Before arriving at 5:15 A.M. to the landing and meeting area, we prepared for the trip. Although San Diego doesn't appear to be very cold, it can sure be cold out in the ocean. I dressed in layers. Also, the sun beam is terrible when it comes off of the waters when out at sea. Such circumstances can create terrible sun burns at the same time. We had a banana and yogurt breakfast provided by the Dolphin Motel we were staying at, and we got our gear ready. I also had a load of bland and pelagic appropriate foods such as crackers, pretzels, and granola bars.
For fun, here are a few of the factoids regarding the trip courtesy of Buena Vista Audubon Society, which this trip is sponsored by the Buena Vista Audubon Society and Grande Sportfishing:
"This popular 12-hour trip goes to the farthest reaches of San Diego County waters—the 30-Mile Bank—to look for seabirds only occasionally or rarely seen in San Diego County (may very briefly bird in L.A. Co. waters). This is an excellent time of year for such sought-after species as Black-footed Albatross, Ashy Storm-Petrel, South Polar Skua, and Scripps’s Murrelet. Near the peak of spring migration.
LIKELY SPECIES: Pink-footed & Sooty Shearwaters, Ashy & Black Storm-Petrels, Brown Booby, Red-necked & Red Phalaropes, Pomarine & Parasitic Jaegers, Scripps’s Murrelet, Cassin’s & Rhinoceros Auklets, Sabine’s Gull. POSSIBLE SPECIES: Black-footed Albatross, Northern Fulmar, Black-vented Shearwater, Leach’s Storm-Petrel, Red-billed Tropicbird, South Polar Skua, Common Murre, Common Tern."
LANDING LOCATION: We will board Grande 30 minutes prior to departure at Point Loma Sportfishing Landing, 1403 Scott Street at the corner of Emerson (one block off Rosecrans Street) in San Diego 92106. Phone: (619) 223-1627. There are several hotels/motels and many restaurants within easy walking distance of the dock, and the San Diego Airport is only a 5-minute drive away."
The check in time for the Grande Pelagic Trip was from 5-6 A.M. Boarding the Grande took place at 6:15, and departure was to be at 6:30. As Gordon and I got there, plenty of birders were already there, and the capacity was close to forty people who were lined up for the pelagic trip. The leader of the trip, Dave Povey was already there and we talked with him for a bit before boarding the boat. Gary Nunn and Guy McCaskie, two epic birders, where two of the five or so leaders that were aboard the Grande. Once people boarded the boat, Dave Povey explained the rules and how to stay safe on the boat, as well as explain how to vomit off the boat if need be. Despite the fact we geared up in preparation for preventing motion sickness, those motions can still make you sick. I hoped and prayed it wouldn't happen to me. They also told us how to look for the birds that were detected and called out. When they described the location of a bird in proximity to the boat, they would describe it in a clockwise way so folks would know where to look. The front of the boat would be 12:00, the rightside would be 12 through 6, while 6 would be the back of the boat, and then the left side of the boat would be 6 through 12:00. If someone would call out "Jaeger" at 2:30 that would mean the bird would be on the right side of the boat and close to the center-side of the right side of the boat, but still not quite at 3:00.
Birdwise, I knew that I was going to be adding a handful of lifers. I didn't know which ones, but I was hoping for some of the cooler ones. Birders often describe the super cool birds as the"sexy birds" and for this trip, I guess there were four of them that I was really hoping for. Those four birds were Black-footed Albatross, any Jaeger, South Polar Skua, and Red-billed Tropicbird. The Albatross was my number one desire, and I wanted to see that bird, or just any Albatross species in general, more than any other pelagic species. Albatrosses were headlining my mind, and that was the bird that would make my trip more than the others. And luckily, on recent scouting trips taken by Dave Povey and others, they had turned up multiple Black-footed Albatrosses just days earlier. I was very optimistic about our chances of seeing one. For me, I guess seeing an Albatross would be equivalent to one going to southeastern Arizona for the very first time wanting to see an Elegant Trogon. In the book, America's 100 Most Wanted Birds by Steven Mlodinow and Michael O' Brien, they describe the high Albatross desires for birders perfectly: "To many, albatrosses are the quintessential pelagic birds. A sighting of any species, even the fairly common Black-footed, often elicits shouts of excitement and cries of joy. The Laysan Albatross, being rare in our waters, creates an even greater ruckus". In all honesty, I read that line today in that book as I write. They described my highly coveted desire to see one of these birds with that exact statement they said in word-for-word perfection. I kept saying over and over, "I want an Albatross, I don't care what kind of Albatross, I just want AN ALBATROSS". As the boat was nearing takeoff that May 16th morning, I was hoping for the best.
