What Is An Albatross?[1]


al Ÿ ba Ÿ tross \ ‘albeŸtros\ n : any of a number of large web-footed seabirds that are related to the petrels, that form a family (Diomedeidae) of the order Procellariiformes, and that include the largest of seabirds, being capable of long-continued flight and often appearing at great distances from land chiefly over southern seas—see BLACK-BROWED ALBATROSS, LAYSAN ALBATROSS, SOOTY ALBATROSS, WANDERING ALBATROSS[2]

An albatross is the grandest living flying machine on Earth.

That’s what ocean conservationist and albatross biographer Carl Safina says, at least, but I’d like to modify that statement. I prefer: An albatross is the grandest living flying machine in the world. Because albatross spend the vast majority of their time at sea, not on earth. And not on the water, specifically, but in the air.

When a Laysan albatross chick takes to the air for the very first time, it does not touch land again for three to five years. The only reason they return to land is to breed, which they do not start doing until they are are seven to 10 years old. The oldest known wild bird in the world is a Laysan albatross named Wisdom. She is 64 years old, and is incubating an egg at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge as I write this.

Laysan albatross in flight

From wingtip to wingtip, Laysan albatross measure six-and-a-half feet. They can glide for hundreds of miles and go days without a single flap of their wings. Our girl Wisdom has probably logged 47,360,000 air miles in her life to date.

Sub-fossil bones indicate Laysan albatross beat the first Polynesians to the main Hawaiian Islands and are said to be the kinolau, earthly form of Lono, god of agriculture, rain, fertility and peace. Yes, peace.

Laysan albatross deserve to be canonized for their miraculous fidelity, loyalty, and patience.

They are devoted partners, taking three to five years to choose a mate and partnering for life. They have more courtship moves than Michael Jackson. There’s the sky moo. The bill clack. Head shake. And armpit sniff. To name a few.

Laysan albatross are dedicated parents, taking egg incubation shifts that can last three weeks at a stretch, flying several thousand miles foraging for a single meal to feed their chick, and not daring to abandon their nests even in the face of land-based mammalian predators—those introduced by the humans who may have followed migrating birds to these islands—like the snarling jaws of dogs, a sounder of vicious feral pigs, and, sadly, some nefarious humans themselves.

Laysan Albatross with Egg

Laysan albatross are works of art. Their faces look like well-known Hawaiian wildlife artist Patrick Ching took his paintbrush to them.

Laysan albatross are master navigators. They come equipped with pin-point, built-in GPS.

Laysan albatross have feathers as soft as air.

Laysan albatross embody the sea. One whiff of a Laysan albatross is enough to make a retired sailor return to his one, true love. Stat.

Laysan albatross exude the peacefulness of their goodly godly sponsor, Lono. Which explains why just being in their presence is transformational. If you let it. Won’t you join me in embodying the spiritual form of the Laysan albatross in 2016? Peace. Pretty please?


[1] This is dedicated to the ruthless bastards who destroyed the nest sites of 15 Laysan albatross inside a fenced  area at Ka`ena Point Natural Area Reserve on Oahu–because I have to believe that had they known what I know about albatrosses before they stepped foot inside, they would have sat in profound admiration of these birds, instead of smashing their eggs, mutilating adults, and stealing seabird conservation equipment. A $10,000 reward has been raised for information leading to the successful arrest and conviction of the person(s) responsible for this heinous crime. If you have any tips, please call 808-643-DLNR.

[2] Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged


13 Comments Add yours

  1. Tina says:

    Thanks for the article, Kim. I am simply speechless and horrified. Tears. Trauma. Hardly the festive mood in my New Year hour. This tribute helped. Mahalo.


    1. Kim says:

      It was hard not to focus on the destructive act, but I decided it would be better to feature the birds. Glad it helped some.


  2. Martha Hardison says:

    Tears here also. Please keep us informed about this horrible crime.


    1. Kim says:

      Thank you for caring. And I will follow up with developments in this case, because it is being investigated.


  3. Susan Hoerner says:

    Marvelous, Kim. They are indeed, amazing birds, just amazing. And so beautiful, like they’ve been airbrushed. I am going to send this column to friends on the island and even some here, just ‘cause I think everyone should know and respect these birds. Very sad about “the bastards!” Sometimes I am so embarrassed by humanity.

    We rang in the new year in our traditional way with friends last night. First a movie, then cocktails, then dinner (always fresh Dungeness crab, steak, salad and dessert), then games, then a toast. The movie this year was The Big Short. It is VERY good, packed with information that makes your head spin and eyes pop, yet done so well it is thoroughly entertaining. Bottom line it just pisses you off. As does Spotlight, which we saw last weekend. Be sure to see them both.

    Very, very cold here… 32° on the thermometer but there’s an actual windchill that I’m guessing takes it down to low 20s. Makes Kauai’s 66° look pretty warm!

    Even though Charlie is back in bed I’m sure he would join me in wishing you and Eric a very warm and heartfelt happy new year. Let’s make 2016 the very best it can be! Aloha



    1. Kim says:

      Brrr. No wonder Charlie went back to bed. That or a hangover from ringing in the New Year! Peace. The peace of an albatross. That is my wish for 2016 for you and Charlie and me and Eric and everyone. When we are at peace, I believe, we do not do mean and evil things. So, peace to all!


  4. Roberta weil says:

    very informative and interesting article, Kim. the bastards have no respect for life. I can’t imagine how the aloha is felt! Keep up your interesting articles and HAPPY BEW YEAR TO YOU AND ERIC


    1. Kim says:

      Happy new year to you, as well. Thanks for reading and, more, caring for our glorious wildlife, Roberta.


  5. Sherron Bull says:

    Bastards is too kind a word for the killers! I mourn the loss of life for these beautiful, intelligent, wonderful birds.


    1. Kim says:

      Some acts are utterly incomprehensible. This is one. Thank you for caring, Sherron.


  6. Mary says:

    I was so enjoying your writing. Almost smiling at the thought of these magnificant creatures gliding across the ocean, as well as imagining the “armpit sniff.” Then I got to the point of your writing. I had not heard about this atrocity. It is hard to imagine such sick humans. And we live amongst them. SAD!


  7. Phyllis M. Aki says:

    Beautiful reading & so educated me months after the incident. I’ve gained such a better understanding & respect for these creatures that has sparked my interest in more ways that I could have imagined. Living on this island & not knowing what the impact these birds have in our history is so awakening. Thank you Kim.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kim says:

      My pleasure, Phyllis. Thank you for reading and commenting.


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