A Travellerspoint blog

October 2012

Voyage to Antarctica: Seabirds of the Drake Passage

Observations and reflections on the plight of seabirds...............................Ramdas Iyer

26 °F


My travel stories are normally laced with adventure in very historic places. But somehow the story of the sea birds of the Southern oceans is very compelling. My real adventure to Antarctica involved crossing the violent 500 mile Drake Passage for 2 days until reaching the cooler waters of Antarctica. My article here has to do with the seabirds of the Antarctic convergence.
” The convergence is a geological feature. It is a curve continuously encircling Antarctica where cold, northward-flowing Antarctic waters meet the relatively warmer waters of the subantarctic. Antarctic waters predominantly sink beneath subantarctic waters, while associated zones of mixing and upwelling create a zone very high turbulence causing frequent storms and high seas .The oceans south of the sub-tropical convergence is highly productive on account of the strongly developed water currents and the associated upwelling of the nutrient rich sub-surface water. This leads to the multiplication of the zooplankton and krill which sustains a wide variety of marine animals’ especially pelagic sea birds.” says K.J. Matthew, Scientist, Indian Antarctic expedition of 1986.

The Drake crossing if choppy or stormy completely confines one to the insides of the vessel. But we were fortunate to have a good crossing onwards aboard the sleek former research vessel Akademik Sergei Vavilov .Armed with my cameras I was scouting the decks for presence of marine mammals alongside my good friend Lee Slabber, winner of National Geographic Wild Life photographer of the year 2011.About 200 miles south of the South American continent we started observing seabirds. Our normal fascination for birds is a result of beautiful plumages, patterns, singing ability and the like. But here in the Southern ocean my fascination for these birds was a result of their size, majesty and their survival story in a harsh clime where they cover large distances for food and survival.

We started observing different species of albatrosses and petrels swooping around the ship. It was much akin to standing near the run way of a busy airport. They came at a steady pace, at a steady path gently gliding past the deck before making another pass after a few minutes. This process involved at least 10 to 12 different species of petrels, shearwaters and albatrosses. After passing the ship the more elegant albatrosses swam over the surface of the choppy water feeling the water with one tip of the wing and adjusting to the undulations of the waves. It was mystical. We saw the great Wanderer albatross reaching wing spans of over 12feet, Royal albatrosses with fine white feathers, the sooty albatross with a beautiful smoked feather pattern over its face and the large black browed albatrosses (see pictures)


They were followed by Giant Southern petrels and Antarctic Petrels. They were so close to us yet hard to photograph given my slow speed lenses and the speed of their flight. They flew with such purpose for hours at a time keeping me transfixed on the deck despite the cold and moisture.

Albatrosses are miracles of nature’s engineering – their long, narrow wings enable them to glide for thousands of miles on wind currents without flapping their wings. Simply by angling their wings and their flight path, albatrosses can use the variation in air speed and direction near the waves to soar over the oceans. This phenomenon is called dynamic soaring. This soaring is incredibly efficient, requiring less energy than sitting on a nest. Albatrosses are the great ocean wanderers, often flying thousands of kilometers on a single trip to feed their chick. The wandering albatross flies up to 10,000 kilometers (6,250 miles) to find food for its chick. So the photograph on my blog could be of one such bird flying to feed her chick! A grey-headed albatross from South Georgia has been recorded circumnavigating the globe in a mere 46 days! Since they depend on wind to fly efficiently the equatorial doldrums acts as a barrier. During my research and reading for this article I came across a spectacular photographer who had attached a camera on an albatross to see its feeding habits. This picture shown below shows the wandering albatross following a killer whale with the hope of picking up scraps of meat from a dolphin or seal.

If you observe the picture of my Giant Southern petrel, you will see twin tubes above the beak.Seabirds have two small salt glands that are 10 times more efficient at removing salt than the birds’ kidneys. These glands are positioned in a small groove above their eyes. Blood carries the salt through the salt glands, where it’s excreted in a saline-loaded solution that drains into the bird’s nasal cavities. This salt solution typically drips from the bird’s nostrils to the end of its bill. You may also see salt water dripping from most of the bird pictures.


