In the past I have spent a good deal of time at sea censusing seabirds and marine mammals. Some years I was away from home for upwards of seven months, mostly working as a biologist on research cruises for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Point Blue (formerly Point Reyes Bird Observatory) and the Farallon Institute, but also as naturalist/lecturer on the occasional tourist cruise. The cruises took me too the Eastern and Central Tropical Pacific, along the Pacific Coast from Washington to Punta Arenas at the southern tip of Chile and to the Antarctic, to the Amazon on a river boat and to the north from Washington to the Aleutians and Bering and Chukchi seas: one year on an icebreaker making it to within 80 miles of the North Pole. Since getting a dog, much of my wandering has been curtailed (except by car) although I still manage to get out on the ocean now and again. Recently I returned from a month at sea in the California Current on the NOAA spring rockfish survey. This is one of my favorite cruises even though it does not have a bird or mammal focus: I simply tag along, sitting on the flying bridge censusing birds and marine mammals whenever the ship is underway during daylight.
Most of the local tourist trips in California go out in the fall, primarily because of the weather. Fall is calm and spring is windy. It is the spring’s prevailing northwest winds that help make the waters off California so productive, driving the upwelling system that helps to bring nutrients up into the water column for phytoplankton (plants) to utilize, in turn creating food for zooplankton and on up the food chain to krill fish, whales and seabirds. This is why California is home to the largest seabird colony in the lower 48 states: the Farallon Islands, off the coast of San Francisco.
It’s also why, with the curtailing of whaling in much of the world in the past 50 years, it has become unusual to not see humpbacks and blue whales if one goes out on the ocean anywhere between San Diego and San Francisco from May through fall. There is an abundance of food in the California Current in the spring.
In the spring, the days at sea can be long. Depending on what the ship is doing, generally, I observe from sunrise to sunset. The ship usually provides me a chair on the flying bridge and a bracket or desk to trap on a pelican case with a laptop in it. Depending on the ship, I either have a direct feed of the ship’s GPS or, in the case of the past cruise, a handheld GPS that I plugged into the computer. For every sighting I enter, a time stamp and a GPS location is automatically added. This information can be correlated with the data the ship continuously gathers: sea surface temperature, salinity and chlorophyll levels. Usually I have a VHF radio to communicate with the bridge where the captain and other officers work.
I like going out on the ocean in the spring. Seabirds that migrate through heading north are coming into breeding plumage: loons, terns, jaegers and phalaropes. The latter occur at times in flocks of several thousand, creating long red, white and ocher streams along the ocean surface as they sit, spin and peck, feeding on floating plankton.
The local breeding birds have molted into summer finery. The murres are smooth and elegant while the comical tufted puffins are displaying extravagant head plumes and brilliantly colored beaks.
Because of the abundance of food, not only are there numerous breeding seabirds in the spring and summer, but the California Current also becomes home to a number of southern breeders during their non-breeding season. One such annual phenomenon is the tens of thousands of sooty shearwaters that visit from late spring through the summer and early fall. Most of these birds breed on islands off the coast of New Zealand, although there are few remnants of colonies on the mainland, and a much smaller population breeds on islands off of Chile. It can be quite a spectacle when they come in close to shore feeding on schools of anchovy.
Although I see tens of thousands of sooties in the California Current every year, the long term data from research cruises indicate that there has been close to an 80 percent decline in their numbers. Even in the short time (in terms of evolution) that I have lived here, I can remember streams of sooties that seemed to last for miles and miles all along the coast. I haven’t seen that in years.
Other southern migrants that are frequently encountered this time of year are pink-footed shearwaters, laysan and black-footed albatrosses and south polar skuas. The pink-foots breed on the Juan Fernandez Islands and Isla Mocha off Chile, and the two albatrosses in the Hawaiian Island chain and islands off Mexico and Japan, respectively. The skua breeds in the Antarctic. Many of these southern migrants are pathetically ratty, heavily into post-breeding molt.