Many rarities have been discovered on San Diego waters, and the most recent was a Long-tailed Jaeger and even the 2nd ever San Diego County record of a Laysan Albatross. The latter was two weeks before our trip, unfortunately. Species like that were also on my mind, even though I was doubtful we would encounter any of them. After all, it was my first pelagic, everything is exciting!
Our captain Dave Povey started telling us about the water conditions at sea. He said we were going to go through some rough patches of ocean on our way out to the 9 and 30 mile banks we were traveling to from the San Diego Bay. Water swells were going to be up to six feet high, which would cause the boat to sway back-and-fourth and up-and-down a lot. It wasn't enough for the condition to be horrible, but it wasn't the greatest of conditions either at the same time. I tried to not let it get to me, and I was focused and was concentrating highly on the hopes of landing that Albatross, Skua, Tropicbird, or Jaeger. Then the demonic voice of Kenny Bostick in the Big Year movie came to mind, "It's hard to see and be well with all the pitching and tossing. Pitching and tossing. Pitching and tossing". I immediately erased that thought out of my head also. Pitching and tossing.....Pitching an--------------------------stop. I told myself I was going to be fine. After everyone was aboard the Grande, we left the Point Loma Sportfishing Landing right at 6:30. Only ten minutes into leaving, we had to do a u-turn to pick up two people who were late to the boat. All I can say was that Povey and the crew were extremely generous to turn around and pick up two people who didn't take the time to read the papers right. After all, we weren't that far off from the landing and it would really suck for those two people to have missed the boat by minutes. By this time, it was now official, we weren't turning around to head in that direction of the landing until we were thirty miles out on the open ocean. See the huge bag of popcorn above? There were actually two of them on the boat. They were used to lure and chum birds in, especially gulls and in the beginning stretches of the excursion, Brown Pelicans. Chumming birds increases odds of attracting other birds, such as Jaegers.
Passing through the San Diego Bay brought in a many cool sights, such as this huge navy ship and this submarine. And a few Sea Lions.
As we were heading out of San Diego Bay, we stopped at a jetty which contained my first life bird of the boating trip. It's one I've wanted for awhile-the Black Oystercatcher. While the birders scanned the jetty for the bird, it didn't take long to spot the distinctive bird. There was a problem though...the bird was far away. The crew made efforts to get closer to the black shorebird. As we were heading over to the jetty, I looked up through my binoculars and could see the Black Oystercatcher walking from one point to another. I was able to see it's striking red bill, which was cool. By the time we got closer to the bird, it decided to put it's head down and never lift it up again while we were watching it. It's still evident about what the bird is.
The Grande has a speaker system, which allows the leader to talk into the microphone to rapidly announce any bird sightings, give information about identifying birds and tell about their natural history, and tell when we were coming up upon important sea marks significant to our trip such as the 9 and 30 mile banks. As we were leaving the bay area, many Western Gulls and Brown Pelicans were giving into the leaders' chumming. I found it fun to watch the birds coming close to the boat to feed and investigate our popcorn. Here is a short video of that sequence:
Up to the few miles we traveled leading out of the bay, the water was smooth. Shortly after, we reached the mouth of the bay and the water became quite rough. There was a lot of pitching and tossing. I grabbed a rail of the boat and held on, and when I wasn't holding onto something, it was easy to slip and lose my footing. At this point, many Western Gulls were still following us and a Heerman's Gull also joined in with them. Least and Elegant Terns were also plentiful. The captain explained on the intercom, "It's going to be rough for awhile, but we'll get through this". Eventually, Guy McKaskie soon found the first pelagic bird of the trip, which oddly wasn't a life bird for me. Guy has an eagle eye, and he shouted, "Black-vented Shearwater". I saw this seabird from shore last year will scanning La Jolla Point in March, and it is one of the only pelagic birds that can be seen from shore. The water was bouncy, but I was having a good time despite being a little concerned at first about getting seasick. As we looked for the Black-vented Shearwaters, it wasn't too hard to spot them. The skies were overcast above, and it made it reasonably easy to spot darker birds flying over the waters.
