Seabirds of Alaska and the North Pacific

The Pacific is the largest of our oceans, so you might expect it to be important for seabirds, and it is! Here are a few feathered friends who can often be seen following alongside our ships.

5 min read

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On both sides of the North Pacific, there are a multitude of volcanic islands, which are part of the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ and provide a perfect habitat for seabirds breeding away from predators. Whether we are sailing over open sea or close to the Alaskan shore in our beautiful expedition ships, you are sure to spot seabirds of all forms. However, we would like to highlight a couple of groups that deserve special mention.

Auks

You can think of the auks as the penguins of the North. In fact, the name ‘penguin’ was first applied to the (now) extinct Great Auk by British sailors plying the waters of the North Atlantic. Only later were the southern penguins observed by sailors and explorers and mistaken for penguins in the North Atlantic, at which time the name was transferred. Great Auks and southern penguins look very similar but are unrelated.

Other members of the auk family include the guillemots or murres, the Razorbill, puffins, auklets and murrelets. There are 24 recognised species of auks alive today. A total of only six species live in the North Atlantic Ocean, and 20 live in the North Pacific (two species exist in both oceans). This magnificent diversity in the Pacific is probably because the auk family evolved there and only later made it to the Atlantic either via the southern route between Panama and South America or later through the Northwest Passage of the Arctic.

Albatross

Albatross

Auk, Saint Paul Island, Alaska. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Auk, Saint Paul Island, Alaska. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Photo Credit: Karsten Bidstrup

Photo Credit: Karsten Bidstrup

Cordova, Alaska. Photo Credit: Jonathan Tramontana

Cordova, Alaska. Photo Credit: Jonathan Tramontana

Sitka, Alaska. Photo Credit: Ashton Ray Hansen

Sitka, Alaska. Photo Credit: Ashton Ray Hansen

Albatrosses

Yes, you read that right. Albatrosses can be found in the North Pacific Ocean! This is the only place in the Northern Hemisphere where albatrosses breed. Three species inhabit the North Pacific: the Laysan, Black-footed, and the rare Short-tailed Albatross. The rest, about 20 species, breed and live in the southern hemisphere from Antarctica to New Zealand, South Africa and South America.

All three North Pacific species breed on small islands off Japan and into the Pacific in places like Midway, Laysan and the Hawaiian Islands. Birds leave the colony in mid-summer and disperse over the entire North Pacific to feed, covering many thousands of kilometres before returning to the breeding colonies again in autumn. One of the best places to spot the North Pacific albatrosses is in the Gulf of Alaska, south of the Aleutian Islands. Keep your eyes open and our Expedition Team will be out on deck to help.

Fun fact: the oldest known wild bird in the world is a female Laysan Albatross known as “Wisdom”. She was probably born in 1951, which makes her around 70 years old! Wisdom hatched a new chick in February 2021 and is still going strong! With a change of feathers every year, she looks as good as the day she started to breed back in the 1950s.

Part of the Web of Life

Waters in the North Pacific and around Alaska are highly productive as a result of currents and upwellings, bringing nutrients to the surface, where they are used by algae to grow and multiply in the sunlight. This forms the base of the food chain, providing sustenance for small, filter-feeding animals, which are fed upon by small fish and squid, and which, in turn, end up in the stomachs of “top” predators such as large fish, seals, whales, and seabirds. Some seabirds skip a link in the food chain and directly eat tiny filter-feeding organisms, but you get the picture. High nutrient levels and lots of sunlight in spring and early summer produce vast blooms of algae that can even be seen from space!

The Threat of  ‘The Blob’

The 'Blob' is a body of warm water first discovered in the North Pacific in 2013. Temperatures in this 'marine heatwave' were 2-3°C above normal, which doesn’t seem like a lot but has considerable consequences for life in the sea. Most marine life is very sensitive to the temperature of their surroundings and numbers decline if the temperature is too warm or too cold.

Populations of small marine animals, like copepods, have gone down to the point where many auklets, which feed on copepods, have starved and died due to lack of food. Marine heat-waves in the North Pacific may be the 'new normal' of climate change, and will have big effects on the whole ecosystem in the future.

Birdwatchers will feel right at home on our expedition cruises to Alaska where not just auks and albatross soar the skies, but a multitude of winged wonders await you. Don’t forget to pack your binoculars and long lens for your camera, and we look forward to welcoming you onboard soon!