An albatross has flown round the world in just 46 days, according to scientists who spent 18 months studying the birds' migratory behaviour.


Researchers from the British Antarctic Survey tracked the movements of 22 grey-headed albatrosses to shed light on where they go in the winter months that they spend away from their breeding colonies off the coast of South Georgia in the south Atlantic.


Some of the birds - mostly females - travelled a relatively modest few thousand miles out to open sea but some of the males went much further, and several made a complete circumpolar navigation. One male albatross flew more than 22,000 kilometres (13,670 miles) around the southern hemisphere in just 46 days. Three birds were tracked flying around the world twice in 18 months.




Albatross over the southern ocean



Albatrosses are very long-lived - some are more than 40 years old - but they are vulnerable to being trapped and drowned in lines used by fishing trawlers.

Professor John Coxall, who led the study, said the findings would help conservationists trying to protect the 19 out of 21 sub-species of the albatross family that are included on the official "red list" of endangered species.


"By understanding where these birds go when they're not breeding, we can brief governments and fishing commissions to impose stricter measures capable of reducing the number of birds killed by between 75 and 95 per cent, depending on the type of fishery," Professor Coxall said. "The right combination of measures will drastically reduce deaths."


The albatrosses in the study had a small device strapped to their legs that continuously monitored the local time of sunrise and sunset. Scientists were able to estimate the position of the bird to within about 200km.


Before this study there was no information about the wintering habits of the grey-headed albatross. Richard Phillips, a member of the study team, said: "We had no idea that so many birds would go so far, that there would be large differences between individuals and that some would even go circumpolar."


Albatrosses often sleep by landing on open water during the night and they can spend many months at sea without having to return to dry land, he said.

The scientists tagged 47 grey-headed albatrosses but only managed to retrieve data from 22 devices, which weigh about 9 grams and do not interfere with the bird's movements, Dr Phillips said.


Grey-headed albatrosses have a wingspan of 220 centimetres (7ft 3ins). They raise one chick every two years, and it takes about 140 days before the chick is strong enough to fly.



Parent waved albatross and chick





Albatrosses are able to fly for hours, and maybe even days, without flapping their wings, because they have a neat trick that grabs energy from  wind.  They use this energy to stay in the air and moving, and so they don't have to flap their wings.  As a result, flying long distances doesn't take much energy for albatrosses. 

They can also store food for quite a while (right?).  With easy flying and the ability to store the food they find, albatrosses can make really long flights to search for prey.  Here's how they fly without flapping their wings.  You have to know some things about wind first.  There is a really cool movie that is loading at the bottom of the page right now, but you won't understand it unless you read this section first. Take the time to keep reading and by the time you're done, the movie should be ready.


The ocean surface moves slower than the wind above it does.  So, the wind moving just above the ocean surface is slowed quite a bit by friction with the slow-moving ocean.  The higher you get from the ocean surface, the less the wind is slowed by the ocean.  So, if an albatross wanted to fly into the wind, it should fly close to the ocean surface, where the wind against the bird would be the slowest.  That is what they do, and they also do something else, and this is the interesting part.



Waved albatross in flight

Waved albatross flying downwind



Picture an albatross that wants to fly to the west, but the wind is blowing from south to north.  The albatross is five meters in the air (a bit taller than your ceiling probably is).  It points itself to the north and glides quickly downwind.  It gains speed rapidly because it has the wind pushing it and because it is gliding gradually from a high position to a low position.  After a long downhill glide with the wind pushing it, the albatross turns west, which is the direction it wants to go.  It is moving very fast, just as you would be on a bike after a long downhill with the wind at your back. 


Conveniently for the albatross, the wind moving from south to north is slowed so much by friction with the ocean that the bird's flight is not affected much by wind (like we said earlier).  Compared with the bird's speed, the wind is not blowing much at the surface.  So, the bird can fly a long distance, maybe a hundred meters (the length of a football field) on the energy it got from the long downhill glide.  It has not been flapping its wings during this time.  Finally it slows down enough that it needs more energy to keep going.  It could flap its wings to increase its speed, or it could change the angle of its wings so that it rises up above the ocean surface where the wind is blowing more strongly, and grab itself some more wind energy by flying downwind again.  


During the downwind glide they pick up enough energy to fly some to the west and also to rise up into the wind again at the end of their progress to the westThis alternation of downwind gliding and cross-wind gliding is the usual way that albatrosses get around, and all without flapping their wings.  Now, really what they should do if they want to fly west in the situation above is to glide downwind to the northwest and upwind (just above the ocean surface) to the southwest.  This would have them moving mostly west even though the wind is moving to the north.  This technique is called dynamic soaring.  It's kind of hard to understand the first time you read it.





"At length did cross an Albatross:
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.
It ate the food it ne'er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!
And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariners' hollo!
In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white Moon-shine.
'God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus! --
Why look'st thou so?' -- With my cross-bow
I shot the Albatross."

