I stood along the railing of a large fishing boat, a strong, cold wind blowing on my face. The water of Monterey Bay was choppy and dark beneath a cloudy sky. Thousands of sooty shearwaters flew by both sides of the boat in long lines, flapping hard and fast low over the ocean and then soaring up above the horizon in arcing, stiff-winged glides. Two common murres flushed off the water in front of our boat, flying straight away from us over the waves.
Going on a Shearwater Journeys pelagic birding trip in Monterey Bay had been a dream of mine ever since my dad read The Big Year by Mark Obmascik out loud to my brother and I a few years ago. The Big Year is a goofy book that follows three birders competing in a North American Birding Big Year. One of the characters in The Big Year, a very competitive and stubborn birder named Sandy Komito, decided to do a pelagic birding trip with Debbi Shearwater of Shearwater Journeys. Sandy Komito enjoyed the trip until he realized that the boat was “wasting” valuable birding time looking at whales when he could’ve been adding birds to his year list. He went to the trips leader, Debbi Shearwater, and demanded that they keep moving. She denied him. He then went around the boat and asked every person whether they were there to see birds or whales. He confronted Debi again, informing her that 47 out of the 50 people on the boat were there to see birds, not whales. Debi — who did not move the boat for him — disliked his rude behavior so much that she gave a free trip to one of Sandy’s big year opponents. My brother and I laughed our heads off at this exchange.
Although pelagic birds could theoretically be found almost anywhere over the ocean, they concentrate around spots with lots of food, like Monterey Bay. Under the water of the Bay lies a huge submarine canyon which brings cold, nutrient rich water close to shore that forms the base of the Bay’s rich food web. Tens of thousands of migratory seabirds use the bay as a staging location during their long migrations, and some species like tufted puffin and ashy storm-petrel breed on nearby islands.
So there we were, four years after I’d first heard about the wonders of Monterey’s seabirds, on a boat with Debi Shearwater herself.
After exiting the harbor we traveled along the edge of a kelp forest. Flocks of elegant terns flew over, their rattling calls filling the foggy air. Great egrets and great blue herons hunted from atop the kelp mats. A peregrine falcon alighted on a tall cell tower just barely visible through the fog. Parasitic jaegers harassed gulls into giving up their meals, periodically flying over the boat.
As we turned away from the kelp beds and headed out into open water, someone spotted a gigantic ocean sunfish drifting near the surface of the ocean. The sunfish was bizarrely shaped, seemingly nothing but a large chunk of fish flesh with a weird fin that was feebly moving back and fourth above it. The ocean sunfish or mola mola is the heaviest bony fish in the world, sometimes weighing more than a ton. This one was several feet thick. The boat pulled up for a closer look, and we saw that the sunfish was actually being torn apart by sea lions and western gulls. The sea lions dove at the sunfish in a swirl of motion and emerged with their mouths full of chunks of bloody meat. The western gulls picked off the bits and pieces that fell out of the sea lions’ mouths. It was sad to see such an awesome creature being eaten — especially when it was apparently still alive — but it was fascinating to see all the feeding activity around it. We soon saw a few more, much smaller but healthy sunfish.
Suddenly I heard Debi yelling something in an excited voice. I looked around, worried that I was missing a bird. She repeated herself, and I realized she was talking about the pelagic red crabs that a couple of western gulls were happily munching on. One of the guides standing next to us remarked that “Debi can be a little excitable.” Debi was saying that it was unusual to see such large numbers of the red crabs in the bay except during years with unusually warm water, when they move up the California coast. I remembered seeing swarms of similar looking red crabs in the Channel Islands National Park near Los Angeles two years earlier, so this was interesting information.
A leader began throwing pieces of anchovies out of the boat, which soon attracted a hungry swarm of western gulls. Northern fulmars flew past the boat, occasionally dropping into the wake for a piece of anchovy. Someone yelled “pink footed shearwater!” I ran to the back of the boat and looked behind us at a large, slow-flapping shearwater with a white belly speeding towards us on bowed wings. At least one pink-footed shearwater followed the boat for the rest of the day, sometimes dropping so far behind us as to be barely visible, and then with a few flaps and subtle adjustments of its wings speeding up the wake to right behind the boat.
We continued our progress out into the bay, carefully scanning the sooty shearwaters for other shearwater species. We found a black-vented shearwater, slightly early in Monterey Bay. This was one of the few pelagic birds I had already seen, as they were the abundant shearwater in the Channel Islands when I visited. A Buller’s shearwater made a brief appearance in the in the chum slick, and I barely saw the bird’s bright white underside. Unfortunately it was the only one we saw all day, so I never got a better look. Our boat flushed common murres and rhinoceros and Cassin’s auklets every so often, as well as small flocks of red-necked and a few red phalaropes.
I began to wonder if we would see albatrosses on the trip. I was pretty sure they were still supposed to be reliable in early September, but I was getting worried since we hadn’t seen one yet. I needn’t have feared. A few minutes later, a large, dark seabird appeared on the horizon and began moving towards us. The black-footed albatrosses flight was graceful and even seemingly effortless. When one landed in the wake right behind the boat, we got a good size comparison with western gulls. The black-footed albatross looked double the size, and many times the weight. And they’re supposed to be a small species of albatross!
We arrived back at the harbor around 3:00 pm, exhausted from the wind and motion of the boat but thrilled with the birding experience. I got 12 life birds, which hasn’t happened in the United States for a long time. I also learned a ton about west coast pelagic birds and their identification, and got to see some amazing birds like the black-footed albatross. Debi Shearwater is retiring next year, so I would highly recommend anybody who’s interested to sign up for a trip with her while you still can.