An albatross aloft can be a spectacular sight. These feathered giants have the longest wingspan of any bird—up to 11 feet (3.4 meters)! The wandering albatross is the biggest of some two dozen different species. Albatrosses use their formidable wingspans to ride the ocean winds and sometimes to glide for hours without rest or even a flap of their wings. They also float on the sea's surface, though the position makes them vulnerable to aquatic predators. Albatrosses drink salt water, as do some other sea birds.
These long-lived birds have reached a documented 50 years of age. They are rarely seen on land and gather only to breed, at which time they form large colonies on remote islands. Mating pairs produce a single egg and take turns caring for it. Young albatrosses may fly within three to ten months, depending on the species, but then leave the land behind for some five to ten years until they themselves reach sexual maturity. Some species appear to mate for life.
Albatrosses feed primarily on squid or schooling fish, but are familiar to mariners because they sometimes follow ships in hopes of dining on handouts or garbage. Albatrosses have a special place in maritime lore and superstition, most memorably evoked in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Some albatross species were heavily hunted for feathers that were used as down and in the manufacture of women's hats. The Laysan albatross was important to the indigenous hunters of the northern seas. Excavations of Aleut and Eskimo settlements reveal many albatross bones and suggest that the birds were an important part of human diet in the region.