albatross in the Galapagos islands, the Laysan albatrosses of the North Pacific, and the Black footed albatross, which lives around tropical Pacific islands. And there are huge populations of black-browed albatross in

Not all albatross species are alike, but many share similar characteristics. Let's take a look at some Albatross facts about these large, incredible birds.

Albatross can go months or even years without touching land

Albatross have the largest wingspan of any bird. Thanks to their vast wingspan, the albatross is able to glide for many hours without rest. Dynamic soaring and slope soaring, two unique flight techniques, enable the enormous birds to stay airborne with very little exertion—they can even fly in their sleep!

When it's time to take a break, they can touch down both on land and water, though they tend to spend time on land only to breed (usually on remote oceanic islands).

Loyal albatross are partners for life

The albatross has one of the longest lifespans of any bird, often times reaching 50 years or age in the wild. During this time, many albatross species mate for life.

Albatrosses can be found across the Southern Ocean, and take to remote islands and areas like the Falkland Islands (black-browed albatross) and South Georgia (black-browed, grey-headed, light-mantled, and wandering albatrosses) in the South Atlantic to breed.

Albatrosses mate within a breeding colony. A single egg is produced, and both mates then watch over the egg until it hatches.

After birth, the albatross chick will usually take to the air within three to 12 months (depending largely on the species).

Nesting Albatross and chick - Photo by Quark Passenger

Once the young birds are able to comfortably fly on their own, they leave the albatross colonies for up to 10 years.

A young albatross will not return to their breeding grounds until they reaches peak sexual maturity. Many species of albatross are believed to mate for life.

Carnivorous, imposing albatross

Albatross are carnivores and feed primarily on schooling fish, crab, shrimp, lobster and squid. Passengers on our Falklands, South Georgia, and Antarctica: Explorers and Kings expedition shouldn't be surprised to see one or more these birds flying overhead, hoping to swoop in for an unattended bite.

They'll also scavenge carrion and dine on krill and other zooplankton, as required. What we know of the albatross diet reflects only their choices during the breeding season, however. Because they spend the rest of their time at sea, scientists haven't yet been able to study their diet year-round.

Different species enjoy different fare. Experts estimate there are between 13 and 24 species of albatross, with 21 being the most widely accepted figure.

Even albatross in the same area can have quite different diets; in Hawaii, the black-footed albatross dines mainly on fish, while another resident, the Laysan, prefers squid.

Most albatross species are endangered

As imposing as they are in flight, albatross exist in a delicate balance, where currently 17 of those 21 species are threatened with extinction.

albatross pair

Why are albatross critically endangered?

Many years ago, the albatross was hunted for its feathers, which were used in a variety of apparel, including women’s hats. Furthermore, albatross bones and fossil remains indicate that Inuit once hunted the bird for its dietary benefits.

Several years ago, the University of Southern California estimated that albatross were dying at a rate of one every five minutes. A subsequent report by the British Antarctic Survey reported that 7 of the planet's 22 albatross species were threatened with extinction.

The threat of extinction for albatross

There are 21 global species of albatrosses, 17 of which are threatened with extinction.

Threats to the long term sustainability of the bird include loss of habitat, oil spills, environmental changes, climate change, new predators, and human waste.

However, longline commercial fishing practices top the list. Since 2000, over 3.9 million albatross have died as a result of longline fishing, a practice in which long branch lines lay on the water. These are, of course, tempting to sea birds – particularly albatross.

Albatross nesting area West Point Island

For this reason, Quark Expeditions was a proud sponsor of the Underwater Bait Setter project, an innovative system designed to set hooks under the water safely.

Albatross conservation

Over several years, we've raised more than $230,000 to support the project; last year alone, we raised $58,014 with our summer fundraising. Albatross conservation and the sustainability of the Polar Regions are issues near and dear to Quark Expeditions staff and passengers alike.

Ancestors of the albatross soared the skies more than 50 million years ago. A lot has changed since then, but this majestic bird remains one of the most beautiful and intriguing in the world.

For birders, spotting that first albatross soaring and gliding over the churning ocean waters is an unforgettable, once in a lifetime experience.

We invite you to come and view these magnificent birds for yourself on a Quark Expeditions trip to the Arctic or Antarctic, or view them virtually through Quark Expeditions’ 360° Virtual Reality Antarctic Experience.

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