We’d ventured offshore, to the edge of the Continental Shelf, searching for whales. The seas were building, and wind-whipped whitecaps exploded into foamy shreds. As we were debating a return to port, someone shouted, “Albatross!” Squinting, we could just make out its slender form, gliding low above the green sea. The huge dark bird wheeled to approach us, unperturbed by the tumbled waves just below. It circled, curious, playing hide and seek behind the wave crests, but always returning. This was a Black-footed Albatross, Phoebastria nigripes, a large gull-shaped seabird. It had flown thousands of miles from its Hawai’ian home to feast on the seafood bounty of Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. It was worthwhile checking out.
Black-footed Albatross, and their cousins the Laysan Albatross, are regular visitors to our sanctuary waters. Migrating from nesting grounds in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Northwest Hawai’ian Islands, they range across the North Pacific, including to Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary; and Cordell Bank sanctuary, a submerged island off Point Reyes world-famous for its albatross aggregations. Of the two species, Black-footeds are by far the more commonly seen.
The albatross is a creature of the sky. Graceful on the wing, it is ungainly on land where it spends only about five percent of its life. Land is for courtship and chick-rearing. Scientists have satellite-tracked Black-footeds traveling round-trip between Cordell Bank and their Hawaiian nests - over 3,000 miles direct - in just a few weeks. Albatross expert Peter Harrison estimated an albatross flies 500-600 miles in a single day, and over its lifetime, equivalent to eighteen round trips to the moon. It can sustain speeds of over 80 miles per hour.
Albatross are masters of dynamic soaring: Their long, slender wings catch updrafts from the waves below. Locking wing bones permit continuous, unconscious gliding. They employ alternating lift and gravity, using shallow undulations to gain velocity. They are elegant fixed-wing aircraft of feather, bone and muscle, crossing vast ocean basins with minimum energy expenditure.
The Black-footed Albatross is dusky brown overall, with white around its dark eyes and bill, and under its tail. And, of course, black feet. Their wingspans reach six to seven feet.
Albatrosses mate for life. If a mate dies, another partner may be taken - avian serial monogamy. A single egg, produced every one or two years, hatches after about 65 days. Both parents incubate it. Chicks hatch around mid-January, and dine on a regurgitated slurry of oil, semi-digested fish and squid, and roe. Fledging occurs in June or July.
Black-footeds live at least 40 years. A tagged Laysan named “Wisdom,” returned to Midway at age 67+ recently, and produced another egg! (Wisdom’s cousin “Al” - the quirky, quixotic, beloved Laysan Albatross of Point Arena Cove, may be of a similarly impressive age.) See video on Wisdom at https://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwspacific/24527848641/in/dateposted-public/
Status: At the turn of the last century millions were killed for their fashionable feathers, or by introduced rats, pigs, cats, and other predators. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1916 was the first major effort to protect them internationally. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates Black-footeds’ population worldwide at about 138,808. Current threats include pollution, ingestion of plastics, storm-related inundation of nesting sites, even tsunamis. Recent data suggests that this species is not undergoing rapid declines, as once thought, and is either stable or increasing. However, modelling of the likely effects of mortality caused by longline fishing fleets, combined with potential losses to breeding colonies from sea-level rise and storm surges, prompted IUCN to precautionarily predict a moderately rapid population decline over the next three generations; hence its reclassification as Near Threatened rather than Least Concern. Greater Farallones works to help ensure their survival. Visit https://farallones.noaa.gov and learn how.