Rime of the Ancient Mariner
    by Samuel Taylor Coleridge





Albatrosses belong to the bird Family Diomedeidae (Dye-oh-med-EE-id-ee).   They are among the largest flying birds, weighing in at up to 10 kilograms (22 lbs).  Some species display striking colors and perform beautiful mating dances.  Albatrosses are oceanic birds.  They live at sea and find their fish and squid food on the open ocean.  They come to land on islands only because their offspring have to be on land until they can fly. This can be a problem for Mom and Dad Albatross, because the food in the ocean may be a long distance from where the nesting island happens to be!   To handle this problem albatrosses can cover thousands of kilometers during one trip to find food for their babies and themselves.  Let's introduce you to the birds and their athletic ability.

Scientists have found that there are as many as 24 species of albatrosses, and they all have a stocky body, webbed feet, very long wings, and hooked beak.  Click here and see some pics. 



Babies in the nest, or "nestlings", get their food when the mother or father returns to the nest and gives it to them.  Some bird species carry the food, like a worm or insect, in the bill and pop it into the nestling's mouth.  That is not what albatrosses do.  Albatross parents catch and swallow their prey at sea, then fly back to the nest.  The parents then...uh... regurgitate the food into the nestling's mouth.  You might not know what "regurgitate" means, but you probably do know what "vomit" means, and it is the same thing.  How would YOU like to get your breakfast that way?  Well, albatross babies love it!




Parent Laysan albatross feeding its young by regurgitation


Males and females are different sizes.   In each species, most males are bigger than most females.  In most bird species the males are somewhat larger than the females, or they are pretty much the same size.   In a small number of bird species, especially eagles and hawks, the female is larger than the male.


All lay only one egg each year.  In this way they differ from most other birds.  If you go to a park in your area in the Springtime and happen to notice a bird's nest, the clutch size (number of eggs in the nest) will probably be 4 or 5.  Ducks may have clutch sizes of 10 or more eggs.  Most birds lay more than one egg per breeding season, but not albatrosses.


Albatrosses are pretty unusual in laying one egg.  The graph below shows the normal clutch size of some types of birds.  The green points are birds that eat mostly plants (herbivores), and the red points are predators.  Albatrosses are predators also, but they are shown in black.  Birds that only lead their young to food and don't actually give them food (like pheasants, ducks, and swans) usually lay more eggs than the rest of the birds do that carry food to the nestlings in the nest.  Albatrosses are predatory and they bring food to their young in the nest, so it is not a surprise that they have a small clutch size.  However, compared to some other birds in that same situation, like pelicans and eagles, they still have an unusually small clutch.  Ornithologists (scientists that study birds) have an idea that the long feeding trips of albatrosses cause the small clutch size, because the parents cannot bring food often enough to satisfy more than one chick in the nest.


Most of the world's albatrosses (10 of 14 species and 19 of 23 taxa) are in the southern hemisphere, ranging primarily in subantarctic waters and (for a variety of species) moving north along the west coast of South America in the cold Humboldt Current. The largest is the Wandering Albatross, which has a wide variety of plumages from juvenal birds (left; in a recent photo by Greg Lasley) to full white-bodied adults (for more photos of this and other southern albatross, see Greg Lasley's web site).


Because most albatrosses are in southern waters, the best trips for seeing them are boats out of southern Australia, or New Zealand, or South Africa, or a cruise to subantarctic islands.  Most of the world's albatross nest in subantarctic waters in the southern hemisphere. Three species breed in the north Pacific, and one -- the Waved Albatross of the Galapagos (right) -- on the equator. It, too, is quite a rare species, nesting only on Española Island.



Coke Can, Albatross Egg, Chicken Egg


Coke can, albatross egg, and chicken egg. 


Albatrosses work hard for a living.  Take egg laying as an example.  The bigger albatrosses lay bigger eggs; it's more or less correct to say that the mass (weight) of the egg is about 8% of the female's body mass.  What if WE laid eggs that were 8% of our mass?  How much does a human mother weigh?  For a 60 kg (132 lb) mom, an egg that size would weigh 4.8 kg (10.5 lb), which in fact is about the size of a large human baby.  Ask a mom how easy it would be to produce an egg that size!  If a 35 kg (77 lb.) sixth grader laid an egg that was 8% of body mass, it would weigh 2.8 kg (6.2 lbs) and be close to the size of a gallon of milk!!

Albatrosses eat meat.
  Albatrosses eat mostly fish, fish eggs, and squid.  They may find and kill their prey at the ocean's surface, or they may scavenge dead bodies floating on the surface, like vultures do on land.  The diet of albatrosses can be studied when they arrive at their nest to feed their young.  When the parent regurgitates, you can see what has been brought back from the sea.  The regurgitations sometimes contain pieces of prey items that were much too large to have been subdued by an albatross, so the bird must have ripped off a piece of a dead animal floating around.


