Up and down! Up and down!
From the base of the wave to the billow’s crown;
And amidst the flashing and feathery foam
The Stormy Petrel finds a home,–
A home, if such a place may be,
For her who lives on the wide, wide sea,
On the craggy ice, in the frozen air,
And only seeketh her rocky lair
To warm her young and to teach them spring
At once o’er the waves on their stormy wing!
Barry Cornwall–The Stormy Petrel
I have been smitten by the sea and things of the sea. Sailing ships, war ships, and tales of the sea have been a life-long fascination. The childhood confines of the freshwater lakes and limiting shores were adequate to learn the basics of sail, but I sought the greater possibilities of the salty seas. The tides bring the possibility of distant, unencumbered travel, and even if never realized, the dream exists. Add to this the lure of the sea birds. Oh, there are the interesting shorebirds, hugging the coasts and capable of remarkable travel, and the ubiquitous gulls, but its the seabirds that inspire and intrigue most.
Sea birds spend most of their time in or over the oceans, far away from the sight of birders, only seeking land for nesting on small uninhabited islands or arctic shores. They have plumage shades of brown, black, and white and most are magnificent fliers, reveling in the wind and waves. The large-bodied Albatross with long, narrow wings actually requires significant wind for flight. In a few locations ocean currents bring prey close to shore and the birds can be seen with a scope from land, but if you want a good view you must go to sea.
The Albatrosses, Shearwaters, Storm Petrels, and Petrels are collectively known as “tube noses”, all having a tubular sheath (naricorn) on the upper bill encasing the nasal openings. Jaegers and Skuas are predatory gull-like birds that chase other sea birds, forcing them to drop their catch. Murres and Auklets are smaller, plump seabirds with bulky beaks and are related to the Razorbill and Atlantic Puffin of the east coast.
Every birder at some point confronts the challenges of a pelagic adventure–its almost a right of passage, but not undertaken lightly. There is the issue of transportation to a coast, and reserving a spot on a boat, neither inexpensive. Its usually cold and may be foggy or windy, but the greatest issue is sea-sickness. It tough to enjoy and photograph the birds when you’re green and hanging off the back-rail. If one chooses to endure all this you prepare by having warm, water-proof clothes, water-proof binoculars of relatively low power to minimize the affects of the rolling boat, and some sort of protection of your camera and lens from the salt spray.
A couple years ago we planned our first trip to San Francisco and I was sly enough to convince my wife that we needed to also spend a few days in Monterey. And oh, by the way, it just so happens that Monterey Bay is the mecca for pelagic birders and we’ll have just enough time to schedule such a cruise. She good naturedly agreed to come along for the ride, but my only concern was her tendency for sea-sickness. I’ve never been afflicted, and always secretly harbored the suspicion that this condition was primarily psychological, looking at the pitiful souls affected with an air of superiority–just buck up.
Debi Shearwater (previously Millichap) is a pioneer of pelagic birding, and started her Monterey company, Shearwater Journeys in 1976. It was her boat that hosted the three competing birders whose adventures were chronicled in the film, “The Big Year”, as well as 70,000 other birders. It was my first choice. www.shearwaterjourneys.com
We followed every sea sickness recommendation, ate breakfast at the prescribed time, took the pills, and showed up at the dock early for the cruise. It was somewhat overcast, foggy, and cool as we boarded “Check Mate” and Debi gave us dozen or so voyagers the introductory speech. The captain and her crew were great teachers and spotters, calling out the birds, as we left the harbor and made our way out into the rougher waters of Monterey Bay. You could tell whether a bird was routine or unusual by their level of excitement, but to us they were all new and interesting.
It snuck up on me slowly. At first you barely notice and try to deny it–you attempt to head it off by looking at the horizon. Then the nausea builds; you break out in a cold sweat and literally turn green as you run to the back rail to publicly add your contribution to the sea level of Monterey Bay. The chumming from the stern does not help your recovery. The worst part was that I was the only one affected. My wife sympathized but had no problem at all, none at all; how humiliating. I no longer believe it is psychological.
Despite my state I was able to see and photograph most of the sea birds that crossed our wake. It was a good day. I saw twenty life birds including sea birds: Laysan and Black-footed Albatross, Pink-footed, Flesh-footed, Buller’s, and Sooty Shearwater, Pomarine, Parasitic, and Long-tailed Jaeger, Rhinoceros and Cassin’s Auklet, Common Murre, and South Polar Skua.
One thing about sea sickness–you recover quickly when the boat enters the flat water inside the breakwater and you reach solid ground. We ended the day with a great dinner at a dockside restaurant, watching our boat quietly moored, no longer rolling with the waves. I’m not sure if I have another pelagic cruise in my future, but at least for one day I witnessed the flight and beauty of these amazing birds.