Nothing is more spectacular than an albatross aloft. Often within half an hour of leaving the Gippsland Lakes and sailing in Bass Strait, these giant seabirds make their appearance. They use their formidable wingspans, from 2 to 3.5m, to ride the ocean winds and can glide for hours effortlessly, without rest or even a flap of their wings. But did you know that of the 21 species of albatross living in the Southern hemisphere, 19 are endangered, and the other 2 are considered vulnerable? This reminds us of the ultimate fragility of these iconic creatures. They are the victims of many human-induced factors, such as ocean pollution, climate change and alien predators introduced to their breeding islands. But most of all they are dying due to the activities of long line fishing fleets.
We are always in awe of these sky sailors, even more so when we know their numbers are dwindling. They skim the surface, gliding across wave fronts, gaining energy from the wind gradient. They turn into wind, rise in an arc, tilting their huge wings one way then the other, then lower themselves back down to within a few centimetres of the water… And over and over this smooth rhythm flows. The stronger the wind, the more the albatrosses seem in their element, wings taut, feathers smooth and streamlined, their entire body a perfection of aerodynamics. If the wind abates, they sit on the water patiently waiting, and give us a chance to observe them with the binoculars or the camera as we sail silently past them.
Of the 21 species that exist in our hemisphere, we have seen about five different ones, but have only been able to photograph three of the species. Here is a little bit of information about these.
The shy albatross
Albatross Island in North West Tasmania is home to this Australian endemic albatross. Its mantle, tail and upper wings are grey-black, the rest of the body is white, the underwing is also white but with a black border and a characteristic black thumb mark at the base of the leading edge. The bill is greyish with a prominent yellow tip. They are medium size, with a 2.4m wingspan. The shy albatross is the one we see most often. Over the years we have collected a few beautiful photos of their chiselled look and sensational dynamic soaring action.
The black-browed albatross
This albatross breeds on sub-antarctic and antarctic islands such as Heard and Macquarie Island. They migrate northwards after the breeding season and can be seen around South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania and Bass Strait. A distinctive feature is the dark grey or black brow which gives the impression of a constant frown. This albatross has a dark grey saddle and upper wings which contrast with the white rump and underparts. The under-wings are predominantly white with broad, irregular black margins. The bill is yellow-orange. With a 2.1 to 2.5m wingspan, this is a medium size albatross.
The Indian yellow-nosed albatross
Breeding on Armsterdam Island, near Madagscar, this albatross disperses throughout the Southern Indian Ocean to Western Australia, and sometimes eastwards across the Tasman Sea. Although small with only a 1.8 to 2m wingspan, this is a striking bird with its conspicuous yellow streak ending in a pink tip along the top of a black bill. This albatross has a white head and nape, a dark grey upper wing and tail, and white rump and white under wing with a black margin. We were incredibly lucky to see several of these around Wilson’s Promontory in autumn 2013.
Some interesting facts
The glide ratio of an albatross is amazing at 22:1. This means that for every meter they drop they can travel forward 22 meters. On a glide their wings are fully extended and locked in position by a sheet of tendons which allow them to fly without expending muscle effort. The most demanding aspects of flying is not the distance covered, but the landings, take offs and hunting when they find a food source. The albatross is built to glide, but is unsuited to sustained flapping. In calm seas it is forced to rest on the ocean’s surface, waiting for the wind to pick up. Launches are a heavy awkward affair, but an ideal time for photography! Check out the take-off series below of a Shy Albatross. We were sailing slowly past, with just enough breeze to fill our sails, but not enough for this albatross who was resting on the surface – till we got too close to him! Click on the first photo to display the series in full screen.
Bird watching is gratifying, but observing albatrosses is simply extraordinary. There are of course several more types of albatrosses we would love to see and photograph. We will just have to make this search for different species an on-going project when cruising Southern waters or the Tasman Sea. We have our favourite, which is yours?