Just as the Black-vented Shearwater became the first pelagic bird to go on my life list, it also became the first pelagic bird I've ever been able to photograph, even if it is a crappy photograph! With all of the pitching and tossing, photography was not easy.
As I mentioned earlier, the Black-vented Shearwater is automatically unlike other Shearwaters because of how often it can be seen from land along the coast. This bird feeds no more than 10 miles from the shore, where it eats fish, crustaceans, and squid. It has very fast wing beats, and it is the smallest of the Pacific Shearwaters. This bird swims very well and will dive into the water to feed. Guy then spied a few Sooty Shearwaters, and I wasn't able to photograph the first ten or so that were flying around. Someone would spy a seabird at a specific spot and the bird would fly past the boat. Swells in the water would obstruct views of birds as they would go up-and-down. When the swell went up, the bird wasn't visible, but when it went back down again, the bird would go back to being visible. It made viewing very challenging at times. A school of Common Dolphins were very nice to see, my first ever Dolphin in the wild. I even saw one jump once, but this was the best I was able to do with the camera.
As we went further out into the ocean, we hit the cut-off point for seeing Black-vented Shearwaters. We then came upon the heat zone for the Sooty Shearwater, which was my second lifer of the pelagic trip and my first pelagic lifer of the day.
Sooty Shearwaters are abundant birds and are common visitors off of both the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts. They nest in New Zealand and have spectacular migration routes. Although this bird migrates singly, it often forms in large flocks on the ocean waters. Despite the fact it is very common, it was my first ever time of seeing them, and I enjoyed every one of them that I saw. Some Shearwaters follow boats, but Sooty Shearwaters don't. They did come within close range of the boat often throughout the trip's duration.
I really liked the Pink-footed Shearwater a lot. One was because it was a life bird of course, and the other reason was because they followed our boat regularly which allowed excellent views of them for study and better photography chances than what the other two shearwaters would give.
Pink-footed Shearwaters nest in Chile where their breeding grounds are located during our winter, meaning breeding time in Chile is their summer. Like the Black-vented Shearwater, it can sometimes be seen from shore. Other than when this bird is breeding, it spends it's days at sea.
Although the first half of the excursion had overcast and cloudy weather conditions, some sunlight eventually began to break through the cloud cover. It looked very cool when the lighting changed out on the ocean. The mass amounts of Western Gulls continued to follow us as the popcorn was thrown out onto the water. I thought to myself, "Pomarine Jaeger, you can come anytime now."
The area of the 9-mile bank was very productive. Breeching Fin Whales were spotted due to them blowing water up out of their blowholes. At one point, we got very close to one of the whales and I was even able to briefly get a glimpse of it rising above the water surface. And then a few Cassin's Auklets were spied, which was my first alcid that I have ever seen in my life. They are very skittish when it comes to bigger boats being around, so a fly-away look was all I got of the flock that took off and several more times throughout the day the same thing also resulted with more Cassin's Auklet flocks that birders spied on the boat. Someone then spied a small group of Scripp's Murrlets. There were three Murrelets in the flock, and one of them was a fledgling. I was able to get on the Murrelets and see them fairly well, but I was in a poor position on the boat to get the looks that I desired. The water wells made it hard for me to see the birds most of the time and I was in the back of a crowd of birders. I got a few decent glimpses of the bird through my binoculars to see it's features, and then I snapped a prayer-of-a-picture in hopes that somehow the Murrelets would show up in it. The attempt felt so crappy when I shot it that I completely forgot I even snapped it. When I looked through my pictures later, I realized I did capture this small alcid!
