Standing on the deck of the Polar Pioneer in Antarctica, there's a good chance that you'll experience bracing polar winds that are powerful, bitterly cold and unrelenting. While it might be hard for you to stand up straight, these winds are perfect for one of region's most impressive birds – the wandering albatross.
In this latest wildlife fact file, we'll give you insight into the life of wandering albatrosses and where you can see them with Aurora Expeditions.
Kings (and queens) of the sky
As their name suggests, wandering albatross spend the bulk of their lives at sea – namely the South Pacific and Southern Oceans. Wandering albatross have the largest wingspan of any bird (up to 3.5m) allowing them to pursue long fishing trips of 10-20 days covering up to 10,000km at a time. The birds will continuously take to the skies for food, soaring above heavy seas and through strong winds for thousands of kilometres to find fish, squid and crustaceans.
To cover this sort of distance in this timeframe, the birds need both a large wingspan and a clever tactical playbook. Wandering albatross use the energy of the wind and height to soar into the conditions and leverage power allowing them to fly across Antarctica with ease.
Although their large wingspan will be the main difference that you can look for in the sky, wandering albatrosses also have a number of other unique identification markers. This includes a white body with black colouring on the wings and a pinkish-salmon coloured bill.
Giant chicks and breeding season
During breeding season (December and January), the adult birds return to their colonies on the various sub-Antarctic islands including South Georgia, Prince Edwards Island, Crozet and Kerguelan Islands.
A breeding pair of wandering albatross mate for life and usually produce one chick every two years. Once on land, the female will nest on an exposed ridge or cliff, protecting the egg with a nest surrounded by vegetation and mud. The parents will then take turns to look after the egg during the incubation period.
Around 11 weeks later, the sub-Antarctic islands will be packed with hungry, giant wandering albatross chicks. With parents that can weigh up to 13kg, chicks emerge well-developed in size which can be a handful for mum and dad! After just 12 months, the chicks (weighing around 12kg) will leave the nest and start their own breeding cycle.
If you're lucky enough to visit a wandering albatross breeding site, you'll no doubt hear a high-pitched trumpeting call as well as a number of other sounds including groans and rattles. Interestingly, wandering albatross are silent at sea – in stark contrast to other Antarctic seabirds such as gulls and mollymawks.
Read more: When is the best time to go to Antarctica?
Population and conservation
Wandering albatrosses are regarded as "vulnerable" with the world population estimated at around 26,000 individual birds. Although the species breed on well-protected islands free of predators, wandering albatrosses are known to be caught in longlines out at sea.
Combine this fact with the unusual two-year breeding cycle and the population is slow to recover from losses. There is a sustained effort from fishing ships in the Southern Ocean to use equipment that all seabirds including wandering albatrosses can't get caught in.
Do you want to see a wandering albatross in full-flight?
There aren't too many birds that match the wandering albatross for size, power and precision flying. As such, it always special to see this species in full-flight ducking and diving above the rough ocean.
If you would like the opportunity to see wandering albatrosses, we have range of Antarctic tours where we venture into their territory. For more information, get in touch with the expert team at Aurora Expeditions today.