Pre Trip Sketching

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”

-Saint Augustine

One of my favorite parts about travel, aside from the travel itself, is the preplanning and research that happens months and weeks before the date of departure. These preparations creates the palpable excitement that intensifies to the point of lift off.

I am certainly not a planner that wants to know where I’m going to be every minute of the day. I look at it more as planned improvisation. I see it as the framework but I also want to be open to the serendipitous events that can happen when away from home far away. The event you can never plan for but plan to be open to.

One thing that I booked weeks before my autumn trip to New England, was an afternoon whale watching trip out of Bar Harbor, Maine.

EC Pelagic Card

A pre sketch design sketch.

I love whale watching cruises on the West Coast and I have enjoyed seeing humpback, Gray, and blues whale as well as orcas and other dolphins. And I have also enjoyed pelagic birding trips so I was looking forward to Birding on an east coast whaling trip.

You don’t always have a whole lot of time to identify pelagic birds as they pass by so I was going to do a little homework to help me with my fieldwork.

This involves doing a lot of research through field guides and reference books and distilling that knowledge and putting it into a single sketch.

One of the top birds on my East Coast pelagic wish list was great shearwater and I was hoping to see a Manx shearwater too.

Manx shear


Birds of Brazil

At the end of 17 days birding the Cerrado, the southern Amazon Basin, and the Pantanal of Brazil I had added 309 new species to my world lifelist and seen a total of 525 bird species. By the time I boarded the plane in Cuiabá on my way to São Paulo, I had a total of 1,642 world lifers, which is about double the number of species found in the United States.

To reach this number I had to travel. All across the United States from California to Cape May to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Two trips to Spain. Then south to the Americas: Costa Rica Panama, Ecuador, and Brazil and over to the western Pacific to Japan.

I had also whiffed on birds all over California and the rest of the United States. I have many birds that might have been.

It is a reminder to stay in the moment and celebrate the bird in front of you. It may me with you a short time or you may get quality time but it never pays to think of the bird that never was.


Bodega Pelagic

“At length did cross an Albatross,

Through the fog it came;

As if it had been a Christian soul,

We hailed it in God’s name.”

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1834)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

We met at 6:30 AM in the dirt parking lot of Bodega Bay Harbor.

A grizzled, sandaled sea dog of a Welshman stepped forward. He was to be our guide over the next ten hours.

He was and is Steve Howell, seabird author (his book Oceanic Birds of the World was in my pack) and expert of the avian world and he would be helping to identify the pelagic life we would be seeing in the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

While it seemed nice and calm on the dock, Captain Rick warned us of choppy and windy conditions. And things seem nice enough as we headed out of the harbor but once we hit open waters the New Sea Angler bobbed on the waves like a cork. There was a steady stream of birders heading to the stern to “feed the fish”. Luckily I had a stomach of iron and I never suffered from seasickness. But this trip was going to test my will and my digesting breakfast.

Close to port we saw many nearshore species such as brown pelicans, common murres, cormorants, and California gulls. A little further out we saw our first pelagic species: sooty shearwater. As Steve Howell noted, “They’re called shearwaters because, well, they shear the water.” These dark oceanic birds flew with ease, inches above the rolling water, seemingly cutting the surface.

Even further out, we saw our first whale spout. Off on the horizon, to the port side, I saw a humpback whales breach! This is when a cetacean partially or wholly leaves the water’s surface.

We were seeing a smattering of birds followed by a pelagic barrens of no birds. Captain Rick headed towards an anchovy school where about ten humpbacks were feeding. Soon Pacific white-sided dolphins appeared in the swells besides us. One highlight was a lone humpback that passed under the New Sea Angler and surfaced close to our starboard side. The whale was so close that I could hear the leviathan exhaling!

More shearwaters appeared around us: Buller’s, sooty, and pink-footed. Where the whales are you will find pelagic birds. We were still in relatively shallow waters and we had not yet seen the oceans most iconic species: the albatross. Albatross is a deep water species, rarely seen from land.

When we were out about 25 miles, the winds peaked at 20 knots and we saw our first albatross, easily riding the wind. This was the black -footed albatross and we would see more as we labored above the submarine canyon near Cordell Banks.

Two amazing highlights were just ahead of us, above the canyon’s edge. Two massive whale spouts, one after the other, billowed in the air, just to our starboard. Two bluish-gray whales rolled on the water and then appeared again heading on an easterly course, across the canyon. These whales did not appear black, like the humpbacks but we’re blue like their namesake: blue whale. These are the earth’s largest creatures; the largest creatures that ever have lived on the planet earth.

These two whales had their accompanying mass of pelagic birds but one was a sought after bird for this trip. Mario, one of the spotters, called out, “Laysan!” And every birder within earshot rushed to the bow of the boat, eagerly scanning the pitching waves from a pitching boat. Not an easy task. No albatross.  I moved into position, scanning the waters in front of us. The swell moved towards us revealing the following trough. And there was what looked like a massive western gull. “Laysans on the water in front of the boat!” I exclaimed.