Finding food is a constant effort for albatrosses.  The food that they eat is sometimes abundant, but often is not.  It seems that some albatrosses have to travel over wide areas of ocean in search of food.  That might be challenging enough, but they have an egg or chick back at the nest.  So, they are limited in their travels because they have to return to the nest, and the nest is at a fixed location.  For example, when the father is incubating (warming) the egg, the mother is free to search for food for herself, but her trip cannot be too long or the father will get too hungry.  If that happens, he will leave the egg to find food, and the egg will chill and the embryo inside will die.  If the egg has hatched, then the nestling needs food every once in a while too!  So, the parent at sea must hustle, get a belly-full, and hurry back to the nest.  How can they do it when their prey is not near the nesting island?  Flying is hard work, and uses a lot of energy.  Plus, if the parent has to bring back a big load of food to last itself or its nestling for days or weeks, isn't that extra weight going to make flying even harder?  Albatrosses have two tools that they can use:


1) they have the ability to concentrate the food they catch and store it in their bellies


2) using "dynamic soaring" they can fly long distances with little effort to find the food and then take it to the nest.




Short tailed albatross



Albatrosses at Risk - Picture this :-


Imagine, for a moment, that you are an albatross. With your magnificent 11 foot wingspan, you are the absolute master of your element.

Using the air currents close to the wave tops, you sail effortlessly across the southern oceans. In fact, before your fourth birthday, you had already flown twice round the world without touching land.


Now you are 30 years old, and in the prime of life. You're a magnificent specimen of Diomedea exulans - the wandering albatross.  Back on your home in the UK Overseas Territory of South Georgia, your mate is brooding a wonderful new chick (your courtship took several years, and you have formed a lifelong bond.) Your fluffy offspring is going to take almost a year to raise, and several more years to become fully adult.


Nine species of albatross are described as 'endangered' or 'critically endangered'

Now, at the point where the sun is dipping towards the horizon, you see a large vessel which carries a flag of convenience. It's leaving an interesting wake behind, a trail of conveniently sliced squid morsels.  Gracefully, you slide across the sky to where the other seabirds are squabbling over the squid. You bank and dive on a particularly tasty-looking piece just before it sinks out of reach.


As you swallow the bait down, there is a sudden, terrible pain:-


The hook embedded in the squid bait catches and rips your throat.  Helplessly, you find yourself dragged down into dark, cold waters.  You choke and drown and are dragged two thousand feet below the surface; unnoticed until your bedraggled corpse is hauled up and discarded.




Drowned albatross



One more to add to the 100,000 of your kind killed this way every year.


Back on land, your mate and chick await your return - but you don 't come back. So your chick will inevitably die of starvation, exposure or stress.

This carnage is having a devastating impact on albatross populations.  The latest scientific report now states that 19 of the 21 albatross species in the world today face extinction. Nine of these are already described as 'endangered' or 'critically endangered'. 


Save the Albatross Appeal



Most albatrosses and several other seabird species are heading for extinction.

They are being unintentionally drowned in large numbers by "longline" fishing boats. Longlining is the single greatest threat to the world's seabirds. Much of it is carried out by "pirate" fishing boats.


BirdLife's Save the Albatross Campaign is trying to stop the needless slaughter of these magnificent birds by ensuring that relevant international agreements are implemented that will benefit both the birds and the legal fishing industry.


On the following pages find out about the problem, its solutions, BirdLife's Campaign and how you can help. You can also view photographs of some of the threatened species.


BirdLife Worldwide

BirdLife's Global Seabird Programme

Fisheries failing to safeguard seabirds

Around the world in 46 days

Danger zones identified for at-risk seabirds

New tool for tracking biodiversity loss

Money raised for albatross conservation





Black-footed Albatross - on its nest in the Hawaiian Islands





Flight Distance Calculator
Maps for drawing flight paths
Pictures from the SeaStar satellite






LINKS - more information about Marine Conservation:

National Marine Fisheries Service

Visit this site to learn more about threats to wild dolphins from human interaction

Sea Web

This site offers links to every imaginable marine conservation related web site.

Year of The Ocean (NOAA)

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s site dedicated to the Year of The Ocean. Excellent source of information on the importance of our marine resources.

Marine Mammal Commission

Home page of the governmental watchdog organization responsible for monitoring the status of marine mammals.

Center for Marine Conservation

CMC is an excellent source of factual, relevant information on all aspects of marine conservation.

Natural Resources Defense Council

Their web site is a fantastic resource on everything from fisheries and marine life to household toxins.

World Wildlife Fund

Dedicated to international wildlife conservation, WWF is a great resource for wildlife issues.


This is an intergovernmental organization monitoring the management of worldwide marine resources.

IUCN - World Conservation Union

This organization is involved in great projects in all aspects of conservation. They have an excellent working group for small cetaceans.

Environmental Defense Fund

Another excellent source of factual information.

The Bridge

The Bridge is a resource for marine science education, it covers everything from workshops and classes to educational materials.

Save the Manatee Club

A great resource for information about Florida's endangered manatee.


Florida Keys:
Newfound Harbor Marine Institute/Seacamp

Located on Big Pine Key in the Florida Keys this institution offers a variety of marine education opportunities.

National Ocean Service

This office offers educational programs as well as printed materials on the Florida National Ocean Service.

Visit historic Pigeon Key.
Set at the 'bend' of the old Seven-Mile-Bridge, Pigeon Key is where you can find many of the buildings from the work-camp of the original Flagler Florida East Coast Railway, the railroad 'that went to sea'.



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