In-Flight Albatross Cam Finds the Birds Feeding with Killer Whales

By Hugh Powell
October 6, 2009
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You know what’s super-cool? Putting a lipstick-sized camera on the back of a Black-browed Albatross and turning it loose to forage across the windswept Southern Ocean. That’s what scientists from the National Institute of Polar Research in Japan and the British Antarctic Survey have done with four of the birds, and they’ve wound up with a remarkable albatross-eye view of life pieced together from more than 28,000 photos. They’ve learned that albatrosses sometimes forage in groups, as in the formation shot above (In the slideshow, I love the pink feet trailing behind one of the birds and the leader keeping an eye on the others over its shoulder). But there’s more.

In the next slideshow image, at least four albatrosses follow an orca (killer whale), a behavior that hadn’t been documented before. It stands to reason, British Antarctic Survey scientist Richard Phillips said—tropical seabirds sometimes forage with tuna schools, and albatrosses routinely follow fishing vessels. Nevertheless, it’s pretty exciting to get confirmation in an image of these birds coasting behind the whale, almost drafting off its dorsal fin (click for larger version).

And I love the vantage point in the third image: a single bird high above the water, sizing up a massive iceberg off in the distance. Scientists have been putting instruments on albatrosses and other birds for years now, but this is the first time they’ve brought back pictures. If they can combine this with GPS locations, they’ll gain new insights into albatross behavior and may also learn about vast stretches of ocean that scientists seldom visit—much the way oceanographers are learning about undersea conditions through the totally cool Tagging of Pacific Pelagics program.

The work appears today in the open-access journal PLOS One. Below, a look at the tiny fraction of an albatross’s life spent on land. These highlights were filmed by the British Antarctic Survey at their longtime study site, a breeding colony on Bird Island, South Georgia, about 1,000 miles east of Tierra del Fuego.

See Living Bird magazine for more about the ways industrial fishing is endangering the world’s albatrosses, as well as new techniques to help avoid the impact.

Video courtesy British Antarctic Survey.


  • VetNat

    Albatrosses certainly have a nose (or a beak) for situations that promise to produce lots of fish. Off the Cape of Good Hope, where the cold Atlantic current and the warm Agulhas current meet over the edge of the continental shelf, I once was privileged to see 3,000 albatrosses of three different species surrounding a long-liner that was hauling in. There was also a cloud of berserk Cape Gannets and many sea lions, as well, so it is unclear what the specific key was, but the behavior released was truly spectacular.

  • Hugh

    I’d just like to give props to Birder’s World for their catchy post title on this: “Something you don’t see everyday: a killer whale photographed by a Black-browed Albatross”

    and, following VetNat – let’s hear your favorite albatross stories, people! My own best experience was on a ferry off the South Island of New Zealand, with dozens of Royal, Shy, and other species drafting the boat effortlessly.

    That said, Americans have a good chance of seeing albatrosses domestically just by getting on a whale-watching tour in Monterey Bay. At around $30 it’s a bargain. Anyone else have good albatross memories?

  • My lifer albatross (Black-footed, but an older individual and quite pale, which caused all kinds of excitement and speculation) was out of Monterey Bay. I will never forget spotting it off of the stern of the boat, while most of the birders were up at the prow on another bird, and yelling “omg. what is that. albatross!” Seeing something that regal, I felt like a child again.

  • Rob Biller (xyon42)

    Birdspot –

    What an awesome memory! Unfortunately, I don’t have albatross on my life list. I am seriously lacking in pelagic birding which I need to remedy.

    Again, how wonderful for you! Congrats!

  • Amid the throes of an awful sea-sickness I can recall clutching the rails of a small whalewatching boat in Monterey Bay. The sun was shining down, the waves were a roiling mass of chaos, and the only thing that made sense as I lifted my binoculars was the path of an inky black-footed albatross smoothly gliding above the maelstrom.

  • A “super-cool” and a “totally cool” in the space of four short paragraphs? Is this the author’s (misguided) attempt to appeal to those for whom the word “cool” is the highest imaginable accolade? Or is this merely a reflection of the author’s own poverty of expression? Please folks, a Cornell-connected communication should meet somewhat higher standards.

In-Flight Albatross Cam Finds the Birds Feeding with Killer Whales