The Laysan sat on the pitching waters, stretching it’s long, narrow wings. The birder density was reaching critical mass on the bow as this was a sought after a lifer as well as a Sonoma County bird. After a quick preen, the albatross stretched out both wings, ran across the waters, and effortlessly lifted off into the air. It headed to the east, presumably to catch up with the blue whales.

Cordell SketchA sketch to pass the time as we headed back to port. I had attempted to sketch earlier but didn’t have my sea legs yet and it came off rather disheveled. Sketching on a moving boat is not as hard as it seems, and I had some experience in the boats of the Amazon and the Pantanal. But Big Blue offers huge challenges for the sketcher of the waters.


The Conception

On Monday of the Labor Day Weekend, 2019, word was out about a boating accident near California’s Channel Islands. When “Santa Cruz Island” and “scuba boat” were mentioned on the radio newscast, I was all ears.

The reason for my instant attention was that I had been to Santa Cruz Island twice. More recently on a camping trip to the Scorpion Bay Anchorage and then in April 2006, a scuba diving trip on a live aboard diving boat out of Santa Barbara.

When more news came out it became clear that a diving boat had caught fire in the early morning hours of September 2 with passengers asleep below deck. The fire quickly engulfed the vessel and the boat sank. At the time of this blog’s writing, it was believed that all the passengers, 34 divers, had perished while five crew members had escaped.

The name of the dive boat was “Conception”.

I headed home after work on Tuesday and rummaged through a storage box that contained my 9 by 12 Canson all media journals. I was looking for the journal that contained sketches from my 2006 dive trip. In the fifth journal I checked, I flipped through the pages to find the dockside sketch of the live aboard dive boat the night before we headed out to Santa Cruz Island. Below the sketch I noted the ships specs: Built: 1981, Length: 79’, Beam 25’, Cruising speed: 12 knots. Above the drawing was neatly stenciled letters in all caps. It was the boat’s name.

Her name was Conception.

This discovery sent chills through my body and a wave of empathy and horror for those who had perished.

Quail Rock

I turned the page to find a near monotoned sketch, dated 4/29/06, of a rock called “Quail Rock”, a sketch I remember doing on the deck of the Conception between dives. I had a quote from my dive buddy written in the bottom left corner: It’s like the difference between driving & walking. ~Sam on the difference between sketching and photography.

The last of the three sketches I did on this trip was the most chilling. It is dated  4/30/06. It is a comic of myself, squeezing into the tight berth below decks in the Conception. It shows me with my arm braced inches above my head, my teeth clenched in frustration as the sound of the boat’s engine drones on.  The title is, “Lower Bunk 10D of the CONCEPTION”. And here is the really chilling aspect of this illustration: it looks like I’m trapped alive in a coffin, like something out of a Poe short story. This was an illusion to show how cramped and uncomfortable my bunk was.



Haunted Hospital

There was always that house that your mother told you to stay away from. The odd boxy house at the end of the street. The one where the dogs in the neighborhood wouldn’t even use the front lawn to relieve themselves. That house.

I wanted to sketch Nevada City’s version of that house only it was not a house but a madhouse. The former Nevada County Hospital. The hospital that most locals don’t want you to know about.

The original hospital was built in the 1860s and different wings were added to the main building over it’s lifetime. The building served many purposes over the years but the reason the structure in now infamous is because of a January 2001 shooting spree.

In 2001 the building housed the Nevada County Department of Behavioral Health when a patient, a former school janitor, who was suffering from mental health issues, entered the building and shot three people, two of whom died. He then drove to a Lyons Restaurant near Grass Valley and shot two more people because he thought that they were trying to poison him.

In all, he fired 20 shots from his semi-automatic pistol leaving three people dead. The killer was declared incompetent to stand trial and he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He is currently at the Napa State Hospital for mentally ill patients.

There are no maintenance vehicles in the parking lot of a building that needs lots of maintenance. All the windows of the former hospital are boarded up.

Five years after the tragic events of January 10, 2001, the hospital closed it’s doors for good. The windows were boarded up and the doors locked and the the massive structure sits alone and abandoned, just off a two lane country road, across Highway 49 from downtown Nevada City.

It is hard not to think of the the ghosts of the past as I stood in front of the closed hospital. The structure must have many stories within it’s boarded up walls, some uplifting and happy and others quite tragic. These tales are all silent now and the only sounds I hear are the calls of red-breasted nuthatches and Stellar’s jays from the trees above.

If there was any good that came from the tragedy of January 2001, it was the creation of Laura’s Law, a law that assists outpatient treatment for the mentally ill. The law is named after Laura Wilcox, the first victim that was murdered at the hospital. She was a 19 year old intern who was working at the Department of Behavioral Health during her winter break from college.

Michael Moore’s 2002 Academy Award winning documentary about America’s gun violence epidemic, Bowling For Columbine, is dedicated to Laura Wilcox.