Albatrosses, sovereigns of the skies and of the oceans
What a magnificent bird!
Albatrosses are elegant birds. They are famous, among other things, for their ability to float in the air for hours. They can be seen floating on air, falling from the sky, or cutting through the waves. The secrets of their flight are at least two: the perfect aerodynamic body shape and the wing size (the Wandering Albatross wingspan is up to three times that of its body length). These extraordinary birds are able to fly against very strong winds, even without moving their wings, using only the air currents around them. They can circumnavigate the Earth, from West to East, floating, leaving themselves at the mercy of storms (in fact they are called sometimes the birds of the storm). Unfortunately, although they are the true princes of the air, in the absence of the wind these birds are almost helpless on the water surface.
Albatrosses are the largest flying birds on the planet (after the Andean Condor) and they can be found in almost all the oceans of the world: nine species live in the Southern hemisphere, three in the North Pacific and one in the tropics. One of these species nests in Hawaii and regularly migrates to New Zealand. An albatross can fly about 500 kilometres daily.
Unfortunately, at least two species (Steller's albatross and Diomedea) are endangered. Many birds have been killed by feathers collectors and some other harsh living conditions (like volcanoes). For example, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Japanese were famous for their industry based on exotic feathers, increasingly demanded by women fashion. The result was a real massacre of albatrosses, in many places. Steller's albatross was almost exterminated by these collectors. Humans used to kill the nesting birds with sticks. Only between 1887-1903, about a million albatrosses were killed in this barbarian way. But humans are not their only enemy. Other albatrosses were killed by numerous and powerful volcanic eruptions. Other threats come from some animals (rats, cats, meerkats, pigs and others), or the ocean fishing. So the dangers have multiple causes.
Albatrosses being eternal rovers of the oceans, as a general rule they stay away from the shores. However, there is at least one exception: Australia. The birds have learned, in time, to go beyond the continental shelf in order to feed themselves. In the same time, albatrosses have learned that each year during July - August, the Australian region is full of a huge variety of shellfish. This was a delicious discovery for them.
In the same time, trying to get some food, some species of albatrosses can be submerged to depths of 4-5 meters. Because these birds live long and have a good memory, they return each year in the geographic areas that are plentiful of tasty food. Besides, their good memory has been tested in other circumstances too. A Diomedea that was moved from Midway Island (Pacific Ocean) to the Philippines (a distance of at least 6600 km), it has returned to its nest after 32 days.
As I said, albatrosses are long-lived birds, they have many longevity records in the world of birds. Most albatrosses reach the age of 50 years (the oldest I heard about is a Northern Royal Albatross, 61 years).
Their special flight and their age are not the only curiosities about albatrosses. They can change the sea water into fresh water, only with the help of their nostrils. But researchers don't know yet what is the chemical process of this transformation.
More than that, like swans, pelicans, crows and some other birds of prey, albatrosses are monogamous. They look for another partner only if their pair dies accidentally or was murdered.
Many authors have referred to albatrosses as the most legendary birds. The term albatross has a direct reference to some human important concepts such as freedom, nostalgia, spiritual ascent, evolution and some others. More than that, in the world of sailors there is an expression: "Wearing an albatross around someone's neck", with direct reference to a myth in which a sailor who had killed (accidentally or not) an albatross was punished by his comrades to stay for a few days with that albatross around his neck. There is a logic in this myth.
According to sailor tradition, albatrosses bring luck and unwritten laws prohibit the killing or injury of such flying masters over rough seas. Similarly, according to another old sailing belief, majestic albatrosses are nothing but souls of the drowned sailors.
Albatrosses in Poetry
"The most legendary of all birds" could be found not only in the natural world, but in the literature as well. Albatross is a central character in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's longest major poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. A captive albatross is used as a metaphor in another poem written by the French poet Charles Baudelaire.
Things we must remember about albatrosses
Of the 21known species of albatrosses, 19 are threatened with extinction. Many albatross species are in trouble and need our help. Fishing is considered the greatest threat to the survival of many albatross species. Other threats include loss of habitat, predators, eating or becoming tangled up in plastic, oil spills and climate change.