Albatrosses and petrels have long life spans with some individuals known to live for more than 60 years. They have low rates of natural mortality and low rates of mortality among their offspring. While some species breed annually, others breed only every second or third year. A young bird that leaves its nest only comes back to the same site 7 years later to mate. During that time it is always flying except for brief and occasional stops on the water. While albatrosses and petrels can withstand the demands of the harsh Antarctic and sub-Antarctic environments, they are facing numerous human-induced threats that are putting their long-term survival at risk. These threats include pollution, hunting and poaching for eggs, meat and feathers, habitat destruction, introduction of non-native predators and longline fishing methods. These threats are putting some species of the birds at risk for extinction


Long line fishing is the biggest human induced threat facing albatrosses and petrels. Longline fishing is a popular method of fishing that is used in the Southern Ocean to obtain high quantities of bluefin tuna, ling, snapper, hoki and Patagonian toothfish. The way that long lining works is that fishermen set out a single line up to 130 km long behind their boat and attaches to the line thousands of baited hooks. Once the loglines are sunk they do not affect the birds but while floating behind the boats albatrosses and petrels try and take the bait but may end up swallowing the hook and then drowning. According to Bird Life International more than 300,000 seabirds are killed by longline fishing every year, including 100,000 albatrosses. 17 species of albatrosses that are already endangered are now threatened by extinction due to the significant number of deaths brought about by longline fishing. Every time we eat Chilean Bass it is nothing but Patagonian toothfish harvested from the subantarctic waters.
However, this threat can be greatly minimized by modifying fishing practice and adopting seabird by-catch mitigation measures. These include the use of bird-scaring lines and streamers, weighted lines to reduce the amount of time baits are available to birds, setting lines at night, setting lines beneath the waters' surface, and seasonal closures of fisheries to avoid fishing when birds are more susceptible to being caught, such as around nesting colonies during the breeding season. Adoption of these measures has now virtually eliminated seabird by-catch in some fisheries.

Sam Thalmann of the Tasmanian Wildlife Division, a 20 year subantarctic bird conservationist, and one of our expedition leaders lectured us on the plight of these birds through slides and unbelievable photographs. He was especially concerned about the introduction of feral cats in the South Georgia Islands, the last untouched paradise on earth where the albatrosses and other seabirds breed. Jamie watts formerly of the British Antarctic Survey who was stranded in the South Georgia islands during the Falkland wars gave us great wild life stories but often with the bad news of impending population collapse.

As we approached the coast of Antarctic peninsula we saw less of the sea birds and instead saw porpoising penguins in open waters, another story of beauty and hardship. We saw plenty of terns, shearwaters, prions and Skuas. These birds are mostly land based and only use the waters for prey. On our return from Antarctica the weather had turned sour with nasty winds and huge waves. The birds were nowhere to be seen. I am fortunate to have witnessed some of the finest flying specimens on earth and hope my pictures will convey the rest of my thought. The End

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Wildlife List – R/V Akademik Sergey Vavilov
Antarctic Explorer December 04 - 14, 2011
X marks number of sitings

Gentoo Penguin Pygoscelis papua x x x x x
Adélie Penguin Pygoscelis adeliae x x
Chinstrap Penguin Pygoscelis antarctica x x x x
Magellanic Penguin Spheniscus magellanicus x
Wandering Albatross Diomedea exulans x x
Northern Royal Albatross Diomedea sanfordi x x
Black-browed Albatross Diomedea melanophris x x x x x
Grey-headed Albatross Diomedea chrysostoma x x x
Light-mantled Sooty Albatross Phoebetria palpebrata x x
Northern Giant Petrel Macronectes halli x x x
Southern Giant Petrel Macronectes giganteus x x x x x x x
Southern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialoides x x x x x x x x
Cape Petrel Daption capense x x x x x x x x x
Antarctic Petrel Thalassoica antarctica x x x
Antarctic Prion Pachyptila desolata x
Blue Petrel Haplobaena caerulea x x
Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus x
Storm Petrels
Wilson’s Storm-Petrel Oceanites oceanicus x x x x x x x x x
Black-bellied Storm-Petrel Fregetta tropica x
South Polar Skua Catharacta maccormicki x
Brown Skua Catharacta antarctica x x x x x x
Chilean Skua Catharacta chilensis x
Antarctic Shag Phalacrocorax bransfieldensis x x x x x
Rock Shag Phalacrocorax magellanicus x
Gulls and Terns
Dolphin Gull Larus scoresbii x
Kelp Gull Larus dominicanus x x x x x x
Antarctic Tern Sterna vittata x x x x x
South American Tern Sterna hirundinacea x
Pale-faced Sheathbill Chionis alba x x x x x x
Crabeater Seal Lobodon carcinophagus x x x x
Weddell Seal Leptonychotes weddellii x x x x
Leopard Seal Hydrurga leptonyx x x x x
Elephant Seal Mirounga leonina x
Baleen Whales - Rorquals
Humpback Whale Megaptera novaeangliae x x x x
Antarctic Minke Whale Balaeonptera bonaerensis x x x
Orca Orcinus orca x
Peale's Dolphin Lagenorhynchus australis


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 13:01 Archived in Antarctica Tagged passage drake antarctica albatros petrels Comments (1)

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