Species overview

The waved albatross is the largest bird in Galapagos with a wingspan of up to two and a half metres. Both sexes have a white head with a creamy yellow crown and neck while the body is mainly chestnut brown with a white breast and underwing. They have a dull yellow bill which appears too long for their small heads, and bluish feet.  They get their name from the wave like pattern on the adults’ wings. As with all albatrosses they are exceptional gliders and spend the vast portion of their lives above the open ocean.

During the non-breeding and chick rearing periods the whole population migrates and can be found between the eastern waters off Galapagos and the coasts between Colombia and Peru. Often they congregate in rafts while sitting on the sea surface. They feed mainly on fish, squid and other invertebrates, often scavenging near fishing boats. They often feed at night when the squid swim closer to the surface. They are also known to steal food from other species such as boobies.

One of their most interesting behaviours is their courtship dance, which includes bill circling, bill clacking, head nodding, a waddle and a cow-like moo. The courtship ritual is most complex and especially drawn out for new breeding pairs and pairs which had an unsuccessful breeding season.

Couples mate for life and each breeding season the female lays a single egg on bare ground. The couple take it in turns to incubate the egg for up to two months until it hatches. Several weeks after hatching, chicks will be left in ‘nursery’ groups, allowing the parents to go off and feed. On their return, the parents will regurgitate a pre-digested oily liquid for the chicks to feed on. Around five and half months after hatching, chicks will be developed enough to start flying and once fully fledged the birds will spend up to six years out at sea before returning to find a partner.

There is estimated to be between 50,000 and 70,000 individuals with approximately 12,000 breeding pairs. It is believed there is a tiny population breeding on Isla de la Plata off the coast of Ecuador but this numbers fewer than 20 breeding pairs.

In Galapagos

Where to see them: The main breeding grounds are on Espanola however when out of breeding season can be found throughout the region mainly in the south.

When to see them: The only time they are not on land is January to March. Eggs are laid from April to June and incubated for two months. The offspring eventually leave the colony by January the following year and spend the next six years out to sea before returning to find a mate.

Threats: The greatest threat comes from man and mainly from fishing activities. Long-line fishing boats lay out hundreds of miles of baited hooks which attract birds and once they try to eat the bait they get hooked and drown after being dragged under. While long-lining is banned within the Galapagos Marine Reserve, once the birds leave this area they have no protection. Other threats include water pollution, oil slicks and chemicals. Intentional harvesting, for human consumption and feathers, has seen a dramatic increase in recent years.

Since the couples only return to their preferred breeding grounds some colonies have been lost as vegetation has regrown and taken over the bare rocks following the removal of goats. Some years mass desertion of eggs occurs and parents are recorded rolling the eggs, which often crack and lead to death. Both of these behaviours are yet to be fully explained. Since only a maximum of one egg is raised each year by a pair the species is exceptionally vulnerable and struggles to replace those which are killed.

Conservation actions: Industrial long-lining is prohibited within the GMR although artisanal fishing still occurs. Several organisations are attempting to encourage fishermen to reduce their threat to waved albatrosses by incorporating bird scaring devices and underwater line launching so the bait is out of sight and reach of the birds. GCT has previously funded a project that monitors populations of waved albatrosses, as well as Galapagos penguins and flightless cormorants. Learn more about this project here.