This story originally ran in the Winter 2023 issue as "The Long Way Home." To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.
In January, a twin-engine Cessna landed on Mexico’s Guadalupe Island with a most unusual collection of passengers: 36 fertile Black-footed Albatross eggs, all destined to be raised by foster parents at a Laysan Albatross colony on this remote volcanic island. Scientists had ferried them from Midway Atoll, located on the far northwestern edge of the Hawaiian archipelago, to Guadalupe, more than 3,500 miles away. Yet the last 12 miles of their journey would be the most grueling.
The lone road on Guadalupe is a bumpy, double track pocked by washouts and boulders—the kind of terrain that scrambles even the most swaddled of eggs. To give them their best chance at surviving the long trip, the scientists had nestled the eggs into foam cutouts designed to fit each one’s shape exactly, then packed them in bright green Stanley coolers modified to serve as portable incubators. Heaters powered by rechargeable batteries kept the carriers around 97 degrees Fahrenheit, the ideal temperature for albatross embryos. More than once the scientists would have to leave the all-terrain vehicle and carry the coolers on foot, lest the drive jostle and damage the eggs. Finally, after about four hours, the convoy arrived at a rocky outcrop about 260 feet above the ocean.
Here, the scientists hope to make conservation history by establishing a new colony of Black-footed Albatrosses—one that will be safe from the rising seas that threaten the species’ survival. Today, the vast majority of black-footeds nest on low-lying islands and atolls in the Pacific Ocean. Climate scientists predict that most, if not all, of the existing breeding sites will likely vanish during this century. To address this urgent threat, an innovative alliance of international nonprofits, governmental agencies, and both the U.S. and Mexican military have joined forces in an unprecedented attempt to save the species. They all agree that this island located more than 130 miles off the Baja California Peninsula and the project managed by Grupo de Ecología y Conservación de Islas (GECI) and its team of ornithologists are the best hope for the globally near-threatened bird.
For the past three winters, scientists from GECI and Pacific Rim Conservation (PRC), a Hawaiian nonprofit specializing in native birds, have transferred black-footed eggs from Midway to Guadalupe. Preparations begin months in advance when biologists with GECI start monitoring Guadalupe’s resident Laysan Albatrosses to gather data on their parenting skills. Those observations, coupled with records of reproductive success, indicate which pairs might be the best foster parents. The team swaps broken or unfertilized Laysan eggs for decoys to ensure that the would-be parents remain on their nests. Once the black-footed eggs arrive, time is of the essence, says Julio César Hernández Montoya, GECI island project director. The scientists work quickly to place them in the nests, and by nightfall they’re being incubated by foster parents. Weeks later, they begin to hatch. And years later, scientists hope, the young birds will return to the Mexican island to breed.
Previous projects have successfully moved albatrosses within the United States and Japan, but this is the first translocation of the large seabirds between nations. It’s a crucial test case involving global partnerships to solve conservation problems in a new way. And if it’s successful, this project will serve as a blueprint for saving a whole suite of species around the world at risk due to sea-level rise.
uch of a Black-footed Albatross’s life is spent on the open ocean, shrouded in mystery. With a seven-foot wingspan and a sophisticated sense of smell, they’re talented foragers, traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles in search of squid and other prey as far as the Sea of Japan, Bering Sea, and the waters around California’s Channel Islands.
Although little is known about their lives offshore, the birds have been well studied on land, especially at Midway, a former Naval Air Station that’s now a national wildlife refuge. Black-footeds live a long time, into their 40s and 50s, and form strong monogamous pair bonds that often last until one bird dies. Theirs is an elaborate courtship dance: a choreography of bows and pirouettes as the birds touch bills, open their wings wide, and then arc their bodies skyward, often in perfect synchrony. Females typically lay a single egg in November or December, and parents take turns incubating it for two months. They then share brooding and feeding duties until the chick fledges about six months later. While in the nest, chicks imprint on their colony, creating a kind of homing beacon that draws them back to breed after spending several years wholly at sea.
