When photographer Chris Fallows spotted this southern giant petrel (Macronectes giganteus) feasting on a dead Antarctic fur seal pup (Arctocephalus gazella) near South Georgia Island, he knew to keep his distance. The species has a memorable defense strategy, Fallows says. Young petrels in the nest will often projectile vomit foul-smelling stomach oil if a daring wildlife photographer or other perceived threat gets too close.

Spending much of their lives in the frigid Antarctic, these long-distance migrants endure a tough existence, on both land and the high seas. To survive, southern giant petrels must consume more calories than almost any other bird on the planet, so their feeding habits are necessarily versatile. The birds’ massive, curved beaks enable them to rip open carcasses and gorge on the entrails of seals and whales that wash ashore. They’re also known to feed on squid, krill, and fish in the open ocean, and can be fearsome birds of prey, attacking penguins and other seabirds in pursuit of a meal.

But their nearly insatiable quest for flesh also puts petrels in harm’s way. Although they live far from human population centers, the meat they scavenge from animals near the top of the food chain typically contains high levels of heavy metals and other contaminants, including flame retardant and DDT. Southern giant petrels also frequently trail fishing boats in search of scraps and other easy meals. Enticed by baited hooks, they can become entangled in nylon fishing lines and drown. In the late 1990s, nearly 4,000 giant petrels were killed in just two years of unregulated long-lining in the Patagonia toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) fishery.

To mitigate this accidental catch, international agreements (like the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels) have since urged fishermen to work at night when the birds are less active, and to use weighted lines that sink beneath the surface. While some giant petrel colonies have continued to decline, the global population has rebounded in recent years. Listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature during the early 2000s, the species was upgraded in 2009 to a status of Least Concern.

South Georgia Island

Chris Fallows

Chris Fallows has worked with sharks for some 25 years. In 1996, he and a colleague were the first to observe and document the incredible breaching behavior of great white sharks at Seal Island, near Cape Town, South Africa. Since then, along with his wife Monique, Fallows has hosted or facilitated some 50 international television documentaries showcasing this spectacular behavior. He owns and operates Apex Shark Expeditions, a wildlife company that specializes in providing guests with opportunities to observe white sharks engaged in natural hunting behavior. When not photographing marine wildlife, Fallows and his wife spend most of their time traveling and taking pictures throughout Southern Africa and other global wildlife hotspots.

Katie Jewett

Katie Jewett

Katie Jewett is a science writer, producer, and communications manager at the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions where she loves learning something new every day about our planet. Previously, she spent winters in the Colorado Rockies and summers living and working on the water.

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