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PONDER Blog

A Rookery of Albatrosses

Chelsea Behymer

 The original wanderer. Tasman Sea.

The original wanderer. Tasman Sea.

I felt like a teenager seeing her celebrity idol in the flesh. Waking up to see the sun rise over a different part of the ocean every day has become something I look forward to, sometimes so much so that I dream of what I might wake up to. Yesterday's wonderful surprise was a pod of Pilot Whales that disappeared as quickly as they presented themselves. Even if wildlife doesn't show, I'm always happy to feel the wind and see the sun light up whatever mood the sky will be for the day: cloudy, clear, or wild. If I'm really lucky, the surprises stick around for awhile. That was the case the day I saw my first (second, third, fourth, and fifth!) Wandering Albatross ever.

 The art of flight has many forms. Hobart, Tasmania. 

The art of flight has many forms. Hobart, Tasmania. 

 The wandering years. Tasman Sea. 

The wandering years. Tasman Sea. 

Of all marine animals, seabirds possess some of the most diverse array of strategies and adaptations for finding food. Some, like penguins, shags, and gannets, can dive beneath the surface of the water to access its food resources. Others, such as some shearwater species, rely on prevailing winds to help carry them to places where food is seasonally abundant. Albatrosses represent one extreme end of the spectrum, and are capable of traveling great distances to encounter any feeding opportunity that presents itself on the vast surface of the open ocean. Like all other true seabirds, they source all of their food from the sea, while land provides the space to breed, raise offspring, and (for some) to moult. Thus, albatross juveniles may spend the first several years of their lives after fledging without setting foot on land, only returning when they are ready to breed. These great gliders will invest all of their energy instead into developing their adult plumage at sea, and when they need to rest, will simply land on the surface of the water. The energetic efficiency of their flight, however, enables them to soar for several days at a time without sleep. 

 Premature plumage. Tasman Sea. 

Premature plumage. Tasman Sea. 

The Wandering Albatross of the Southern Ocean is the largest of all flying birds. With an awesome wingspan of up to 3.5 meters, a single bird has been recorded to fly 6,000 miles in just 12 days. Their expert 'dynamic soaring' is not only impressive to watch, but almost captivating when you know what the form is capable of. The other morning, surrounded only by the ever-changing Tasman Sea, the Solstice was graced with the presence of several albatrosses, or a 'rookery', as I've recently learned is the collective noun for the magnificent birds. Among them were at least two Royal Albatrosses, a Shy Albatross, and (to my delight) the unmistakable mottled plumage of five Wandering Albatrosses at various stages of their sub-adult pelagic lives. Albatrosses have grown increasingly attracted to ships on the ocean, as they often find feeding opportunity in the discarded waste of fishing vessels. While we may have disappointed to that end, the birds stayed with us for hours, likely taking advantage of the lift afforded by the ship's draft. And I in turn, as a wanderer also seeking "food" (brain food in my case) opportunities that present themselves on the open sea, took full advantage of them. Observations not only inform a better understanding , but such a direct experience continues to fuel what has now become more than a passion, but an unapologetic obsession with these original and most inspirational of wanderers and their gliding relatives. Hopefully, you're not tired of reading about them.