Whenever one is on the ocean there is always the possibility of seeing something rare or unusual. This past cruise was no exception. It always seems odd to me that interesting birds or mammals so often turn up when one is the most unprepared, and one’s mind is far from the unexpected. I was chatting with one of the oceanographers on the flying bridge, still censusing, but it was rather slow, a very windy day about 50 miles offshore. There were a number of albatrosses about and a few shearwaters but not much else when suddenly a Hawaiian petrel popped up in front of the ship. Totally surprised, I did have the presence of mind to grab my camera (always ready) and took a few photos. Although I don’t see Hawaiian petrels on every rockfish cruise, I see them on perhaps two-thirds. I used to think this was unusual, but recent satellite telemetry data have shown that in spring, the petrels regularly travel from Hawaii to the outer edge of the California Current, a few wandering in closer to shore off California.
But far more exciting for me was the day we were steaming south of Monterey Bay about 20 miles off the coast. It was extremely quiet, with small flocks of California gulls sitting about kelp paddies. In the distance I could see a paddy with about 35 gulls sitting around it and a dark albatross. I didn’t really think much of it; black-footed albatross are abundant this time of year. We got closer, and I started counting the gulls. As my binoculars passed the albatross, I thought “holy s!!*%! That bird has a giant pink beak!” Once again, I grabbed my camera and photographed (poorly, but recognizably) a juvenile short-tailed albatross. It was only the second time I had seen one in the California Current. Historically, short-tailed albatrosses apparently were not uncommon in waters off San Francisco, but due to persecution on their breeding islands off Japan, their numbers were reduced to around 200 individuals. Now protected, the population is believed to be about 3,000 and continuing to grow, including a recent colonization of Midway Atoll in the Hawaiian archipelago.
It was spring, so not only were there seabird migrants, but also a few land birds. On overcast days with distant fog, migrating land birds occasionally would suddenly appear or even drop in, hopping about on deck.
Usually the land birds on the ships are common western migrants: Townsend’s, black-throated gray, orange-crowned and yellow warblers, lazuli bunting, Lincoln’s and white-crowned sparrows, least and western sandpipers and brown-headed cowbird. This year, however, I had a brief encounter with an ovenbird, and on other cruises, blackpoll, prothonotary and hooded warblers, Lapland longspur, peregrine falcon, merlin, osprey, burrowing owl, Pacific golden-plover, a juvenile black-crowned night-heron and a flock of cattle egrets. It is always great fun to see these birds at sea. The down side is that many land on the ship because of exhaustion, and don’t survive. I try to find dead spiders and flies to toss to the warblers, and one year in the central Pacific, I fed a Pacific golden-plover (Peter the Plover) dried krill and later chopped up fresh squid for a couple weeks, until it was strong enough to fly off. I hope it found its way to a South Pacific island to spend the winter.
One obvious change in the land bird migrants in recent years is that one no longer sees mourning doves at sea, only eurasian collared doves. There were at least four around the ship at any one time, and I suspect there were many more over the course of the month.
There is so much life to see and learn about in the ocean. I haven’t even touched on the marine mammals or other creatures that one encounters in the California Current. It is an amazing, productive ecosystem upon which I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend many months traveling, both north and south. But one doesn’t need to spend a month at sea; on a day trip in Monterey Bay or to Cordell Bank one could see all the species I’ve mentioned. One doesn’t have to go far offshore to see seabirds and marine mammals, or offshore at all. In summer, it’s possible to stand on the beach and watch thousands of seabirds and even a few whales feeding just beyond the breakers.
About the Author
Sophie has travelled from the Antarctic to the Arctic and numerous places in between to both draw and study birds. She co-authored and illustrated a Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America (Oxford University Press), a Field Guide to the Marine Mammals of the Pacific Coast (University California Press) and written and illustrated three children’s books about research projects she has worked on (Houghton Mifflin Co). One of her favorite pastimes is to sketch wildlife in the field. She is a director of Oikonos: ecosystem knowledge, a research associate of Point Blue and an occasional employee of NOAA’s South West Fisheries Science Center.