Crossing the line: albatrosses changing hemispheres

It is commonly believed that the relatively calm conditions and depauperate waters of tropical oceans act as a barrier to albatrosses from moving across the Equator between hemispheres.  With the exception of the Waved Albatross Phoebastria irrorata whose breeding straddles the Equator in the Galapagos Islands, all of the World's albatrosses are primarily birds of high latitudes (although some Laysan Albatrosses P. immutabilis do breed within northern tropical waters).


This general rule, however, has not stopped individual albatrosses of several species changing hemispheres.  In recent years, the growing number of sea-watching or "pelagic" cruises has increase the numbers of photographed sightings of albatrosses at sea, some of which have been observed well outside their normal ranges.  Trans-equatorial records have also come from birds found dead or exhausted on shorelines and captured at sea by fishing and other vessels.


Nine species of albatrosses (out of 21 recognized by ACAP) have been reported (with acceptable records) crossing the Equator.  Nearly all of these records are of southern albatrosses (eight species) reaching the northern hemisphere, but there are two acceptable records of a Laysan Albatross crossing the Equator from north to south.


An annotated list of albatross species that have achieved the Equator-crossing feat follows.


Wandering Albatross Diomedea exulans


Photographic records exist for California, USA (on land) and in the Gulf of Panama on the Pacific Coast of Panama (a juvenile captured at sea). Further records, either at-sea or ashore, come from the North Atlantic (France, Belgium, Portugal), Sicily and from Japan (Murphy 1938, Orlando 1958, Bourne 1966, 1967, Paxton 1968, American Ornithologists' Union 1998).  Some of the earlier records may have been of ship-assisted birds.    The Sicilian record (18 October 1963) has been described as a male and as an "immature of small subantarctic type breeding in the Tristan area" by Bourne (1967), so it may well be a Tristan Albatross D. dabbenena.


In addition, there are records of Wandering Albatrosses from tropical waters in the South Atlantic Ocean (Peakall 1960).  The species' wide distribution in the Southern Ocean reflects its northerly movements in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.


Waved Albatross Phoebastria irrorata


The main breeding island of Isla Española in the Galapagos at 1° 20'S is south of the Equator.  The species has been reported from Colombian (specimen record) and Panamanian waters (American Ornithologists' Union 1998).


Laysan Albatross Phoebastria immutabilis


There are two sightings of a Laysan Albatross in the southern Indian Ocean, in April 1983 and December 1984 (Harrison 1983, Roux 1988).  They may well have been of the same bird.


Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross Thalassarche chlororhynchos


Individuals of this species have reached the eastern seaboard of Canada and the United States; and on the other side of the North Atlantic, Greenland, Norway and the United Kingdom (Curtis 1993, Harrop 1994, American Ornithologists' Union 1998).  See also and  Visit for British records.



Black-browed Albatross Thalassarche melanophris


There are number of records of Black-browed Albatrosses from the North Atlantic, although sightings from the Atlantic coast of North America are not considered satisfactory (American Ornithologists' Union 1998).  Famously, records from the eastern side of the North Atlantic include perhaps a single individual (affectionately named "Albert") that has annually visited, displayed and nest-built for many years within Northern Gannet Morus bassanus colonies at Bass Rock, Scotland (1967-1969); Hermaness, Shetlands (1972-1994); and most recently from 2005 to 2007 on Sula Sgeir, Scotland.  Other North Atlantic records come from at-sea sightings elsewhere in the British Isles and from Greenland, the Faeroes (34 years among the gannets in the 19th century from 1860 to 1894), Iceland, Spitsbergen, Norway, Germany and Spain (Bourne 1967, 1977, Cramp & Simmons 1977, Sutherland & Brooks 1979, American Ornithologists' Union 1998, British Ornithologists' Union 2006).  See also and for details of British records.


Shy Albatross Thalassarche cauta


Shy Albatrosses have been specifically identified from photographed sightings off the coast of California and Washington, USA in August 1999 and January 2000, respectively - perhaps of the same bird (Cole 2000).  An earlier Oregon, USA photographic record of a non-adult bird was not assigned to species by Cole (2000).  A specimen of an immature Shy Albatross was obtained from the Gulf of Aqaba, Israel (as reviewed in Cole 2000).  A juvenile bird identified as a Shy Albatross from Somalian waters by Meeth & Meeth (1988) is considered by Cole (2000) to be specifically indeterminate.


White-capped Albatross Thalassarche steadi


Cole (2002) in his review of North Pacific records of ‘Shy-type' albatrosses, concludes that the Washington, USA specimen record of Slipp (1952) is of a White-capped Albatross.  This appears to be the only record of a trans-equatorial crossing for the species.