Scripp's Murrelets nest on rocky islands well offshore from the coast out on the ocean. They feed on small fish and plankton and the chicks interestingly go to sea with the adults only two days after hatching! While observing these birds, they dove several times and it made things interesting in terms of relocating them. Chumming gulls made them seem more weary because of the young bird they had with them, and it didn't take them long to leave. Two more lifers than came-Black and Ashy Storm-Petrels. Storm-Petrels are small pelagic birds who are found far offshore over open ocean waters. They land on shore only at night when they are nesting, and other than that, they are completely pelagic. Flight patterns come in handy for identification a lot of times with these birds. With these two life birds I got in the Storm-Petrel department, that was the case. The Black Storm-Petrels were very common, and only a few Ashy Storm-Petrels were seen. Black Storm-Petrels have very deep and smooth wingbeats with frequent glides, while Ashy Storm-Petrels have shallower and quicker wingbeats. I picked out an Ashy Storm-Petrel while studying the Blacks. Because Ashy was outnumbered to a high extent, I managed to get photographs of only the Black Storm-Petrels. They are small and aren't so easy to photograph, but at least these pictures are identifiable.
As we got past the 9-mile bank, we entered the waters of the deeper ocean until we got to the 30-mile bank. The captain announced that this would be a good time to spy an Albatross. My eyes were peeled, and I was hoping for that epic moment to soon come fourth. The deeper waters didn't harbor nearly as many birds, but there were still birds to be seen. Here is another video, as we were now in the deep sea!
From the start of the deeper waters until we got to the 30-mile bank, it seemed as if the birds slowed down a lot. Newer birds were starting to become scarce and the star birds that everyone was hoping for were still putting everyone on hold. Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters were making regular appearances, as were Black Storm-Petrels. The Western Gulls were still following us, and we also had Elegant Terns flying over the boat this far out at sea regularly also. It was along this stretch that we encountered Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters sitting together on the water in mixed flocks.
As we reached the early afternoon, I started to become very tired. And notice how I haven't mentioned anything about getting seasick. Well, I wasn't fazed at all by any of it! I conquered the sea on my first time out, and as we made it to our farthest reaches before we started the long trip back, I knew I wasn't getting sick. I even found myself snacking on stuff the entire trip. The Grande had many epic features. It had bunkbeds underneath the main boat level, an indoor lounge, and even a grill and galley. On staff was a dude who was quite the cook. I ordered myself a cheeseburger from him and having a burger out on the ocean while being hungry certainly hit the spot. While I was eating my burger, I heard a scream, "Rhino". I knew right away that they were talking about my third alcid lifer of the day, the Rhinoceros Auklet. With the burger being in my mouth, and my camera in the other, I multi-tasked and managed to get a look and even a photograph of this not-so-striking-but-still-cool Rhino Auklet. It was tough shooting over the heads of people, but this can show the beauty of cropping pictures.
Here is another video from the pelagic trip. This is when the sun fully came out, and you can also hear the intercom of the Grande being used as an Ashy Storm-Petrel was sighted.
Near the 30-mile bank and on the way back, several Brown Boobies were entertaining. Throughout the trip, we saw ten of them in total.
As we started to head back, it seemed as if our chances for getting Albatross, Skua, Jaeger, or Tropicbird were growing slimmer and slimmer. Regardless, the trip was a huge hit because it was my first real time of being out in the ocean and it was my first real time of studying these birds. I don't know what it was, but I didn't feel optimistic about adding anything new for the trip lifer wise. Honestly, I was a little dissapointed that none of these four birds I was dreaming about (especially the Albatross) hadn't shown up. I was talking with Gary Nunn and he said, "I would have thought the Albatrosses would have shown up by now". As the day was growing older and the hours left on the trip were decreasing, I was getting tired and tired and even more tired. I found myself sitting on a foldout chair on the boat. Several times I dozed off, but this time, I was out. Sleeping in a chair out in the ocean is nice, it feels like a rocking chair that is run by batteries. I couldn't stop thinking about those coveted goodies that everyone on the boat was hoping to see. But those goodies could be anywhere and anytime. And we had a massive ocean we were out in. As long was we were out there, we really weren't covering much of the expanse at all. It was only our travel route. I'm sure this birder was thinking the same thing.
