The Fascinating Zoology (and mythos) of the Majestic Wandering Albatross

Diomedeaexulans, aka the Wandering Albatross, are the largest species in the Diomedea genus. They have specialized wings that allow them to glide across the open ocean for days or weeks at a time. Between long journeys, Wandering Albatrosseslive in colonies along subarctic islands. These majestic seabirds enjoy rich colony lives, but have had varying luck with humans.

Wandering Albatross in the water
Image by Bernard Spragg

1. The Average Wandering Albatross Flies 120,000km in One Year

It’s typical for a wandering albatross to fly 120,000km (75,000 miles) in a single year. This is equal to circumnavigating the entire Southern Ocean three times over. These sea birds can fly 40km/hr, and 950km/day. The species name exulan is Latin for “exile” or “wanderer”, so whoever named them made the right choice.

Recent Studies Suggest that Most Albatross Species Can Sleep During Flight

A tired wandering albatross can sleep while floating on a calm sea. However, this leaves them vulnerable to hungry sharks and whales. Scientists are coming around to the idea that albatrosses can sleep while gliding, since gliding requires so little effort once the albatross is in the air. But all evidence so far is circumstantial.

2. The Average Wandering Albatross Wingspan Is 3 Meters

The average snowy albatross is between 1 - 1.3 meterslong. That is, until it expands its powerful wings. The average snowy albatross wingspan is about 3 meters. Some wandering albatross wingspans canreach 3.5 meters. A Wandering Albatross Size Comparison can put this inperspective. The average NBA player is201cm tall, but has an arm span that barely reaches 2 meters.

3. Wandering Albatrosses Fly by Gliding Instead of Flapping

Wandering Albatrosses fly using a process called dynamic soaring. They stretch their wings and lock them into gliding position. They fly in wide arcs, swooping downwind near the water and catching the updrafts off the waves to fly back up. So wandering albatrosses use the energy of the wind to fly, rather than their own. They can fly for hours without having to flap their wings.

4. Wandering Albatross Wings are Adapted for Slow Movements and Long Flights

Wandering Albatross wing muscles are suited for making small, slow adjustments while in flight. Their muscles have more slow-twitch fibers than fast-twitch fibers. Slow-twitch fibers are better for endurance gliding. Fast-twitch fibers are better for bursts of flapping. The big downside to slow-twitch fibers is that takeoff is very awkward. An albatross usually prefers to make their nest near the end of a cliff to catch the wind and take off more easily.

Hiker Albatross sits on the shore
Image by DocAC

Wandering Albatross Wings Are Long and Narrow, like the Wings of Jet Planes

Wandering albatrosses have long and narrow wings. These wings create much less turbulence than short and wide wings, so flights are much smoother. Engineers call these wings “high aspect ratio”. Aerospace engineers prefer to design wings for jet planes that are similar to wandering albatross wings.

The wandering Albatross flies over the ocean
Image by Ed Dunens

5. Snowy Albatrosses Hunt by Floating on the Ocean Waves.

Snowy albatrosses will fly up to 1000km just for one meal.  Luckily, their method of hunting isn’t very stressful. A snowy albatross will float on the ocean waves, watching the surface closely. When prey swims near the surface, the albatross will quickly grab it with its bill. Snowy albatrosses usually eat schooling fish, squid, and krill.

Image by Monterey Bay Aquarium

Snowy Albatrosses Circle Fishing Boats Hoping to Catch Fish Guts

For centuries seamen were mystified by the giant snowy albatrosses circling around their boats. However, the albatrosses had a very practical reason for stalking ships. When crewmen gutted fish, theythrew the entrails, called offals, back into the sea. Wandering albatrosses would then land along the waves to feast on the discarded remains.

6. A Special Gland Balances All the Salt Water A Wandering Albatross Takes In

Wandering Albatrosses have a special gland above their nasal passage. This gland secretes a high saline solution to regulate the bird’s salt levels. Albatrosses take in a lot of saltwater during the hunt, and this special gland prevents their salt intake from harming them.

Wandering Albatross
Image by Ed Dunens

7. Wandering Albatrosses Live in Colonies on SubArctic Islands

Although wandering albatrosses spend most of their time soaring over the ocean, they still belong to colonies. These colonies are native to subarctic island groups. The population is scattered across five groups of Islands.

  1. South Georgia Island
  2. Prince Edward Islands
  3. Crozet Islands
  4. Kerguelen Islands
  5. Macquarie Island

Nearly half (40%) of all wandering albatrosses belong to colonies on the Prince Edward Islands.

