The Magnificient Mollymawkes

56°17'S, 160°31'E

February 13, 1795; 47° 83°
Fresh gales with frequent hard Squalls. Ship'd many seas. Some albertrosses & sandpipers round.— from the log of the American fur-trading sloop
Union during its round the world voyage of 1794-1796

"Albertrosses" have been a companion to Southern Ocean seafarers since long before Captain John Boit wrote the preceding entry in his logbook 210 years ago. These magnificent seabirds are true inhabitants of the open ocean. They spend months away from land, drinking seawater and sleeping atop the waves as they wander the southern seas.Albatross

"Albatross" derives from the Spanish "Alcatraz," or pelican, which in turns derives from the Arabic "al-ghattas" (white-tailed sea eagle). The English name was likely influenced by the Latin word for white ("alba"), in reference to the light tail or belly of most albatross species. Early mariners referred to the smaller species of albatross as "mollymawkes," which means "foolish gull" in Dutch.

We have yet to see the largest albatross species, the Wandering Albatross Diomedea exulans or the Royal Albatross D. epomophora. These are the pteranodons of the modern sea, with wings spans of up to 11.5 feet.

But the smaller mollymawkes have been our constant companions since we left Antarctica. These include the Black-Browed Albatross (D. melanophris) and the Light-Mantled Sooty Albatross (Phoebetria palpebrata). These birds are known to follow ships for very long distances, so our escort might hold the same birds that first joined us near Cape Adare, although we suspect that it's been periodically joined or replaced by fresh recruits.

Although mollymawkes are smaller than the Wandering and Royal albatrosses, they are still very large birds, with wingspans up to 8 feet. They can be distinguished from the large petrels by their ability to glide for extended periods. Tonight we clocked a Black-Browed Albatross for thirty minutes as it soared behind the Palmer, and never once saw it beat its wings.

The birds are wonderful acrobats. They exhibit a characteristic flight pattern in which they rise into the wind, coast across it, then dip speedily to leeward and bank to rise once more. They can also glide just above the water surface, even in relatively rough seas, molding their flight path in almost perfect mimicry of the underlying waves.

Because they are rarely seen to leave the air during the day, albatrosses are thought to feed at night, most likely on squid, fish, and krill at the ocean surface. This means they eat the same food as penguins, which fossil evidence suggest are their closest relatives. But in almost every other way, albatrosses and penguins are "polar" opposites. The albatross has become a master of the open air, the penguin has mastered open water.

Fossil evidence suggests that albatrosses and penguins separated from a common, flying ancestor about 60 million years ago. Fossils of early albatrosses and penguins have only been found in the Southern Hemisphere, most notably in New Zealand and Patagonia. Their continued restriction to the Southern Hemisphere (9 of the 11 albatross species and all penguins are restricted to the austral realm) is explained by their dependence on wind and cold water, respectively. It is difficult for albatrosses to soar across the tropical doldrums to the Northern Hemisphere; penguins cannot swim through the tropics' warm waters or equatorial counter-currents.

The nomadic life of the albatross continues even during the breeding and nesting season. Lifetime mates, albatross pairs breed on oceanic islands, where they scratch a shallow, grass- or feather-lined nest for their single egg. Males and females take turns incubating the egg and feeding the chick. While one parent is on the nest, the other glides out to sea to fill its stomach with squid, which it will later regurgitate as an oily broth. These foraging flights can be prolonged. One study recorded a parent bird that traveled 3,200 kilometers (~ 2,000 miles) from its chick. The chicks can thus go for long periods without food and ingest huge amounts of regurgitated oil (up to four pounds) at a single sitting. In human terms that would be like Mom or Dad driving from San Francisco to St. Louis to load the mini-van with a case of Gerber's.

Albatrosses have few natural predators. Their nesting islands are relatively predator-free, save for the skuas and sheathbills that occasionally take an egg or unattended chick. Once they've reached adulthood, albatrosses tend to be long-lived, surviving for up to 50 years. Their biggest threat comes from humans. The birds are attracted to the baited hooks of commercial long-line rigs and frequently become hooked at the surface and then drowned as the lines sink to the depth of the target species. This problem is growing as long-liners push further into southern waters, but a new device that quickly guides the long-line rig into deep water may help minimize the bycatch.

Let's hope it works. These birds deserve another 60 million years of flying free across the Southern Ocean.