Day 55: Pelagic Magic
Updated: Jan 12
It’s about that time again… When a group of over-caffeinated and drugged birders willing to suffer gather on a boat deck the size of a postage stamp, with nervousness masquerading as excitement, and embark on a strategic route in the open ocean looking for passing seabirds. I’m speaking of course, of the infamous birding pelagic. In this case, a trip from Port Fairy, Victoria. The morning grins and greetings are as naive and cheery as usual, at least until we motor out of the harbor. As the last sight of the jetty leaves our view, the 60-ft fishing boat is then at the whim of the Indian Ocean. Elias and I had written off small boats. Once you experience ocean travel on a large catamaran or any multi-hulled boat, it’s hard to go back. You can’t beat the extra stability. And pelagics in California set the bar sky-high. In addition to the smoother ride, multiple “spotters“ are present (aka the poor souls that are hired to look for movement on a rocking sea for 10+ hours). The spotters are positioned on all sides of the watercraft. Any findings are relayed via walkie-talkie to the lead, who then broadcasts the news over a booming sound system. You can practically set up a deck chair and sit back with a lemonade, minimizing queasy searches for small flying specks. So as far as we were concerned, small boats were a distant thing of the past. But this was a rare exception - this was the Indian Ocean! New species, new boat, and new experience. At least, we hope so.
We’re very easy to pick out in the crowd. Elias is the one grinning like a Cheshire cat, hanging off the rail with a professional camera rig and identifying birds before I could say the word “albatross.” He’s the extroverted one. Ten minutes into the trip, I look over and he has people laughing, patting him on the back, and I’m pretty sure he’s now in someone‘s wedding. Then there’s me - the more introverted one clutching my Saltines in the corner like they will serve as a life raft when I pitch overboard, no doubt uttering some cus words under my breath. Although we both took seasickness meds as a precaution, Elias didn’t need his. He would have no trouble on the spinning wheel amusement park ride - the one that uses centrifugal-force as a tool of torture. As for me, the fish are circling me below, impatiently awaiting their chum. They know whom to stalk for the most handouts. We had one thing going for us - the weather was beautiful. A massive heatwave descended on the Victorian coast just in time and the swell reduced to 4-6 feet, which in Australia is next to nothing.
About 30 minutes into this ride we began to see the first large groups of seabirds, and I temporarily forgot about my predicament. The first arrivals - storm-petrels that literally dance across the water. They forage by hopping on the surface with webbed feet.
Left to right: Wilson’s storm-petrel, fairy prion, gray-backed storm-petrel (walking on water), white-chinned petrel, white-capped albatross, gray-faced petrel)
We’re not going to sugarcoat it. Of all the pelagics we’ve been on, this was probably the most disappointing. We are definitely grateful that we saw a half a dozen or so new species, including the uncommon black-browed albatross and the rarer still, Indian yellow-nosed albatross with an all-black bill. But we essentially paid for the boat and the captain’s time - nothing else. No “spotters” were on board to help with findings. You‘re basically on your own. Elias and I and a couple of dedicated participants found most of the unusual species of the day, and we were brand new to the area. It’s not exactly the role you want to take on as a newcomer. You can’t be 100% positive when you’ve never before seen a species. We would yell out findings as loudly as possible, but not everyone could hear at the other end of the boat. There were no walkie-talkies, no public
announcement system, and no interactions between the birders and the boat crew. The captain neither slowed nor deviated from course because he didn’t know if/when we found something special. We would just have to capture a photo and then reference our photo if no one else saw the bird. On top of which, the trip was expensive relative to the number of people and size of the boat. The lead guide became increasingly disinterested in birding until he finally disappeared for the latter half of the trip. We found him below deck going through the day’s earnings.
Despite all the disappointments, the wildlife of the Indian Ocean made this a magical adventure. The birds stayed with us all day. Common dolphins frequently swam over to the boat to bow-ride. A couple of whale spouts were visible on the horizon. A few people on the boat were gracious enough to help us with identification when they had something to offer. And to top it off, no one chummed the fish! We’ve heard of some spectacular pelagics in Australia, particularly the Eaglehawk Neck trip from a town near Hobart, Tasmania. It just so happened that our schedule fit with the Port Fairy trip. It was wonderful to get a taste. We will definitely be back! Maybe another region next time.