In 1798, Samuel Taylor Coleridge published a poem called “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The narrator tells the tale of a sailing voyage to Antarctica that quickly turns disastrous.
Many people know the poem’s most famous lines: “Water water everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.” But if you’re a marine biologist, you’re likely familiar with another part of the poem: the appearance of the albatross.
The albatross is a seabird, and one species—the wandering albatross—has the largest wingspan of any bird, reaching to eleven feet. Many albatross species have striking white and black plumage.
In Coleridge’s poem, the albatross follows the ship, to the sailors’ delight. Their usual foods are squid, fish, and crustaceans, but albatrosses will also follow boats, eating waste food thrown overboard. And unlike the poem’s poor mariners, albatrosses can easily drink seawater.
Most albatrosses live in southern waters, though a few species live in the north Pacific. But the birds are quite the travelers—they’ll fly thousands of miles from their colonies in search of food. Albatrosses mate for life. Most species return each year to their nesting grounds to lay a single egg, though some only breed once every two years. One parent stays at home while the other hunts for days on end; when the hunter returns, the parents switch places. A chick, once hatched, takes three to ten months to mature. After that, it will spend the next five to ten years at sea, without touching land.
One more fact about these spry seabirds: Thanks to Coleridge’s poem, maritime lore says the albatross may symbolize good luck.