I was probably out for close to an hour. It was after four when I woke up, and the Grande was to be back at the landing at 6:30 P.M. I looked up and asked Gordon if anything was seen and he said, "If there was, I would have waken you up right away!" This time, I was more awake after my nap and it felt weird waking up to the ocean after every time I nodded off. I heard Povey announce that we were nearing the nine-mile bank once again, and I felt as if it was our last possible chance of getting something good. After all, good sightings during the week took place here earlier and we had a lot of activity at this stretch earlier in the morning on our first go around. I got ready and got my eyes peeled for the final two hours of our twelve hour trip. An obstacle did come in the way though-I had to pee. I had to pee really bad, and it was my third pee break of the trip. I wanted to get it over with before we really hit the 9-mile bank. During the course of the trip, I stood in one spot almost the entire time. I'm sure people thought I was a moron. To me, the spot helped me stay on balance, gave me a good spot to lean on, and I was more balanced on it than elsewhere. I left my spot to pee one more time. The men's room at the place had a very narrow, maze-like entryway that was maybe a foot wide before there was a open urinal and stall. It was weird peeing while pitching and tossing and moving rapidly up and down. This time it was no different, and I had my junk out and was ready to pee when I heard the intercom go off. It was hard to hear, but it sounded like a three-toned word was exclaimed. I only heard the first word. "Black-ahgopg-snvvohgogh". I heard people running from one side of the boat to the other and I thought, "there's no freaking way he said Black Storm-Petrel". There was only one other option!
Even though the pee was 99 percent ready to fly out into the Grande urinal, it had to wait. I quickly pulled my pants back up and opened the door. I asked another birder, "what did he say". The birder yelled back, "Black-footed Albatross". I ran back to the back of the boat where I was thirty seconds earlier and I saw Gordon anxiously looking back at me as I ran up. When I got to Gordon I said, "where the heck is it!!???" and Gordon pointed out that it was circling back around to our side of the boat at about the 5:30 direction. I looked up and saw the magnificent bird coming in all it's epicness. Long wings, massive size, good looks, etc. The other birds seemed to just get out of the Albatross's path. And the Black-footed Albatross was coming in for a landing right behind our boat to see what the Western Gulls were feeding on.
I felt as if my head was going was going to explode. The boat had finally had that breakthrough of it's first real epic bird of the day. People were running around everywhere and were going frantic over the sight of this majestic bird. I couldn't believe my eyes, and I was scrambling around myself and trying to get better looks and photographs of the Albatross. I then got at an angle after the Albatross landed in the water. It took a taste of what the Western Gulls were feeding on and got some popcorn in it's system.
The Black-footed Albatross didn't seem to take too much interest in the popcorn, and then quickly lifted up and flew around the immediate area of the boat. My most wanted desire of seeing an Albatross on this trip had come true, and I watched this bird with intensity. I didn't know how to take the excitement in, but the Albatross did make things easier on me as it continued to fly near the boat.
I wasn't even watching my first ever Albatross for even a minute when something else crazy took place. It almost felt like something far-fetched that one would read in a novel or would watch in a movie. The Black-footed Albatross was flying around us and it felt to good to be true with how it came out of nowhere like it did, but there was actually something else out there that was coming our way behind the Black-footed Albatross...and it was in the running to actually top this awesome Black-footed Albatross. Does that seem hard to believe? Look how cool this bird is in itself!