The descendants of ancient birds, black-footeds and their progenitors have thrived on this planet for about 30 million years. As an apex species they have few natural predators, save for tiger sharks, which have been known to grab newly fledged birds. Their numbers began plummeting in the 19th century, when hunters scoured the Pacific to harvest adults for feathers and their eggs for albumen, then a key ingredient for developing photographs. A century ago, as few as 18,000 breeding pairs remained. Even as hunting waned, other threats grew. Humans encroached on their breeding grounds, introducing nonnative mammals like mongooses and feral pigs that treated nests as buffets and nonnative plants that degraded breeding habitat. Exposure to PCBs and other organochlorines, which cause eggshell thinning and higher embryo mortality rates, took a toll as well.
Since its historic lows, the Black-footed Albatross’s population has rebounded to about 61,000 breeding pairs. However, the bird’s numbers are far from secure. For the past several decades, commercial fishing has been one of its greatest threats. Thousands of Black-footed Albatrosses are thought to be killed by longlining annually, and the tuna and swordfish industry are particularly pernicious for the birds, which attempt to feed on the bait fish trolled behind vessels, become hooked, and drown. While we don’t know the full extent of the damage, the loss of young birds is especially concerning, says Scott Hall, senior scientist for bird conservation at the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. As older birds die out, there are fewer young adults to replace them and keep growing the population.
Climate change is quickly becoming another serious challenge to the black-footeds’ survival. While the birds were once dispersed on volcanic islands throughout the Northern Pacific, over time human development and the spread of invasive species have concentrated 90 percent of them in the Hawaiian archipelago today. As the planet heats up, it’s becoming a much less ideal location. Unlike birds in temperate regions that incubate their eggs, albatrosses need to provide shade so that their eggs don’t overheat and cook the embryo. Chicks are also vulnerable to overheating; scientists have seen them perish on especially hot days while parents are out foraging. Even adults have trouble regulating their body temperatures and risk dehydration when the mercury climbs. “They love a cold, windy day,” says Beth Flint, a supervisory wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We’ve always known that albatrosses as a group are a high-latitude species.”
Because black-footeds prefer to nest on island perimeters, they are also highly vulnerable to flooding from sea-level rise and storm surges. Both are projected to intensify in coming years. Storm surges have already wreaked havoc on the Midway colony, Flint says, drowning chicks and washing away nests.
However, the lack of other options, combined with their strong site fidelity, means the albatrosses have little choice but to stay. It’s a catch-22 biologists refer to as an ecological trap: a situation in which a species like the Black-footed Albatross has no choice but to opt for an inferior habitat. As sea levels continue to rise, the Black-footed Albatross’s available real estate continues to diminish. Midway, for instance, may be underwater before the end of this century. “They’ve lived through a lot of different fluctuations of sea level, but that was before humans had taken up all the good spots,” Flint says. “Now that all the high spots are taken by mammals, there are very few places that are appropriate for colonial nesting seabirds.”
Scientists have already moved black-footeds relatively short distances to establish new colonies. In 2017, PRC, in cooperation with several federal agencies, began successfully translocating albatross eggs to higher ground on the island of Oʻahu. But having all the birds concentrated in one general area means they’re still vulnerable to the ravages of nature. The only real way to ensure the safety of the species, scientists say, is to expand their nesting grounds.
n paper, the island of Guadalupe may seem like a curious choice for a new Black-footed Albatross colony. But in a lot of ways the island’s history follows the same arc as the beleaguered seabirds.
Guadalupe was once dominated by cypress, juniper, and oak forests and populated mostly by birds, like the Guadalupe Murrelet and the Guadalupe Junco. No land mammals or reptiles roamed it. In the 19th century, British and American seal hunters started using the island as a pit stop during long Pacific journeys, and mice and cats that hitched a ride on their ships proliferated on the island. Sailors also released goats as a fresh meat source, and they bred prodigiously, with as many as 100,000 once populating the roughly 90-square-mile island, about the size of Milwaukee. The ruminants ravaged the native flora, denuding most of the island. Along the way, they and the feral cats decimated native birds, causing the probable extinction of at least six endemic species, including the Guadalupe Storm-Petrel and the Guadalupe Caracara.
