Keeping the Magic Alive
A black-browed albatross’s call in mating season sounds about as raucous as a drunken sailor singing a sea shanty, but these massive birds are among the world’s most tender and devoted lovers. The species—Thalassarche melanophris, from the Greek melanos for black and ophrus for eyebrow—generally mate for life, conducting elaborate rituals while getting to know one another and for years after. When birds that live as long as 70 years get together at ages as young as 7, after all, it’s important to keep the magic alive.
Conservation photographer Doug Gimesy captured this pair of black-browed albatrosses touching beaks on West Point Island in the Falkland Islands, 250 miles off the coast of Argentina in the South Atlantic. When the birds reunite after one has returned from foraging at sea to take over care for offspring, as with these two, they may spend more than an hour grooming each other, nibbling beaks, dancing, and calling. In addition to reenforcing bonds, some scientists have found that the preening portion of this display may convey important information about the physical condition of the returning mate so that the departing bird knows how long it can be away on its search for food.
The birds’ journeys over the globe’s vast southern oceans have long been mysterious. They come to land only to breed, and otherwise are far out over the water, staying aloft for hours without flapping their long, straight wings that can reach spans of 7.5 feet—still among the smallest of the albatrosses. In 2009, though, a group of researchers managed to capture a glimpse of black-browed albatrosses’ secret lives by mounting lipstick-sized cameras to the backs of four birds. Of the nearly 29,000 images that resulted, most show only “featureless” ocean. But one bird repeatedly encountered icebergs. Another captured a poetic shot of a glowing orb of light in blackest night that is either a fishing boat or the moon. And still another tailed a small group of fellow albatrosses drafting a killer whale, likely scoping for scraps. The overall impression of the photographs is silent serenity; perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that the birds’ heart rates while flying are often the same as while in repose on the nest.
From 2003 to 2013, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classified the black-browed albatross as globally endangered. Sailors of old believed they were bad luck to kill, but still did so, using their foot webbing for tobacco pouches and their hollow leg bones for pipe stems. Others collected their plumes and eggs. But the primary recent threat is commercial fishing around the Patagonian Shelf, South Georgia Island, southern Africa, and other parts of the southern oceans. Attracted by the offal used as bait, black-browed albatrosses died by the thousands each year as bycatch in both longline and trawl fisheries.
But requirements for bird-safe fishing lines, with streamers that deter birds from landing in the catch zones of fishing boats—as well as weights that sink hooks out of range—seem to have made a big difference. Albatross mortality fell by as much as 95 percent in one South African fishery after bird-safety measures were adopted. In 2017, the IUCN downgraded the black-browed albatross to a species of least concern. Their population seems to be increasing nearly range-wide, with an estimated 1.4 million mature individuals. The Falklands host the largest population during breeding season: up to 535,000 breeding pairs amid the archipelago’s 700-plus islands and islets.
There are new signs of trouble, though. Warming ocean temperatures can disrupt the birds’ food sources, including the krill upon which much of the southern marine food web rests. In 2021, researcher Francesco Ventura and his colleagues published a study suggesting that years with anomalously warm sea surface temperatures correlate with higher “divorce” rates among tightly bonded black-billed albatross pairs, likely because decreases in food availability make reproducing more difficult.
West Point Island, Falkland Islands
Douglas Gimesy is a conservation and wildlife photojournalist who focuses on Australian issues. A Senior Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, his work has been published in National Geographic, Australian Geographic, BBC Wildlife, and Audubon, along with other mainstream newspapers and magazines.
Sarah Gilman is a writer, illustrator, and editor who covers the environment, science, and place from rural Washington state. She's also a contributing editor at Hakai Magazine. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Audubon, Smithsonian, High Country News, National Geographic, and others.