The Wandering Albatross is the largest of the albatrosses and is the living bird with the greatest wingspan, measuring almost 3.5 m.
The adult Wandering Albatross appears entirely white from a distance. Close up, the fine black wavy lines on the breast, neck and upper back become visible. The bill can vary in colour, but is normally yellowish-pink. The white tail is occasionally tipped with black and the back of the wing changes from black to white with age. A series of plumage phases are passed through as young birds reach full adult plumage, which can take up to nine years. Females are slightly smaller than males.
During plumage changes from juvenile stages to adulthood, identification of Wandering Albatrosses can be difficult, and birds may be confused with other large albatrosses with similar colourings.
The Wandering Albatross visits Australian waters from Fremantle, Western Australia to northern New South Wales between June and September each year. At other times birds roam the southern oceans and commonly follow fishing boats for several days.
The Wandering Albatross has a circumpolar distribution, occurring throughout the Southern Ocean, and the species is regularly recorded in the deep oceanic waters off southern Australia.
Wandering Albatrosses spend most of their life in flight, landing only to breed and feed. Distances travelled each year are hard to measure, but one banded bird was recorded travelling 6000 km in twelve days.
Wandering Albatrosses are often seen scavenging scraps from fishing boats, but squid and fish are the preferred foods. Galley refuse and floating waste also form part of the diet. Feeding is one of the few times that birds land, and this is mostly undertaken at night.
Because the albatrosses usually forage by seizing cuttlefish, squid and other cephalopods from the water’s surface, they are susceptible to being ensnared by long-line fishing-rigs, and a decline in their populations has been attributed to this activity.
The Wandering Albatrosses nearest breeding colony is on Macquarie Island, though this colony is one of the world’s smallest, comprising a mere handful of birds.
Pairs of Wandering Albatrosses mate for life and breed every two years. Breeding takes place on subantarctic islands and commences in early November. The nest is a mound of mud and vegetation and is placed on an exposed ridge near the sea. During the early stages of the chick’s development, the parents take turns to sit on the nest while the other searches for food. Later, both adults hunt for food and visit the chick at irregular intervals.