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Pioneer Canyon Pelagic

For months, Grasshopper Sparrow has been dreaming of going on a pelagic to see some of the iconic west coast species: shearwaters, storm-petrels, and the mighty black-footed albatross! And finally the morning came for a September Alvaro’s Adventures pelagic trip to the continental self from Pillar Point Harbor.

A loose sketch of a budding birder checking out the birds on the breakwater as we head out of Pillar Point Harbor.

We arrived at the harbor half an hour before the meeting time of 6:30 AM. I felt like a child on Christmas Eve, I was excited and I rarely sleep well before a pelagic. Pelagic trips are so exciting because you never know what you’re going to see.

This pelagic produced some avian highlights but on this trip the cetaceans really shined.

A loose pen brush sketch from the stern of the Huli Cat. Not an easy thing to do with the rolling and rocking of the boat in open sea. That’s why it’s loose!

As we headed out into the foggy bay we saw many rafts of common murres. It took a while to see a sooty shearwater and our first was a lone individual, strange for such a gregarious species. As we headed further out we saw more sootys and then our first pink-footed shearwater. A bird misinterpreted by an elderly woman on the trip as a “pink” shearwater, the flamingo of the sea. We came upon small rafts of red-necked phalaropes. Then we saw our first storm-petrel, an ashy.

We were all anticipating the first appearance of an albatross. Once the depth went from 200 feet dropping down to 1,000 and more, we knew we had passed over the continental shelf and were over Pioneer Canyon. This is where pelagic life really intensifies. These were the waters of the albatross. But we didn’t see any of these monarchs of the open seas (well not yet, anyway).

We where not over the submarine canyon long before we were surrounded by dolphins, hundreds of them. Pacific white-sided dolphins same toward the Huli Cat, riding our bow wake and jumping in our stern wake. Mixed in with this large pod were the northern right-whale dolphin, it’s finless back can be easily confused with sea lions. The large pod seemed to seek out our boat and many dolphins where fully breaching out of the water! Their playfulness in water reminded me of ravens in the air.

We next encountered a pair of humpback whales. As we cruised along the continental shelf we came to our best whale sighting of the day. Two blue whales that we kept pace with for about 10 minutes. This is the largest animal to have ever lived on planet earth and it is always amazing to see this leviathan of the Oceans. In fact, there were two of three other blue whales in the area, their tall, straight blow gave away their positions. The two whales would pause on the surface, perhaps resting before diving down, showing their massive fluke as they searched the nutrient rich waters for krill.

The mighty blue whale. We saw their flukes as they dived down.

Later, to our starboard, a young humpback whale entertained us by breaching (jumping) out of the water. We were able to watch about ten breaches from this playful whale.

We came to a group of gulls and shearwaters on the water, perhaps feeding on the remainder of a sea lion meal when Alvaro yelled out the word we were yearning to hear, “Albatross!” A lone black-footed albatross passed us on our port side, giving us great views of it’s effortless flight. We later saw one other albatross but this pelagic was marked by the presence of some amazing cetaceans.

And Grasshopper also got some great lifers, both pelagic birds and marine mammals!

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Half Moon Bay Pelagic Birding

To the outside eye, birding makes a man do some crazy things. The list is too long to retell here and to be honest I have conveniently forgotten a few.

So what do I do on my first Saturday after my first week back at school. Relax? Of course not! I wake up at 5:30 AM, drive 30 minutes through pea soup thick, Pacifica fog and stop to caffeinated at the Press Cafe, where all the fisherman of Pillar Point Harbor do the same (they open at 4 AM daily).

I then stood at the base of the Johnson Pier, coffee in hand and my binoculars around my neck, wearing them as a lanyard at a conference, announcing my place in the world. Other birders slowly wandered in to form in loose flocks, some nibbling ginger cookies other talking about recent avian sighting.

Our destination was the pelagic birding grounds of San Mateo County and we would be heading out to the Continental shelf aboard the New Captain Pete, a 53 foot fishing charter boat. But we would be doing no fishing on this all day trip.

Sunrise over Pillar Point breakwater as the New Captain Pete heads out to the Pelagic birding grounds of San Mateo County.

We headed out from the harbor it was interesting to see the groups of birds we were seeing as we were heading out to the pelagic or open ocean birding grounds. We first where seeing coastal species such as brown pelican, Caspian tern, and Brandt’s cormorant. A little further out we started seeing marine species that can be seen from land but with a scope. Common murre, a parent with begging young in tow, a pair of marbled murrelets, and a few Heerman’s gulls on the water. At the edge of this zone we spotted our first northern fulmar.

My pelagic map (from Pillar Point Harbor).

As we headed closer to the Continental shelf we became to see more pelagic species that are rarely seen from land such as Buller’s and pink-footed shearwaters, pomarine and long-tailed jaegers, and the long haul migrant, the arctic tern.

As we approached the shelf we spotted a giant of a bird, sitting on the water. This was the master of the wind, the black-footed albatross, a west coast speciality. These birds are amazing to watch on the wing and there can be very tame, often approaching boats.

Once we hit the weather buoy on the Continental shelf, we seem to be seeing more shearwaters and were surrounded by Pacific white-sided dolphins that road the bow wake and paralleled our path. On this journey we also spotted about 40 humpback whales.

Over all it was amazing day at sea, with calm seas, many pelagic bird species and marine mammals.

I highly recommend going with Alvaro’s Adventures on a pelagic trip to the Continental shelf.