Stories & Inspiration

Following the albatross, sentinels of Antarctica

Your first wildlife encounter on an Antarctic trip is often your most poignant. It was for me. I headed south with my head full of thoughts of penguins and whales, not suspecting that the wildlife show would begin almost the moment my ship pulled away from the quay. As soon as we entered the Drake Passage, we were joined by an extraordinary honour guard of birds that accompanied us for days on end. Our constant companions were the albatrosses, the great wanderers of the ocean, who were always there to remind me that however much I had dreamed of Antarctica, the journey was just as important as the destination. 

A black-browed albatross on the wing

Beautiful and aloof, they felt like spirits from another world. It was always a thrill to see them. But as I was also to learn on the trip, albatrosses now face grave threats to their very survival. These sentinels of the sea also need our protection. 

Masters of the air

Every time I headed out on to the viewing deck of the ship, I could see them at play. For me, no bird exists that can match the elegance of an albatross. They follow the ship, gracefully rising in arcs against the skyline, and then sweeping down into the troughs between the waves, skimming so close to the sea that I never quite believed they weren’t going to crash into the water.

A subadult wandering albatross. In time it will become almost pure white

It was all so effortless. Looking closely, I realised they weren’t even moving their wings. Albatrosses are masters of dynamic soaring, catching the updraft of the wind off the waves to gain lift, then turning to glide down again at great speed and repeat the cycle. Why flap when you can steal energy from the wind and waves? Even the sleekest and fastest of expedition cruise ships can feel ponderous when there are albatrosses slicing through the air above you. 

During the passage, I saw half a dozen species of albatross from the ship. The one that we had our eyes out for from the first moment is the wandering albatross. It’s the archetypal albatross, the largest bird in the Southern Ocean, with a wingspan that can reach 13 feet (3.2 metres), though of course it was impossible to fully judge their true size at sea. Wanderers can live for more than 50 years and charmingly seem to age like people, with their initially dark juvenile plumage growing more and more snowy as they age until the oldest birds are almost pure white. 

Eye to eye

It was always tricky for a casual birdwatcher like me to tell the difference between a wanderer and the near identical royal albatross that would sometimes fly alongside us, but I quickly got my eye in with the other species. The grey headed albatrosses were easy enough, with their dove grey hoods and sleek yellow stripe running the length of their bills. Almost every wildlife guide I spoke to on board picked the light mantled albatross as their personal favourite, though they all grumbled that a recent taxonomic change meant they were no longer called by the more charming name of sooty albatross. They were dusty grey with dark heads and a bright white ring around the eye that gave them a zip of personality. Light-mantled albatrosses, you felt, were the ones that had the most fun. 

Light-mantled albatross near South Georgia

But for me, the black-browed albatrosses were the ones that I loved the most. I was getting ready in my cabin one morning when I saw one outside my window, casually keeping pace with the ship, then skipping away on the breeze and reappearing a few minutes later. Some quirk of physics meant that it had found a particularly good wind pocket to fly with and give a seabound observer like me a show. 

They’re stunning birds. Their pure white bodies are crossed by wings of darkest chocolate, but what makes them special are their eyes, surrounded by a smudge of smoky feathers as if applied by nature’s greatest make up artist. It makes them look eternally aloof, members of an exclusive club that humans could never hope to join. As the bird kept track of the ship, continually disappearing and reappearing, it was a keen reminder that we were only passing through its domain. 

Close encounters

Later on in the trip I was able to see black-browed albatrosses even closer. We called in at West Point on the Falkland Islands, which is home to a colony of around 2000 pairs of them. They nest amid the tussac grass on a point overlooking the sea. I followed a path through the grass until I emerged to a viewing point just metres away from them. The birds – sitting on tall mud pot nests – seemed thoroughly unbothered by my presence. 

The black-browed albatross colony at West Point on the Falkland Islands

It was a privilege to watch them up so close, preening and adjusting their single eggs with feet that seemed as large and unwieldy as paddles. From time to time, a bird’s partner would arrive to take over incubation duties and let its other half return to the sea. Like all albatrosses, black-browed albatrosses mate for life. Each returning partner was greeted with a charming display of open wings, bobbing heads and rubbing beaks. This pair-bonding behaviour begins at the first time they meet, and is renewed every time they return to land. Every albatross knows that long-term relationships require looking after.  

A black-browed albatross pair getting reacquainted

Once their chicks are raised, the birds return to their ceaseless wandering. A newly fledged albatross might spend years at sea, never returning to land until it becomes old enough to find a mate for itself. Until then it will circle the globe with effortless flight, using its keen sense of smell to find feeding grounds rich in squid and fish. Could the albatrosses that followed my ship picked up a scent that suggested lunch, I wondered?

Under threat

Unfortunately, it’s not expedition cruise ships that albatrosses especially love to follow: they  make wide detours to find fishing fleets. Easy meals here make albatrosses prone to getting hooked by the long-lines deployed by fishing vessels, with tens of thousands of birds killed every year. According to the conservation charity BirdLife International, 15 of the 22 albatross species worldwide are currently under threat from extinction as a result. 

Raising the next generation of black-browed albatrosses

One problem is that albatross populations can be hard to get a fix on. Surveying a colony like West Point is one thing, but it’s another matter entirely to understand where albatrosses actually spend more than 99% of their time. I was thrilled then that my ship offered the chance to take part in the Southern Ocean Seabird Survey, a citizen science project run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York. By logging our sightings on the high seas, we could better help conservationists understand their distribution patterns, and where they might be at particular risk. 

As we ticked off the species, the ship’s birding guide also explained that there are actually simple solutions to the threats that fishing fleets pose to albatrosses. BirdLife’s Albatross Task Force has developed simple techniques for reducing this dreadful bycatch, training vessels in best practices including the use of bird scaring lines with bright streamers, setting lines at night and weighting lines better to make hooks sink faster. Where applied, such measures have been shown to reduce albatross mortality by as much as 98%. Recently, such measures have been successfully introduced in Argentina and Chile, offering hope for many of the birds that can be seen while crossing the Drake Passage. When we called in at South Georgia, where light mantled and grey headed albatrosses could be seen nesting on the cliffs in great numbers, it was a relief to learn that the fisheries here are some of the most tightly regulated and patrolled waters in the world. 

As our ship approached Antarctica and the temperature fell even further, the albatrosses started to drift away. They had performed their task and safely guided us south, and left us to continue their endless flight. Only a few petrels remained with us; we had arrived in the land of the penguin. But I looked forward to seeing them on our return voyage. Just like Antarctica itself, they were a reminder of just how beautiful but fragile our planet can be – and what we must do to protect it. 


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Paul Clammer

Guidebook Editor

Paul came to Swoop after spending nearly 20 years researching and writing guidebooks for Lonely Planet. On his most recent trip for Swoop, he fell in love with the epic landscapes and uncountable wildlife of South Georgia.