While everyone was busy being amazed at the Black-footed Albatross, Povey screamed over the intercom, "LAYSAN ALBATROSS COMING IN AT 5:30!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!". I was in shock and I thought this was way too good to be true. As I was already on cloud nine with the first Albatross, I looked to my slight-right to see my second lifer Albatross of the day coming in. The sight of it coming in was something I will never forget for as long as I live.
Like the Black-footed Albatross, the Laysan Albatross came in out of nowhere and it was a complete surprise. It flew right up to the back side of the boat and sat in front of everyone briefly before flying around again. The entire group of nearly forty birders watched in shock and excitement.
With two Albatross lifers in my sight in under a minute, this immediately goes down as one of the best experiences I have ever had in my 15 years of birding. I said I wanted AN Albatross species, I never thought I would get both on San Diego waters. Status wise, the Black-footed Albatross is uncommon on San Diego waters as well as throughout the Pacific Ocean. It is regularly seen with excitement from birders. On the other hand, the Laysan Albatross is rare in North American waters but is annual. However, in southern California, the Laysan Albatross is very rare. In San Diego County waters, it is accidental and is a mega-rarity. Assuming this is the same bird that Dave Povey found two weeks earlier in this spot, it is only the second known occurrence of Laysan Albatross in San Diego County! It was announced that is was even a county bird for the long time legend Guy McCaskie aboard. Dave Povey said, "If you guys are part of a pelagic trip where Guy gets a county bird, you know it's an great bird!!" The birders and crew spent the next twenty minutes observing both of these fantastic birds. Ironically after the Laysan Albatross flew in, a second Black-footed Albatross even flew in!
While I got a double lifer Albatross hit, Gordon lifered on the Laysan when it flew in. Both Albatrosses nest on islands in Hawaii, especially Laysan, where it nests exclusively on Hawaiian Islands. Black-footed also nests on Wake Island, several islands south of Japan, and some off of northwestern Mexico. Laysan Albatross also prefers cooler and more offshore waters than Black-footed Albatross does. Both Albatrosses are at risk: Laysan is threatened and Black-footed is endangered. Albatrosses feed heavily on squid, but also feed on fish, fish eggs, crustaceans, carrion, and off course food chummed off to them on boats. To me, my favorite thing about the Albatross is that other than the short time it spends on islands to breed, it then lives the rest of it's life out at sea. What a bird, and what a day, getting to see three different Albatrosses of two different species.
I hope I'm fortunate enough to cross paths with these cool birds again someday!
The trip was now more than complete and there were a few more neat sightings during the last few hours of the pelagic. One of those sightings were these two Common Terns sitting on this floating weed.
This is a Cassin's Auklet flying away, probably not good enough to count as a photographic lifer ;)
As we got into the San Diego Bay area, Gordon and I had excellent looks at these striking Surf Scoters! This was the best of photos I have ever been able to obtain of male Surf Scoters.
Alicia was taking her turn at chumming...
As we got back to the Point Loma Sportfishing Landing at 6:30 P.M., a Snowy Egret landed on the Grande before the boat even came to a stop.
When the boating trip was all said-and-done, I have to say that it is one of the coolest things I have ever done in my life. Being out on the ocean and seeing these birds for the first time was something I can describe a lot more than even the mass of text on this post. I want to go again and I know that I will Lord willing go again. Gordon and I both discussed that we know that we can handle the ocean without getting seasick now, and the task of it all doesn't seem overwhelming. The pelagic trip on the Grande gave me ten life birds: Black Oystercatcher, Sooty Shearwater, Pink-footed Shearwater, Black Storm-Petrel, Ashy Storm-Petrel, Cassin's Auklet, Scripp's Murrelet, Rhinoceros Auklet, Black-footed Albatross, and Laysan Albatross. The bird of the trip for me was of course the Laysan Albatross due to it's mega-rarity status but the Black-footed Albatross certainly isn't that far behind. Gordon and I celebrated the successful trip by eating seafood.
Pelagic birding is something I want to return too, and I don't want to wait a long time to go again either. The ocean is an epic place to go out onto with a lot of neat things in it's massive expanse that need to be discovered.