We are on our way to Antarctica, a day ago we left Ushuaia and the calm waters of the Beagle Channel. Cape Horn and its furious water are away from us and we are sailing in the waters of the Drake Passage. The conditions are ideal, it is not a journey in calm waters without wind or a swell, what is known as a Drake Lake. Instead, we have a 1-2-meter swell and the wind blows at a speed that we can enjoy the presence of dozens of different species of pelagic birds from the open decks of the Scenic-Eclipse.
These seabirds belong to the order Procellariiformes (from the Latin procella meaning tempest, storm, or gale) and they are adapted to spend their entire lives flying and feeding in the open sea, only coming to land to breed once a year or every other year. For this reason, some people refer to them as “real seabirds”. Many of them occur in areas with very intense winds known as the “roaring forties”, “the furious fifties” and “the screaming sixties” and it is common to see them following boats for miles, as it is in our case.
An important feature that sets them apart from other seabirds are their nostrils. These are located above or to the sides of the upper mandible and they are tube-shaped (that is why they are also known as Tubenoses) and they have a very acute sense of smell which allow some of them to detect food and also guide them to their breeding grounds. Some as small as the Storm Petrels, (in Spanish are known as “sea swallows”); others of medium size such as Petrels, Shearwaters, Diving Petrels and finally among the largest we have Giant-Petrels and Albatrosses. Among albatrosses we have the medium size known as mollymawks and the large size where it undoubtedly stands out the Wandering Albatross.
One of my favorite activities on board is spending time on the bridge or the open decks interacting with the passengers and identifying the wildlife that may appear. Mostly birds and sometimes whales. I am in the observation area on deck 5 behind Café Azure enjoying a spectacular show. Dozens of birds have been following us for a while: Black-browed Albatrosses, Cape Petrels, Southern Giant-Petrels, Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, Blue Petrels, Slender-billed Prions among others, but one of the most sought-after on the trip has yet to appear.
Suddenly, in the distance, I spotted the unmistakable figure of a Wandering Albatross. It comes flying in the direction of the ship, it is very close to the waves, almost brushing with its wings the surface until it begins to turn and faces the wind; with the wind against it, the bird starts to rise and gains height again. It reaches a point from which it turns in the direction of the wind and begins to descend until it almost touches the waves; and keeps following the same flight pattern, which is known as Dynamic Soaring which is one of the most efficient ways to fly. This flight pattern allows them to cover thousands of miles of the ocean without expending more energy than they do when sitting down incubating their eggs. This flight pattern has been studied by physicists and aeronautical engineers and they are seeking to apply this adaptation in the aeronautical industry, designing more efficient drones that minimize the use of fossil fuels.
As I followed it with my binoculars, I kept adjusting the focus as it was getting closer and closer to the ship. I could see in detail the tubenose nostrils and at some point I feel I could even touch the tip of its wings! The feeling of excitement and joy was indescribable but I know that many of those who share the eccentric passion of watching birds know exactly what I mean! Suddenly I remember the lady who told me that one of the species she WANTED to see was precisely the Wandering Albatross. With no time to waste I contacted her, and she joined us to enjoy an excellent display and even take some photos. For me, watching one of my guests having a great experience, is one of the most rewarding and satisfying feelings in my career as a professional guide!
The interesting fact about this was that this guest was not a birdwatcher, she had a very strong interest in the wildlife but not all birds caught her attention like the Wandering Albatross. While chatting with her, I discovered that she had learned about this species through various Sir David Attenborough videos. She was so fascinated by the prospect of seeing it on this trip that it was high on her list. One of the aspects that really intrigued her, was the natural history of the Albatrosses, which is indeed remarkable.
One of the best known characteristics of the Wandering Albatross is that it is one of the largest flying bird species on the planet and the species of bird with the largest wingspan, even greater than that of the Andean Condor! It can reach between 2.5 – 3.5 m. on average. They feed on some fish and a few crustaceans, but their main prey are mostly cephalopods (18 species of squid in this species) some of which are caught at night. Sometimes they will also feed on carrion. The Wandering Albatross inhabits the Southern Ocean where it breeds in remote islands without predators. It takes them 7 to 10 years to reach sexual maturity and they breed every two years. They bond with their mates for the rest of their lives and both adults take care of the egg and chick. They are long-lived, it is estimated that they can reach 100 years with 1% of the population reaching 80 years. The oldest confirmed record from the Southern Ocean was a Northern Albatross at Tairaroa Head, New Zealand. The last time it was recorded, the bird was rearing a chick and it was 61 years old!
However, one of the most important adaptations which is directly related to the dynamic soaring flight pattern. For that, their wings have a shoulder locking mechanism that consists of a combination of tendons and muscles, these allow the albatross to lock their wings and keep them open horizontally without the need to flap. In this way they can take advantage of the wind and travel thousands of kilometers. There is a caveat, they need strong winds and it is known that when the wind slows down below 18 km the albatrosses sit and wait in the water for the wind conditions to improve for them (or worsen for the boats!)
Due to their remote habitat and natural history, these birds are difficult to see, however, trips to Antarctica, (especially during the crossing through the Drake Pass) offer us the unique opportunity to come across one of the birds most wonderful on the planet, the Wandering Albatross!
I hope you enjoy the article. Please let me know if you have any questions or comments.
Stay healthy and strong and go birding as much as you can!
Love and joy!