The Albatross, ruler of the High Seas
Spindrift for Schools

By  Dona Bertarelli

I want to thank all our partner schools, in France and Switzerland, and the 2,000 students who are following us. Whenever I can, I will be answering your many questions throughout this journey around the planet, a journey that we are taking together to discover the wonders of our world.
With all the crew of Spindrift 2, through our observations and our encounters, not only with marine life, but also with the islands and peninsulas that we pass, with the meteorological phenomena we experience, and with the birds and the stars that accompany us during our voyage, we will help you to live this adventure, like Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s famous book. We are calling our Spindrift for Schools series - Out of the Classroom.

The Albatross, ruler of the High Seas

It has been nearly a week now since we entered the Southern Ocean and yet, no albatross in sight. “How strange?” says Seb (Audigane) when I come on deck to start my watch. “Maybe we are too early in the season or maybe it is mating season and they are all on shore?” he continues.

The magnificent albatross has been described as the most legendary of all birds – I like to believe that albatrosses are the souls of lost sailors.

The wandering albatross has the largest wingspan of any living bird: 2.5 to 3.5 meters (8 to 11.15 feet). Their enormous wingspan allows these birds to remain in the air, soaring, for many hours without flapping their wings.

The albatross appears motionless amidst crazy weather, wings locked rigid, body angled to the wind, sweeping downwards, then just above the surface of the sea it changes its angle to the wind and ascends again, endlessly conquering these mountains of the Southern Ocean. Called ‘dynamic soaring’ this allows albatrosses to glide for thousands of miles. Using the energy from the wind and waves they travel vast distances over the ocean and rarely flap their wings. A 50-year-old albatross has flown at least 3.7 million miles.

Albatrosses cross oceans for breakfast and deign to touch shore only when it involves sex. Land is an inconvenient necessity for breeding’ said Carl Safina, prize winning author and MacArthur Fellow.

Albatrosses spend two years courting a mate and then bond for life. With a single egg laid, raising their chick is still a huge challenge and it needs both parents to find enough food. 

They can fly more than 10 000 miles to gather enough fish and squid to deliver just one meal for their growing chick. Once the chick leaves the nest at around 9 months it survives alone living at sea for up to five years before returning to the exact place it hatched to find a lifetime partner - and continue the cycle of life.

As legendary New Zealand sailor Sir Peter Blake said, “When I first sailed in Antarctic waters we saw dozens of albatrosses every week, now we hardly see one”.

Manmade threats, including plastic pollution and the billions of hooks set by the long line fishing boats have reduced the populations of albatross. The IUCN has all of the 22 species of albatrosses on their list - ranging through their levels of concern from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered.

I now belong to a higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross’ said American ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy in a letter home to his wife.

I, too, yearn some day soon to see some albatrosses flying side by side with Spindrift 2. What a sight that would be!

During the last Jules Verne Trophy attempt, both Xavier (Revil) and Thierry (Duprey du Vorsent) have witnessed albatrosses flying for hours behind the boat. Thom (Rouxel) says that they never stay too long behind slower boats and prefer to play with multihulls, as speed is their friend.

My journey in the Southern Ocean still has a long way to go, so I haven’t lost hope that one day I will be able to watch one day the ruler of the High Seas in action.

Just as I was about to post my article for our series "Spindrift for Schools - Out of the Classroom", an albatross, a youngster came to visit.

At first shy, then with more confidence it came closer to the boat, just a couple of meters away, flying on our up-wind side, as if we were for a moment his sparring partner.

Spindrift 2's entire crew stayed there, watching, speechless, as if time had stopped.

So beautiful and rare. What a privilege!