A Better Pelagic

Scarier than Halloween is pelagic birding. Ever since my first traumatic experience I’ve wanted to try again. Crazy, I know but Albatross are that good. It had been too long since I’d seen them and I wanted a better boat experience. I remember saying “I’d do it again in a heartbeat” but those are the things you say when you’re safe on dry land.

I needed timing, weather, and my nerves all to align. When I saw my friend Eric’s post asking if anyone wanted to join him this October for “10 hours of waves and lifers,” I was so scared because I knew I was going to go for it.

I was better prepared this time. I obsessively checked the weather, bought new rain gear, cut out coffee and alcohol, ate bland food for a week, stocked up on saltines, and loaded up on medication. This time I remember my boots. And lucky for me at the last minute my friend Sarah joined for the trip (not the boat part) and she provided exceptional moral support. “Is it too late to back out?” “Yes, put your shoes on and go.” Damn.

Sarah dropped us off early morning and we set off. The real test began once the boat passed the jetty. No turning back now. I nervously held my breath as we spotted the first Sooty Shearwaters.

I gripped the seat as while we looked at tiny Marbled Murrelets.

And Rhinocerous Auklets that I didn’t get great photos of.

I sipped water and saltines as we saw Red-necked Phalarope, Common Murre, and our first Parasitic Jaeger. No photos of that one either sadly, but I did manage one of a Pomarine Jaeger at our first chum stop.

Here we also saw strikingly patterned Buller’s Shearwater.

And Pink-footed Shearwater.

Its best bits

Our first Northern Fulmar.

And as I glared at the dude eating veggi-chips next to me (food smells are tough), I managed to hold it together for Black-footed Albatross!

Yeah buddy, these are amazing birds. They soared gracefully up, over, and around us.

I loved watching them take off, running along the water’s surface.

So good.

The sea swells were 8ft this time (vs. 11ft the first time), still choppy, and not great for keeping composure. See a short video here. This was Eric’s first pelagic and he said he didn’t realize how hard it would be just to stand up. Let alone use binoculars, cameras, and look at birds. But we managed okay.

I appreciated the South Polar Skua coming in to score some food.

I was even able to enjoy the whale sighting this time. About 40 miles offshore we witnessed a humpback whale breaching over and over again and slapping its flippers on the water surface (pectoral fin slapping).

This sort of stuff doesn’t happen in real life. It was breathtaking. The guess on the boat was that this was a young whale making noise to locate its pod. Such a sweet whale. I second Jen’s recommendation to check out Sonic Sea on Vimeo (free with code SONICSEE) about how important sound is to these magnificent underwater creatures.

Other interesting highlights were the American Pipit that almost made landfall on the boat, apparently exhausted along its migration. And one Northern Fulmar that actually did land on the boat, then proceeded to projectile vomit on the deck. That’s the bird’s effective defense mechanism. I wish I’d gotten a photo of the ordeal, but I was concentrating on keeping myself from getting sick.

Stand back or I’ll puke on you

It almost worked. But at the last stop, while we watched for Short-tailed Shearwaters I finally succumbed to the sickness. Unlike last time though, I felt mostly better after and could still look at birds.

One of those might be Short-tailed

I picked up three lifers on the trip, Short-tailed Shearwater, Long-tailed Jaeger, and Leach’s Storm-Petrel. The petrels were tough to see, let alone photograph.

One of the petrels

On the return trip, unlike last time when I was freezing and pummeled by waves, this time it was smooth sailing. We’d avoided the roughest seas, saw albatross, a breaching whale, and I didn’t die? I call that a win.

So happy to see that bridge

This was a much better pelagic than last time.

I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Trick or tweets,


Perpetua Bank Pelagic Tour

This fall, I spent a day out in the Pacific Ocean with Oregon Pelagic Tours, in search of pelagic birds. Or as I like to call it, a day in the life of a bulimic.

The trip started out great.


I couldn’t be more excited at the chance to see skuas, albatross, and maybe even whales. I did everything right. I slept great the night before, I ate a bland breakfast, I even got a Scopolamine prescription. I stayed on the stern (back) of the boat in fresh air, and focused on the horizon. I thought: I feel good, I feel good, I feel good, I feel good, I’m not going to get sick. Then I proceeded to become incredibly ill.

Bridge sunrise

About five miles past the jetties, the sea swells really picked up. Past the Steller Sea Lions and the Marbled Murrelets (the birds that nest in coastal old growth trees!), and just before the Humpback Whale. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t keep it together for the whale sighting.

Steller Sea Lion

After the first incident, I thought maybe I’d recover. Nope. I was sick for the next four and a half hours. Ginger snap cookie? Threw it up. Dramamine? Too little, too late, threw it up. I couldn’t hold down ginger ale or even water. My stomach refused everything. Luckily, (or unluckily?) I was in good company. It became almost comical after the nth time over the rails. Almost.

We reached the turnaround point about 50 miles out to sea. This was actually my small turnaround point too. For about an hour, the water calmed and so did my insides. I could finally enjoy the birds!

Pelagic birds

And there were many to enjoy! (See the albatross in the middle? So big!) It was here we came across two fishing vessels swarming with thousands of birds.


Fishing vessel

For the second time that day, but the first time I could watch, our boat chummed the water with fish oil and popcorn. It attracted a few birds like this Northern Fulmar.

Northern Fulmar

Northern Fulmar

And this other Northern Fulmar. Sinister-looking and unattractive, but at this point, I took what I could get.

Northern Fulmar

Side note: Speaking of vomit, check out this nutty but informative video about fulmar chicks using their vomit to deter predators like skuas and rock climbers.

Back to Black-footed Albatross.

Black-footed Albatross

Black-footed Albatross

There were so many other birds sighted on this trip. According to the trip list, we even saw 20 South Polar Skuas (!). I saw a few. I did not get any pictures.

After the turnaround point, we had a 5 hour return journey back to Newport against the sea swells. I felt weak and dehydrated and alternated between staying dry and ill in the cabin, and being ill outside and getting soaked by waves.

While a small part of me wanted to die on this trip, most of me was incredibly thankful for the experience. I gained immense compassion for others who have felt the torture of seasickness. And hats off to those who kept their stomach together this day. It took something beyond my capabilities. Here’s a more complete trip report from Tim Shelmerdine, one of the superhero guides. And here’s a link to better pictures from the trip (including many birds I missed), thanks to Nagi Aboulenein.

Ten seconds of swell:


It’s funny where birding will take you. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Tweets and chum!