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Wildlife Guide: Wandering Albatross Facts

5 min read

The wandering albatross is an impressive bird that comes by its name honestly: the species is known to travel vast distances—up to 900km a day—on the longest wingspan of any bird. These powerful winged creatures spend most of their life in the air, and land only to feed and breed.

Wandering Albatross

Wandering albatrosses are also known as snowy albatross, goonie, or white winged albatross and have their

Continue reading to learn more about the wandering albatross, including where they live, what they eat, and more.

Wandering Albatross Facts

Name: Wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans)

Regional Habitat: Southern Ocean and subtropical waters. The wandering albatross breeds on islands in the South Atlantic including South Georgia

Length: 3.5 - 4.4 ft (107 - 135 cm)

Weight: Maximum 26 pounds (12 kilograms)

Conservation Status: Vulnerable

Diet: Squid, fish, crustaceans

Appearance: Adult wandering albatrosses are black and white, usually with white bodies and black and white wings while juveniles start chocolate brown. Wandering albatrosses have a large, pink bill and pink feet. The wandering albatross is the most white species of the wandering albatross species complex.

Best Places to see the Wandering Albatross: Expeditions travelers who visit the South Atlantic and the Antarctic are likely to see the wandering albatross including on expeditions such as the South Georgia and Antarctic Peninsula: Penguin Safari, Falklands, South Georgia, and Antarctica: Explorers and Kings and Epic Antartica: Crossing the Circle via Falklands and South Georgia.

Where do wandering albatross live?

Wandering albatrosses live out most of their days above the open ocean water and spend their nights sleeping on the surface of the water. Foraging trips for food for themselves and their young can last several hours or up to 10-20 days at a time.

Wandering Albatross

Breeding takes place on sub-Antarctic islands including Prince Edward Island, South Georgia, Macquarie Island and the Crozet Islands and Kerguelan Islands. These are popular breeding islands because of the tussock grass, and sheltered areas where the birds prefer to nest.

The best time to see Antarctic birds and wildlife is during travels in the summer (late October - mid April) when the wildlife is most active and when access to the Antarctic is best.

Wandering albatross weight

The average wandering albatross weighs anywhere from 6 to 12 pounds.

In a single feeding, a wandering albatross can eat up to 3kg of food (25%) of their total mass.

This heavy weight can be problematic especially when wandering albatrosses are trying to take off because of their large wingspan that relies on the wind to soar through the air. Taking off in calm conditions or after a large feeding can be difficult.

Sometimes the birds will run to gain air under their wings to help with take off, other times after one of their large feeding frenzies they may vomit to help lighten their weight to make take off easier or they have to stay resting on the water. Wandering albatrosses digest best when they are gliding through the air.

Wandering albatross size

Immature wandering albatrosses are some of the largest chicks, which helps keep them safe and protected from the freezing habitats and exposed ledges of nesting sites. At such nesting sites, it's common to find baby albatross that weigh up to 10kg - heavier sometimes than their parents.

Wandering Albatross

Chicks grow to adult birds which are among the largest bird species in the world, weighing between 6 and 12 pounds (2.7 to 5.4 kgs), and growing to be up to 4.4 ft (1.3 metres) in length.

Famous for having the largest wingspan of any bird today, their large size and time spent flying means that the wandering albatross has no natural predators.

Wandering albatross wingspan

As mentioned, the wandering albatross has the largest wingspan of any bird, measuring 3.2 m (more than 10 feet). In fact, the largest wandering albatross wingspan ever recorded was on a bird caught by scientists in the Antarctic Tasman Sea and had a wingspan of more than 11 feet (3.4 metres).

Wandering Albatross

The wandering albatross glides through the air during flight, rarely flapping its wings. They do this by using their wings more like sails of a ship than motors to keep them in flight. Gliding works best in a slight headwind that allows the birds to cover more ground by zig-zagging in the wind to make progress moving forward into it and they can reach speeds of up to 40km/hour (25 miles per hour).

How long do wandering albatross live?

The wandering albatross can live up to 60 years. After an 11-month incubation, it takes roughly 12 months for immature birds to fully develop and for the first 9 months the chick stays in their nest. This means that like the king and emperor penguins, the wandering albatross breeding cycle is more than 2 years.

Once the young birds leave the nest, they don't typically return again for 5-7 years when breeding adults eventually return to the island where they were born during breeding season (December - March). Upon return, they find a mate and wandering albatross adult birds mate for life. Typically, a breeding pair produces one chick every 2-3 years and they travel throughout their lives with small groups.

Wandering albatrosses are known for their vocal displays that are most common in breeding populations or when they are defending their territory around nests. These vocalizations can include bill clapping and croaking.

As the wandering albatrosses ages, their appearance changes and they turn whiter. As they age their black colouring recedes to just the tips of their wings.

Wandering albatross diet

With the help of a large olfactory system and nasal passage that creates a strong sense of smell and very good vision, wandering albatrosses feed mostly on squid and fish on their very long fishing trips at sea that can last between 10 and 20 days at a time.

Wandering Albatross

The wandering albatross, unlike other seabirds, can hunt at night with shallow dives for fish, toothfish, crustaceans, squids and other cephalopods.

Because so much of their diet comes from the salty ocean water, they have an organ called a salt gland above their nasal passage. This helps them rid their bodies of saline, but can sometimes cause a pink yellow stain on the animals necks.

Is the wandering albatross endangered?

While the wandering albatross is a part of a large species complex, a group of similar species that are very close in appearance but that are a distinct species, wandering albatrosses population declines an estimated 1% per year.

When last studied, their estimated population size was just over 20,000.

Threats to the survival of the wandering albatross are fishing boats and fishing, specifically longline fishing that uses a long baited line with hooks, as they often accidentally catch birds and other wildlife.

Plastic pollution, including fishing hooks and other debris, is also dangerous for wandering albatrosses who eat the plastic and become very sick.

Some conservation efforts are underway to minimize the threat of longline bycatch and some islands that are breeding grounds for them are becoming nature reserves.

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