Salvin's Albatross Thalassarche salvini


A sub-adult Salvin's Albatross was photographed ashore on Midway Island in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, North Pacific in April 2003 (Robertson et al. 2005).  This is the only record known of this species crossing the Equator.


Light-mantled Sooty Albatross Phoebetria palpebrata


A bird was photographed off central California, USA in July 1994 (Stallcup & Terrill 1996, American Ornithologist's Union 1998).  An earlier record from Oregon, USA is considered doubtful by Bourne (1967) and erroneous by the American Ornithologists' Union (1998).


Other species


Three reports from the Pacific Coasts of USA and Panama of Grey-headed Albatrosses T. chrysostoma have not been accepted by the American Ornithologist's Union (1998).  See also Bourne (1967) for doubtful western Palaearctic records for this and for other species.  A Black-footed Albatross Phoebastria nigripes has been reported from Dusky Sound, New Zealand (Mathews 1936), but Bourne (1967) considers the record highly doubtful.


With thanks to Mike Double, Australian Antarctic Division and Margaret Koopman, Niven Library, University of Cape Town.


Selected references:


American Ornithologists' Union 1998.  The AOU Check-list of North American Birds.  The Species of Birds of North America from the Arctic through Panama, including the West Indies and Hawaiian Islands, 7th Edition.  Washington, D.C.: American Ornithologists' Union.

Bourne, W.R.P. 1966.  Observations of sea birds.  Sea Swallow 18: 9-36.

Bourne, W.R.P. 1967.  Long-distance vagrancy in the petrels.  Ibis 109: 141-167.

Bourne, W.R.P. 1977.  Half a pair of Black-browed Albatrosses.  British Birds 70: 301-303.

British Ornithologists' Union 2006.  The British List: a Checklist of Birds of Britain (7th Edition).  Ibis 148: 526-563.

Cole, L.W. 2000.  A first Shy Albatross, Thalassarche cauta, in California and a critical re-examination of northern hemisphere records of the former Diomedea cauta complex.  North American Birds 54: 124-135.

Cramp, S. & Simmons, K.E.L. (Eds) 1977.  Handbook of the Birds of Europe the Middle East and North Africa.  The Birds of the Western Palearctic.  Vol. 1 Ostrich to Ducks.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Curtis, W.F. 1993.  Yellow-nosed Albatross Diomedea chlororhynchos off Cornwall.  Sea Swallow 42: 63-65.

Harrison, P. 1983.  Laysan Albatross Diomedea immutabilis: new to the Indian Ocean.  Cormorant 11: 39-44.

*Harrop, H. 1994.  Albatrosses in the Western Palearctic.  Birding World 7: 241-245.

*Mathews, G.M. 1936.  The birds of Norfolk and Lord Howe Islands.  Supplement.  London: Witherby.

Meeth, P. & Meeth, K. 1988.  A Shy Albatross off Somalia. Sea Swallow 37: 66.

Mlodinow, S.G. 1999.  Southern hemisphere albatrosses in North American waters.  Birders Journal 8: 131-141.

Murphy, R.C. 1938.  The Wandering Albatross in the Bay of Panama.  Condor 40: 126.

*Orlando, C. 1958.  Cattura di un Albatros Urlatore Diomedea exulans exulans (Linnaeus) in Sicilia.  Rivista Italiana di Ornitologia 28: 101-113.

Paxton, R. O. 1968.  Wandering Albatross in California.  Auk 85: 502-504.

Peakall, D.B. 1960.  Tropical records of the Wandering Albatross in the Atlantic Ocean.  Ostrich 31: 105.

Roux, J.-P. 1988.  Second record of a Laysan Albatross Diomedea immutabilis in the Indian Ocean.  Cormorant 16: 56-57.

Robertson, C.J.R., Klavitter, J. & McCarthy, R. 2005.  Salvin's Albatross (Thalassarche salvini) on Midway Atoll.  Notornis 52: 236-237.

Slipp, J.W. 1952.  A record of the Tasmanian White-capped Albatross Diomedea cauta cauta in North Pacific waters. Auk 69: 458-459.

*Stallcup, R, & Terrill, S.1996.  Albatrosses and Cordell Bank.  Birding 28:106-110.

Sutherland, W.J. & Brooks, D.J. 1979.  Nest of Black-browed Albatross in Shetland.  British Birds 72: 268-288.


*Not seen.


John Cooper, ACAP Information Officer, 30 March 2010, updated 20 April 2010

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