Image

Monterey Bay Classic Pelagic

The first time I remember going out on a boat on Monterey Bay I was in high school. That year (1988, I think), numbers of blue whales were being attracted by krill into the nutrient-rich bay.

My dad and I took a whale watch boat out of Monterey’s Old Fisherman’s Wharf and it was the first time I set eyes on the world’s largest animal. I was able to take a few pictures of the whale’s blue-gray mass. Later, I told my biology teacher that I had seen blue whales in Monterey Bay. He didn’t believe me, but I showed him pictures to prove it!

In the ensuring 30 years, I have been on a few Monterey Bay pelagic birding and whale trips. But it had been a while so, when I saw that Alvaro’s Adventures was taking a trip to the bountiful Monterey Bay, I signed up.

I love Monterey because of it’s place in California’s history. The American flag was first raised in Monterey. Our state constitution was written (in English and Spanish) at Colton Hall, a short walk from Monterey Wharf.

What I don’t love about Monterey is it’s wharf. This is full of tourist junk shops and cheesy nautical themed restaurants but it’s saving grace is to be found at the end of the wharf: the companies that lead nature tours (mainly for whales) out into the Monterey Bay Sanctuary.

The orca sign at the dock to Monterey Bay Whale Watch and our masked-leader below, Alvaro. I had seen a pod of orca in the bay a few years ago. I wouldn’t mind seeing the world’s largest dolphin again.

I found myself here at a quarter to seven at a wharf that was slowly coming to life, which would be a jarring contrast on our return later that afternoon when hordes filled the wharf, having not got the note about social distancing.

A few pelagic birders were milling about. You could always tell them apart, they had on birding hats, often displaying some national or international birding destination. They usually had optics around their neck and were nibbling on ginger snaps or cookies and thumbing through bird guides. Some where even checking out the local western gulls and pelicans.

Today our boat was manned (this doesn’t sound right) by two women. She was a large boat, the 70 foot Sea Wolf II and was made, not for fishing, but whale watching, a perfect vessel for pelagic birding! Of course the real Sea Wolf of the seas is the orca aka the killer whale.

There was plenty of leg room on the Sea Wolf II. The red tape on the rail was placed six feet apart to encourage social distancing. One of these lines of perspective is straight. My money is on the horizon. The Sea Wolf had lots of places to stand or sit with clear views of Big Blue.

We boarded and before long where heading out into Monterey Bay. The swells were high and I enjoyed riding the rhythms of the sea like a nautical bucking bronco, a raucous sea horse! A few members of birders joined the Feeding-the Fish Club. Luckily, touch wood, I have never been a member of this club.

The reason Monterey Bay is a legendary location for pelagic life is the marine canyon, the Monterey Submarine Canyon, that bisects the bay. This canyon starts just to the west of Moss Landing. The canyon, at certain places, is a mile in depth and is the deepest submarine canyon on the west coast; a Grand Canyon of the Pacific. This canyon produces nutrient-ruch waters that attracts cetaceans (from blue whales to orca) and pelagic birds. This also means that you do not have to travel too far out to see pelagic species.

Today we headed south to search the waters off the coast of Big Sur. I told Alvaro that I would be checking the skies for California condor! (there is a nerdy bird joke in there.) The pelagic birding in the bay had not been as prolific in recent weeks, possibly because of water temps, so Alvaro directed the crew of the Sea Wolf to head south. And it turned out to be a good decision.

Within 30 minutes of leaving port, we had our first pelagic species, a lone sooty shearwater. This trip was dominated by the presence of pink-footed shearwaters. Alvaro noted that “weirdo” shearwaters (aka rare) associate with pink-footed and not sooty shearwaters. I could only hope for a Manx!

A little further out, we were upon a pod of Risso’s dolphins. These gray dolphins have dorsal fins that resemble female orcas. Our captain called attention to one individual Risso’s, an albino, named by whale watchers as “Casper”.

Risso’s dolphin. These dolphin don’t seem to enjoy bowriding like the gregarious Pacific white-sided dolphin. But a great dolphin to see nonetheless.

Further south we encountered sweet spots with many shearwaters, a smattering of ashy storm-petrels, and some south polar skuas. One skua was being chased by a Heerman’s gull, oh how the tables had turned. In this general direction we saw our first, of about ten, black-footed albatross. We added two species of jaegers to our list.

