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A Black-browed Albatross soars over the Southern Ocean.
Photo: Chris Johnson

May 2, 2002
"Albatrosses Living on the Wing and Dependent on Dolphins"
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When one is in the presence of a grand and sovereign wind, it is fitting that the ultimate sailors should be there to ride it. We have just entered the Southern Ocean where wind rules, and which is the mother lode of albatrosses-by any account this planet's ultimate sailors, and sailors as I pointed out last time not just in two dimensions but in three. Since we arrived here, I have been watching albatrosses from aboard Odyssey, but the place I have seen them most is in Patagonia where I have been studying right whales for the past 32 years at Peninsula Valdes in southern Argentina.

I hope I never have to live for many years without seeing albatrosses. It is one of the things that makes travel, particularly to the southern hemisphere, most worth it. If you have never seen an albatross flying over the open ocean I will not be able properly to explain to you why they are so magnificent. But there is really nothing more impressive to see in its element, than an albatross soaring without flapping, as it stitches back and forth across a hazy, wind-streaked, white-capped ocean-weaving, soaring, wheeling effortlessly by the hour, the day, or for all one knows, the week-in any case as long as there is wind. They are creatures of the wind more than any other animal on earth. They use it, live in it, ride it across oceans, or circle the globe on it, as they travel through the roaring forties, the frantic fifties or the screaming sixties, and all… without apparent effort.

A curious thing has emerged from my many hundreds of hours spent watching albatrosses in Peninsula Valdes Argentina where our study on right whales takes place: it finally occurred to me that except for one special circumstance, I had never ever seen an albatross descend to the water's surface and pick up anything. That special circumstance happens only when dusky dolphins surround a school of anchoetas (a sardine-sized fish found locally) in order to feed on them. Competition among seabirds is at its height when dolphins have corralled several barrelsful of anchoetas and driven them to the surface. The kelp gulls collect so thickly there is no room for later arrivals to land on the water, so they just land on the backs of the earlier arrivals, stabbing at fish between the shoulders of the birds on whose bodies they are standing. Such "feeding swarms," as we called them, usually contain a progression of bird species. First come terns of a couple of species flying along above the dolphin schools, tracking the shallowest individuals. It is the terns that get to the fish the dolphins have corralled first. They are followed a few seconds later by gulls of three species who kick the terns out and take over. But in a few more minutes, cormorants, penguins, skuas, and finally black-browed albatrosses arrive. The albatrosses are bigger than all the other birds in the swarms so they drive everyone else away. There is no doubt that albatrosses are then successful in catching fish in the feeding swarms; if you approach in a fast boat the albatrosses that are lounging about on the surface where a swarm has just broken they will regurgitate their catch of totally fresh and sometimes still wriggling anchoetas as they take off.

It is not just albatrosses that supplant smaller birds in the feeding swarms, every species visiting the swarms does so as well. This means that each bird species really only gets a few seconds or minutes in which to feed before it is supplanted and must give way to others and go search for the next swarm. Fortunately, once the dolphins start feeding on anchoetas they usually corral several schools in the course of an hour, so the smaller birds get several chances). Given that this is the only circumstance in which I have ever seen the black browed albatrosses feed, it looks as though they may be dependent on dolphins for creating feeding opportunities for them in winter at Valdes.

There are many days on which the albatrosses are not visible from the cliff hut. The same is true of the dusky dolphins. We keep track of days in which we see dolphins and days in which we see albatrosses. We find that the presence of albatrosses is highly correlated with the presence of dolphins. Because black-browed albatrosses cover long distances when soaring, they are often several miles from their dolphins, but they must be keeping their eyes on them for they streak over to join the dolphins whenever the dolphins start corralling fish or whenever the terns start diving for them. Because of that, I am now convinced that around Península Valdés in winter black-browed albatrosses are dependent on dusky dolphins to find their food. I suspect that if anything ever happens to the dolphins it will fare poorly with the albatrosses.

Given that they never drop down to the surface unless the wind dies or until their school of dolphins creates a feeding opportunity, one might ask why black browed albatrosses soar, why not just wait on the water's surface for the dolphins to find fish. I think the answer is hinted at by the fact that in the winter these albatrosses sometimes soar over the desert ground at Península Valdés. This is rare but it sometimes goes on for minutes or even hours. There is presumably nothing of any possible interest to a black-browed albatross on the semideserts of Península Valdés. They nest nowhere near the peninsula, and the season is wrong anyway. They don't need freshwater (they have salt glands in their heads with which they can remove the salt from the seawater they drink) and they have never been reported feeding on land. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the albatrosses simply prefer to live on the wing, passing their time there, waiting aloft for the dolphins to find fish. Perhaps they do this because it is safer for them to be airborne than it is to rest on the water's surface. Sharks are known to kill young albatrosses near their nesting grounds. Albatrosses truly seem to soar in order to remain airborne-a bit like the Red Queen in Alice and Wonderland who had to keep moving in order to stay in one place. When the wind comes up after a spell of calm weather the albatrosses can be seen taking to the air once again, to resume their endless gliding about-but never alighting. It is tempting to conclude that albatrosses simply soar for the sport of it.

This is Roger Payne speaking to you from the Odyssey.

(c) 2002 Written by Roger Payne

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