Even so, several factors made Guadalupe an appealing nesting site for Laysan Albatrosses, which stunned scientists in the 1980s when they began colonizing the island, more than 2,500 miles east of their nearest breeding grounds. (Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses share many of the same breeding colonies, with Midway hosting the largest colonies of both species; no one knows why Laysan numbers are about 10 times higher than black-footed’s.) The remote island remained largely unsettled, and today it is home to two GECI field stations, a small fishing cooperative, and a station operated by the Mexican Secretary of the Navy. The high landscape (its tallest peak rises more than 4,000 feet), coupled with its location in the California Current—the same nutrient-rich cold waters where black-footeds forage in the north, around the U.S. Channel Islands—allowed the Laysan colony to expand, despite feral cats killing dozens of birds each year.
In 2000, GECI began restoring the island’s habitat. Theirs was a daunting task. “It looked like Mars,” says Federico Alfonso Méndez Sánchez, GECI executive director. “You couldn’t see any green. And with heavy rains, all the soil went to the ocean.”
Five years later, the Mexican government declared Guadalupe a biosphere reserve and placed it under the management of the federal Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP). Working together with GECI, the Mexican government also began eradicating the invasive goats and cats (which remain a continued but greatly reduced presence on the island today). The two organizations then established a nursery to facilitate reforestation, planting countless trees, shrubs, grasses, and succulents across the landscape.
During the restoration, GECI scientists spotted a few Black-footed Albatrosses visiting the island, and at least one pair attempted to nest in the Laysan colony. Around that same time, the FWS published a conservation plan that cited international cooperation and the establishment of new colonies on higher islands as one of the top-priority actions for saving the species. An idea was hatched: Why not attempt to establish a Black-footed Albatross colony here? “It’s a big island. It’s remote. Food is nearby,” Méndez Sánchez says. “When you put all of that together, the question becomes: Why not Guadalupe?”
cientists first attempted to lure adult Black-footed Albatrosses to nest on Guadalupe with a combination of decoys and recorded calls—proven social attraction methods. When that failed to lure any breeding pairs, they knew they’d have to bring the birds themselves. There is precedent for international translocation projects like this one. Fifty years ago, Audubon’s Project Puffin relocated nearly 2,000 Atlantic Puffin chicks from Newfoundland to historic breeding islands in Maine. Since then, more than 70 efforts globally have moved seabirds or eggs to try to restore colonies, and most have been successful. But few other—if any—have required the kind of complicated logistics and permitting necessary to relocate eggs and chicks from remote Hawaiian atolls to a Mexican island. Though daunted, the international partners were undeterred, says Eric VanderWerf, PRC director of science: “These albatrosses do not recognize international boundaries. We want to do the best we can for the species, regardless of which countries they occur in or which islands.”
Planning for the project began in earnest in 2020. Their process was eased, partners say, by the Trilateral Committee for Wildlife and Ecosystem Conservation and Management, an international agreement among Canada, Mexico, and the United States to consolidate and boost conservation efforts. They still had to obtain permits, and COVID-19 shutdowns added extra complications. Nevertheless, by late 2020 the first translocation was ready to begin. “To accomplish an international project like this during a global pandemic and have everything go as planned is just amazing to me,” VanderWerf says. “I still look back and think, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe we did all that.’”
In 2021, scientists collected 21 eggs and 12 chicks from Midway. In January they transported the eggs to Guadalupe, and in February they flew the chicks to Oʻahu to undergo quarantine. From there the birds rode to San Diego in complimentary extra-comfort seats, courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines, then hitched a ride with Aspen Helicopters to Tijuana for a customs inspection. Pilots from the Guadalupe fishing cooperative ferried them to the island, then GECI and PRC scientists transferred them the few final miles to the fenced-off, predator-free peninsula. The pilot project was a success, but it was also clear that such extensive travel was hard on young chicks. “We lost three along the way,” Méndez Sánchez says. “We had to reassess when we saw the difficulty of moving them. It was long travel over a lot of days, so the chicks were really stressed.” Although transporting eggs is laborious and also comes with risk, scientists determined it was a safer bet than moving chicks. Since 2021, they’ve moved about three dozen eggs annually.
