I’ve spent a lot of time on the ocean. I grew up along the New York coast, and I’ve worked jobs that put me at sea on a nearly daily basis. Exploring the sea always promises the potential of exciting encounters with marine wildlife. Although I’ve spent some time birding the Atlantic, I had never taken part in such an expedition on the West Coast. Different oceans mean totally different experiences. My well-traveled friends used to tell me that “in the Atlantic you go out looking for birds, but in the Pacific you go out looking at birds.” I was determined to finally get in on the action this trip.
The most famous name in pelagic birding is Debi Shearwater. She’s led tours to see seabirds for 41 years, and she’s made an unforgettable and meaningful impression on the birding community as a whole. When the plans for my California vacation first began to take shape, I jumped at the opportunity to sign up for one of her trips. Dylan, Aly, and I arrived at Fisherman’s Wharf on Monterey Bay bright and early for the very first outing of the Fall 2016 season. Even as we listened to the safety briefing while the Check Mate was still tied at the dock, there were signs of life all over the harbor. The whistled cries of Pigeon Guillemots echoed across the water as the dapper birds flew back and forth from their nests among the pilings.
Marine mammals started the day with a strong showing right out of the gate. California Sea Lions were loafing on the rocks and docks everywhere we looked, barking loudly as we passed by. A number of Sea Otters were observed floating among the moored boats, grooming themselves and diving for prey. We were surprised to encounter a pair of fluffy floaters locked in an active mating ritual: a rare sight that many on board managed to photograph.
We made our way out of the harbor, pausing at the breakwater to scan for Pelagic and Brandt’s Cormorants, Black Turnstones, and Black Oystercatchers. We also spotted a Wandering Tattler scurrying among the boulders, and several Elegant Terns wheeled overhead among the gulls. As we continued on to open water, the pelagic birds began to appear. Sooty Shearwaters, Common Murres, and Cassin’s Auklets were among the species that accompanied us more or less constantly throughout the trip.
Heavy fog banks rolled across the bay, intermittently reducing visibility with patches of clear skies in between. Our trip leaders got word of some notable marine mammal activity that was worth checking out, so we changed course to head over. Harbor Porpoises and Humpback Whales were the first cetaceans we sighted, but Dylan and I also caught a glimpse of a large spout off the port bow of the ship. A very large spout, I thought. The voices on the loudspeaker seconded my observation as we drew nearer. A whale broke the surface, and its pale, mottled body seemed to go on forever. Could it be? Debi’s voice chimed in again: “10 o’ clock, either a Fin or a…BLUE WHALE! BLUE WHALE! BLUE WHALE AT 10!”
I was ecstatic. I’d finally met the single largest animal known to man, the living version of the behemoth that hangs over my awestruck childhood memories from the American Museum of Natural History. The beast disappeared before I could get a picture, but I was absolutely floored by the sighting. The good times kept on rolling as the sea around us came to life with splashes and shadowed forms. Pods of Pacific White-sided Dolphins and Northern Right Whale Dolphins were working the waters around our vessel. The latter were especially strange, leaping fully out of the waves and showcasing their bizarre, dorsal-fin-free silhouettes. A few Fin Whales also put in appearances, moving across the sea’s surface at great speed. Rounding out the day with some fish finds, we also caught sight of an Ocean Sunfish, or Mola Mola, and a Blue Shark cruising along just below the waves.
The most abundant whale throughout the day was the Humpback, and we witnessed about a dozen of these acrobatic creatures during our 9-hour tour. Most of them were simply traveling or feeding, flashing their distinctive flukes whenever they dove deep. However, we were also fortunate enough to see some dramatic pectoral-slapping behavior from one individual who was lounging on the surface quite close to our boat.
We left the mammals and headed further out to sea in search of pelagic birds. As we made our way to the underwater Monterey Canyon, we hit a bit of a dead spot with minimal activity that was made worse by dense fog. We had an extended period of quiet time, but it was finally broken by shouts of “ALBATROSS!” The first Black-footed Albatross we saw briefly approached the stern of the boat and retreated into the mist, showing well but not for long. Once we reached the edge of the canyon, our luck improved. The dreary gray conditions lifted, and a number of the giant birds were drawn to the chum our deckhands began to throw out. Individuals came and went, but for the rest of the tour we were rarely without attendant albatrosses. These majestic seabirds absolutely lived up to my high expectations, and I never tired of watching their impressive flights around the ship.
The next new bird I encountered was the Pink-footed Shearwater, a species that reminded me of the Cory’s Shearwaters I’ve seen in the Atlantic. I got to know these birds pretty well over the course of a few hours, enjoying both their graceful glides and their awkward antics as they squabbled for food with the gulls in our wake.
It may be summer, but the year is marching along. Many seabirds are already in the fall portion of their breeding cycle, having left the nesting grounds and set off on their migrations and dispersals. Many of the Common Murres we saw were accompanied by young chicks who had recently left their clifftop nests. A wave of excitement swept through the crowd when someone called out a pair of murrelets flying alongside the boat. The diminutive alcids touched down fairly close by, and after some careful study and a few in-flight photos we were able to identify them as Scripps’s Murrelets: an excellent addition to the day total.
Most of the gulls that we encountered were Western and Heerman’s Gulls that followed the boat for scraps of chum, but we were also graced by the presence of another, rarer species. Sabine’s Gulls are absolutely gorgeous by their family’s standards, with bold, contrasting wing patterns and delicate, forked tails. After a handful of failed chases and missed connections throughout my birding career, it was a relief to finally catch up to these handsome Arctic breeders. This bird ended up being the 600th species on my life list: a lovely encounter for such a milestone.
The skipper began to gradually steer the boat back towards shore, and we picked up a few more species along the way in the form of Northern Fulmar and Red-necked Phalarope.
We eventually reached another pocket of insane marine mammal activity thanks to a radio tip from some nearby whale watchers. Once again, there were plenty of Humpbacks and some Fins to be seen, and we also got killer looks at a few more Blue Whales. Simply stunning. The size, the color, even the towering spout…everything about these massive mammals is amazing. What’s more, I finally got some decent, identifiable pictures as we basked in the presence of these leviathans.
Our final detour on the way home saw us following up on a report of huge seabird concentrations. It turned out to be an enormous flock of Sooty Shearwaters spread out over an expansive, food-rich area. At times we were surrounded on all sides while groups of the globetrotters circled the region and rested among the swells. Quite an experience.
Making our way back to port, I couldn’t stop beaming like a little kid. We were coming home with an incredible haul and multiple observations that I will never forget. I have to rank this adventure as one of the top wildlife expeditions of my entire life. We saw so much, and we saw it all well, that the outing is a tough one to top. I’m even more glad I got to share it with some old friends, who were equally impressed by the intensity and diversity of our encounters.
Food, drinks, and relaxation helped close the curtain on a truly amazing day. Tomorrow, the trip continues as we head inland for a newly-developed plan to visit a newly-developed National Park. Here’s to hoping that our fortunes continue to their positive trend!
Year List Update, July 29 – 360 Species (+ Western Gull, Pigeon Guillemot, Heerman’s Gull, Pelagic Cormorant, Brandt’s Cormorant, Black Turnstone, Wandering Tattler, Black Oystercatcher, Elegant Tern, Common Murre, Rhinoceros Auklet, Cassin’s Auklet, Northern Fulmar, Black-footed Albatross, Pink-footed Shearwater, Sabine’s Gull, Scripps’s Murrelet, Red-necked Phalarope)