David Osborn / Alamy Stock Photo
GRACEFUL. IN CONTROL. EFFORTLESS. That’s how the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) has appeared to generations of sailors on the far-flung seas, who marvelled at its ability to stay aloft without flapping its wings.
The albatross is known to travel up to 16,000 km ( 10,000 miles) in a
single journey, and circumnavigate the globe in 46 days.1, 2 Flying no higher
than about 20 metres (65 ft) above the sea surface, the albatross searches the
vast expanses of the ocean for squid and fish to eat, and can spend months,
even years, at sea.
Around half its time is spent diving for food or floating on the surface; the
rest of the time the albatross remains airborne. A supremely energy-efficient long-
distance forager, in favourable flying conditions its in-flight heart rate (an indicator
of energy use) is nearly as low as its base heart rate when at rest on land. 3
Other birds are also known for effortless long-distance flight without wing-flapping.
Pelicans, for example, ride thermal updrafts of air to soar to great heights, before gliding
downwards over great horizontal distances. But out on the open water away from any
sun-heated land there are no thermal updrafts to ride, or currents of air forced upwards by
mountain ranges or coastal cliffs for the albatross to soar. So how does the albatross do it?
It seems able to stay aloft at will, continuously gliding hither-thither in a
series of graceful side turns, pull-ups, and descents, above the ocean waves.