Bright and chipper at the crack of noon*, the Inimitable Todd and I lined up with the other twenty-odd birders and their multitudes of luggage, ready to board the Searcher. Was I excited? Just a little. This boat would be our home, our vehicle, our observation deck, our veritable Xanadu of Birding Bliss for the coming adventure.
And right now, it needed to have a pump replaced. So we hung out on shore for a bit, making small talk and getting to know each other. Then got on board, got a safety lecture, got our stuff stowed. Got out our binoculars and got ourselves positioned at the stern as the boat at last – at last! – began to make its way out of the harbor.
My first lifer came before we even reached open water; a floating platform (apparently the top of some kind of storage locker for bait) was virtually covered with Brandt’s Cormorants, along with a few Brown Pelicans and some California Sea Lions, not to mention Western Gulls and the truly fabulous Heerman’s Gulls.
Abundance would continue to be the theme of this first day (in notable contrast to my last pelagic experience). We were joined by the shearwaters not far out; mostly Sooties and Pink-footed (the latter another lifer) but including a handfull of Black-vented Shearwaters (another lifer.) Again in contrast to the lone Atlantic Sooty I saw last year, many of these birds elected to follow the boat for some distance and show off the wave-skimming skills that give the group its name. There were gulls as well, including a single Sabine (lifer).
Less than a mile out, we had our first jaeger. In fact, before the day was out we’d have multiple sightings of all three jaeger species – Pomarine, Parasitic, and Long-tailed (lifer, lifer, and lifer) – many far longer and closer than the desperate foggy glimpses that I’d been led to believe were typical looks. And then there was the moment when a loud cry of “Skua! Skua! Skua!” went up from the leaders around the boat, and a South Polar Skua** (a bit ratty in molt, but another lifer) came down directly across the bow and circled us long enough for all aboard to get an eyeful.
Less accommodating but even more exciting was the Craveri’s Murrelet that we spotted at the north end of the Nine-Mile Bank (apparently a standard stop for San Diego pelagics). It didn’t stick around long, but out of tribal affinity – or perhaps the desire for a taste of blog fame – it popped up directly underneath the bit of rail where I was standing before disappearing forever as only a softball-sized bird in a Pacific-sized ocean can do. Needless to say, lifer.
Various storm-petrels also abounded in this area; I added Black and Least to my life list but missed the Leach’s that some others spotted.
Such misses were inevitable; there was just plain too much to look at to hope to see everything. Besides the amazing birds already mentioned, many of which appeared in unusual numbers (we put up a raft of ten Long-tailed Jaegers at one point, for instance), there were more sea mammals to watch as well; Sei Whale, Bottlenose Dolphin, Long-beaked Common Dolphin, and Blue Whale. Blue Whales were one of those species, along with the California Condor and Whooping Crane, that I grew up expecting to go extinct long before I would ever have a chance to experience them firsthand; to be proved wrong on this was incredibly moving. The dolphins moved me too; that such intelligent animals, with so little reason to expect anything good from humans and boats, should nevertheless choose to interact with us in a way that seems so joyful…
To cap it all the food was good, the company congenial, the weather pleasant, and the tummy untroubled by turbulence despite my lack of pill, patch, or other preparations. As I fitted myself into the confines of my bunk, I could not help but feel that things were going, as it were, swimmingly.
What would the next day hold? Stay tuned!
*there are many nice things about a multi-day pelagic. One is that you don’t have to leave at the unmentionables of dawn to get out to where the birds are.
**I privately curse the humorless or perhaps teetotalling bird-namer who missed the opportunity to name this bird the Jaegermeister.