Seven Worlds, One Planet

Getting to know the grey-headed albatross

Taking flight with this record-holding bird.

Its name might sound a little plain, but the grey-headed albatross is the most extraordinary bird.

A grey-headed albatross chick
A grey-headed albatross chick. © BBC Studios
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Grey-headed albatrosses are solitary creatures. They can cover distances of up to 13,000km in search of food and spend the majority of their lives at sea. Living on average to 35 years of age, there are an estimated 250,000 grey-headed albatross left in the world today, according to the Red List.

Not only a majestic bird, the grey-headed albatross is a literal a world record holder! In 2003, The Guinness Book of Records gave them the title of world’s fastest horizontal flier. With a colossal wingspan of 2.2m, they can fly at speeds of up to 127km per hour and can circumnavigate the globe in just a little over a month.

Although they spend most of their life at sea, the grey-headed albatross return to land to breed. Parents build cone shaped nests out of mud and grass, on slopes or cliffs in preparation for the single egg females lay each October. Mum and dad take turns incubating the egg, although the majority of this task will be performed by the male. After hatching, chicks spend four and a half months on land, before taking flight and spending its first six to seven years at sea. When these hatchlings finally return to land, they return to the same colony where they were born.

Scientists track the population during mating season, but things aren’t looking good for this incredible bird. South Georgia, an island in the South Atlantic Ocean, is the largest breeding stronghold of grey-headed albatross, but the breeding population here has suffered a catastrophic decline.

According to BirdLife International, since 1977, numbers have more than halved, and over the last decade the decline has accelerated to a worrying 5% a year, which is faster than any other albatross species.

A recent cause for this decline is bycatch - when excess volumes of marine life are caught accidentally in fishing nets, primarily longline nets which can stretch to up to 80 miles in length. In the Indian Ocean, illegal or unregulated fishing for Patagonian Toothfish killed an estimated 10,000-20,000 albatrosses (mainly grey-headed albatross) in 1997 and 1998.

Another reason for this significant cause is a more long-term issue, climate change. Rising sea-surface temperatures have resulted in food shortages, which indicates that periodic temperature extremes are, at least, a contributing factor. Climate change has also led to more extreme weather in the region, including high winds, which can prove deadly to young chicks.

However, steps are being taken to try and reverse his decline. On Bird Island, a small island off the coast of South Georgia, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) have a long-term monitoring programme. They teamed up with BirdLife International to solve an ongoing mystery, where do the chicks go once they leave the island? Attaching electronic tags to 16 fledglings, the team tracked what followed. Tragically, seven of the chicks never left the island. They were killed by giant petrels and skuas, which target young albatrosses.

The other nine travelled to waters fished heavily by the Japanese fishing industry. BAS, in collaboration with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), aims to enhance marine protections. These include reducing rates of bycatch, particularly in albatross breeding hotspots and to establish new marine Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBA) around South Georgia.

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