During breeding season, Hernández Montoya and his team monitor the albatross colony around the clock. It’s a grueling schedule, and staff can spend months on the island before rotating off for well-deserved downtime. They track the progress of all hatchlings, but pay special attention to black-footeds to ensure they’re growing at a good rate. The foster parents raise and feed their adopted chick as if it were their own, unperturbed as the ash-gray fluff gives way to chocolate-brown adult feathers that are a stark contrast to Laysans’ snowy-white plumage. Although the two species have slightly different metabolic rates and body size, most of the Laysans excel at raising healthy black-footed chicks. If they need supplemental nutrition, the team whips up a blend of oil-rich fish, vitamins, and electrolytes in a dedicated sterile laboratory that serves as an avian cantina.
The goal is to fledge 120 Black-footed Albatrosses translocated here as eggs. So far, 93 have fledged from Guadalupe to spend their early years at sea. Knowing the threats they face from commercial fishing and other dangers, the team hopes that 60 to 70 of those birds will return to the island to look for a mate. “It’s a long-term bet,” Méndez Sánchez says.
Mexico is proud to bring hope to Black-footed Albatross populations worldwide, says Humberto Adán Peña Fuentes, commissioner of CONANP: “If something happens to this species in Hawaii, Guadalupe is going to be the best, the only, or the most important colony in the world.”
he need for new seabird colonies like the one on Guadalupe is both immediate and dire. To understand just how pressing the issue has become, consider the French Frigate Shoals, the largest atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. In the 1990s erosion washed away one of the islets there entirely. Then, in 2018, an intense hurricane washed away East Island, a known habitat for seabirds as well as the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. “As storm frequency continues to increase in the Hawaiian Islands, the potential catastrophic loss of an individual breeding site or a portion of a breeding site just magnifies,” Hall says. And it doesn’t require a hurricane to do that kind of damage, he adds.
In 2011 two winter storms combined with wave surge from the Tohoku tsunami killed about 110,000 Laysan and Black-footed Albatross chicks across the Hawaiian atolls, or 22 percent of those hatched that year. For ornithologists dedicated to the survival of seabirds there, such events are a stark harbinger of potential future habitat loss. The combined effects of storm surges and more than six feet of sea-level rise—a scenario possible in the next century—would flood more than half the Black-footed and Laysan Albatross nests on Midway, displacing more than 600,000 breeding birds, a 2015 study found. “As sea levels go up, the ocean will take back what the ocean had before, and we will lose this colony,” says Flint, who wasn’t involved in the study. “The only cautious and careful thing to do is to find safe sites on higher islands that are also appropriate for thermal characteristics and adjacency to food supply.”
The good news, she says, is that these birds possess characteristics that make them better suited to survive climate change than more sedentary species. Their mobility and ability to forage over the entire North Pacific Ocean increase their odds of finding the food they need—so long as we ensure they have safe spaces to raise the next generation of chicks.
And that, agree scientists and government officials, is going to require true international partnerships based on mutual respect and understanding. Political jurisdictions mean little to species like the Black-footed Albatross, they say. It’s only by breaking the barriers commonly associated with national borders that we can solve the growing biodiversity crisis and ensure the future of the planet as a whole.
Alfonso Aguirre-Muñoz is the director emeritus of GECI. He says that, historically, too many U.S.-led conservation efforts have been hierarchical, with the United States taking charge and expecting other countries to follow suit—even within their own borders. That loses sight of some of the real lessons to be learned from how other nations are working to save vulnerable species. Mexico, for instance, is widely considered a global leader on the responsible eradication of invasive species and the ecosystem monitoring required to help a habitat bounce back from the damage they cause. That expertise is a key reason biologists are hopeful that Guadalupe will soon become home to the world’s next Black-footed Albatross colony. “If we want to have real conservation, we need to do it in such a way that all of the parties at the end of the day are satisfied,” says Aguirre-Muñoz. “We keep doing this work not only because of the project itself, but also the vision of collaboration.”
Guadalupe’s first foster Black-footed Albatrosses could begin returning to the island as early as 2025 to prospect and look for a mate, with dozens more coming back in the following years. Climate scientists warn that the world’s oceans may already look different by then, as warmer waters shift the abundance of prey and as sea-level rise restricts crucial shoreline access for seabirds. However, Mexico’s commitment to protecting its diverse island habitats will ensure that these vulnerable seabirds have a colony to return to. And Guadalupe’s location in the rich California Current will give these young transplants—and the entire species—more than a fighting chance as they raise the next generation.