Albatrosses are large seabirds characterised by long narrow wings which are designed to make best use of air currents and thermals. There are about 21 species of albatross (scientific opinion varies somewhat on the classification) of which 6 species are to be found in the Southern ocean particularly around the Antarctic Convergence. The Convergence is the place where the cold waters from the Southern Ocean meet the warmer water flowing south from the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. At this point, the ocean is particularly rich in nutrients and therefore also full of fish, squid and krill.
Albatrosses generally form nests on sub-Antarctic islands close to the convergence. They typically raise a single chick which may take up to a year to fledge. Apart from returning to feed the young during a breeding season (which occurs once every two years), albatrosses spend virtually all their life on the wing. They mate for life and in the case of the large varieties this can mean 60 years or more and a total flight distance of nealy 4 million miles. It is not exceptional for an albatross to make a return flight of up to 10,000 miles just to collect food for its chick. Great effort is needed by an albatross to become airborne and to get enough speed to lift off, they need assistance from the wind. Once airborne, their gliding flight is almost effortless as they use winds and thermals to travel enormous distances.
Albatrosses belong to the group of birds in the order known as 'Procellariiformes' or 'Tubenoses' which also include Petrels and Fulmars. The main characteristic is a large horny bill with nostrils enclosed in tubes on each side of the bill. The purpose of this is not known for certain but it is thought that albatrosses have a more advanced sense of smell that many other bird species. It may also be part of the mechanism for the filtration of salt from sea-water.
Most albatross species and all Antarctic species are severely threatened with extinction. The main cause is the practice of long line fishing for tuna and other large fish practised especially by South American fisheries. Albatrosses are attracted by the floating baits on the long lines and, getting caught up in the line, drown.
These pictures are of some of the Antarctic species of albatross in flight. All pictures were taken in November-December 2003. The nesting Wandering Albatross is on Iles Crozet and the chick is probably close to 12 months old and therefore nearly ready to fledge.