8. A Wandering Albatross Usually Lives Between 35 and 50 Years in the Wild

Wandering Albatrosses are incredibly large and powerful, which means they don’t have any natural predators. And they enjoy long lives because of it. A wandering albatross will live between thirty-five and fifty years. Some live past 50, and one wandering albatross in New Zealand lived until sixty.

9. White-Winged Albatrosses Become Whiter as They Age

White-Winged Albatrosses are actually born with brown plumage. Every time a wandering albatross molts, the feathers grow whiter than before. Albatrosses will first become white on their back.  With each molt, the white feathers grow near the middle of the wings, and the brown spots recede to the edges.  Males become fully white as they age.  Females become white enough to distinguish them from other species.

Wandering Albatross flying
Image by Ben

10. Wandering Albatrosses have a Biannual Breeding Cycle

Wandering Albatrosses only mate once every two years. Albatrosses are monogamous, and usually return to the same partner each cycle. The male returns to the colony, and the female lays the single egg in December or January. It will hatch 11 weeks later, unless stolen by a predator or knocked off a cliff. In that case, the mates will wait until the next reproductive cycle two years later to try again. So the population grows very slowly.

Image by BBC America

Before Breeding, Wild Albatrosses Engage in Elaborate Ritualsto Attract Mates

When a male wandering albatross reaches sexual maturity, he will build a nest and begin trying to attract a mate. Standing atop his nest, the male will moan, grunt, and squeal. When a female flies over, the two will hold up their wings to posture while squawking at each other. The male may “skycall.” The two will also tap their bills together as a way of fencing. Other wandering albatrosses will join in. However, it could take years of rituals before albatrosses finally mate.

11. Members of the Maori Tribe Used Wandering Albatross Bones to Make Flutes

Maori people are the indigenous population of mainland New Zealand. WanderingAlbatrosses are much more common sites in New Zealand, because of their proximity to the Southern Ocean. Maoris hunted the wandering albatross as food. They valued the bones of the bird because they are lightweight but strong. Maoris carved the bones into koauau, small notchless flutes.  

One Anonymous Seamen called the Albatross “The Most Legendary of Birds”

The Wandering Albatrossfascinated European sailors.  Birds twice their size circling the ship for days on end were no doubt a terrifying sight.  Before the animals were studied closely, seamen thought the birds had supernatural abilities because they had never seen birds fly without flapping their wings.  One legend even claimed that each albatross carried the soul of a dead sailor.

Never, Under Any Circumstances, Shoot a Wandering Albatross With a Crossbow

Some sailors believed that the albatross protected and guided ships. The family name Diomedea honors a classic Greek hero who received divine guidance and protection. In Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime Of the Ancient Mariner, a sea captain shoots an albatross that guides his ship to safety. The ship becomes stranded, and every crew member dies. The Captain survives but is cursed to wander the Earth telling the story of his folly.

sea captain shoots an albatross
Image by Terry

How endangered is this animal?

There are only 26,000 Wandering Albatrosses Left in the Wild

The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies the wandering albatross as a vulnerable species. Although it is not yet listed as endangered, the population declines by 1% every year. By the end of the century, the Wandering Albatross could be extinct.  

  • Long Line Fishing Has Reduced the Wandering Albatross Population
    Human activity has still been detrimental to the wandering albatross population.  Longline fishing involves throwing out long lines with thousands of baited hooks into the ocean, leaving it be for a period, and then pulling up whatever was caught. Since the hooks are close to the surface of the ocean, many albatrosses become hooked, and drown when the line goes underwater.
  • Illegal Overfishing Is Largely to Blame for Long Line Wandering Albatross Deaths
    The majority of longline fisheries that kill Wandering Albatrosses are illegally overfishing for “Chilean Sea Bass” in the Southern Ocean. Fisheries that are under-recording or not recording their catches layout so many long lines that they can kill several albatrosses at a time. While some countries, like the United States, try to regulate the Chilean Sea Bass industry, the trade is too large to track everything.



Also Known As

Snowy Albatross, White-winged Albatross


107 - 135 cm(42 - 53 inch), 5.9 to 12.7 kg(130 - 280 lb)


South Georgia Island, Crozet Islands, Kerguelen Islands, Prince Edward Islands, and Macquarie Island


Peat soils, tussock grass, sedges, mosses, and shrubs


Squid or schooling fish


Up to 50 years

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