I spent most of my time in the stern of the boat. It it usually is less crowded, less wet, and less turbulent in the back. Once we headed back north again, I migrated to the bow of the Sea Wolf. Here is was important to keep at least three points of balance and attempt to hold binoculars to your eyes. At times, I wore my binos like a dense necklace and scanned the waters with the naked eye. This is a wide angle lens approach to pelagic birding. This approach has payoffs.

I spotted a chocolaty shearwater crossing our bow from right to left. “Shearwater”, I called out. Alvaro, who was standing to my left, got bins on it and proclaimed, “Flesh-footed!” It really does pay off to stand next to someone who knows more than you do. It always makes you look better. This was the only flesh-footed shearwater we saw on the trip and only the second one I had ever seen.

Something similar happened a dozen miles later when I spotted a grouping of four birds. It looked like two phalaropes bookended by two California gulls. One of the spotters identified the two birds as red phalaropes. The seas, swells, and light can play tricks on the birder, even the most seasoned pelagic birder. As we came closer the birds were not phalaropes but the smaller Napoleon’s gull. They showed their dark bills and ear muffs. These small gulls were a pleasant pelagic surprise. I have never seen this gull in open ocean but on terra firma.

It was surprising to see a few passerines so far out at sea. The closest these birds might come to water was a bird bath. An American pipit strafed the boat and then later a golden-crowned sparrow crossed our stern. We also spotted an unidentified sparrow that was laboring, inches above the waters. It was flying towards us. Some passerines hitch rides back to port but this sparrow did not look long for this world. It most likely had gotten lost flying over the bay and this shortcut can prove deadly. We soon lost sight of the sparrow, it disappear behind the swells.

We soon made a course to the west as we headed back to port. Here we saw more inshore species like common murre, Brandt’s cormorant, and brown pelican. The latter species it’s truly one the of the iconic inshore west-coast species. Brought close to extinction by the pesticide DDT, they now flourish in the Pacific. A line of pelicans approached from our port side. Such a common species here, now, but is there no other bird in flight, over the seas that is more soothing to soul and meditative, than a line brown pelicans?

To me, there never has been, nor will there ever be a species that says “Monterey Bay” than the brown pelican.

Image

Albatross

At length did cross an Albatross, 
Thorough 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, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“Into each life some rain must fall, but too much is falling in mine.”

~Ella Fitzgerald and the Inkspots

Albatross.

Most people know the word. Some know that it is a bird. Fewer know that is is a bird of the sea. And even fewer have ever seen one in the wild.

I have seen albatross. But only two species, of the almost 21 species that ride just above the seas. They are a bird to behold. Long and thin, graceful wings that rarely flap as they soar on the ocean’s winds. A turkey vulture of the seas.

The most common albatross in the northeastern Pacific Ocean is the black-footed albatross (Phoebastria nigripes). It is uncommon to see Laysan albatross on an all day pelagic boat trip.

I had booked a pelagic trip out of Santa Cruz Harbor that was scheduled for August 30th. This trip was sponsored by the Santa Cruz Bird Club (founded in 1956) and was open to members only. The trip was limited to 18 birders because of the continuing pandemic. It sold out in a very short time.

This trip is a reconstituted version of a very popular “Albatross Trip” which was an annual pelagic trip first taken by the club in the 1950’s. As many as 60 club members would depart the Municipal Wharf in June on one of the Stagnero’s fishing boats. They headed out 12 miles to the rock cod fishing grounds and the bird on everyone’s wish list was black-footed albatross.

The albatross is the figurehead of the Santa Cruz Bird Club. Since the club’s inception in 1956, the newsletter is named “Albatross”. And the only way to see an albatross in Santa Cruz County is to get on a boat and head offshore. Most pelagic birding trips leave from Monterey and not Santa Cruz. So this Santa Cruz pelagic trip was a rare treat.

Albatross is a species I like to see at least once a year and I have never recorded a black-footed in Santa Cruz County waters and this pelagic trip was my chance! Along the way to the fishing grounds we also had a chance to pick up shearwaters, storm-petrels, jaegers, skua, murrelets, Sabine’s gull, and Arctic tern.

An adult black-footed albatross seen on an August 17, 2018 pelagic trip off the coast of San Mateo.

And then came a fierce, dry electric storm on the morning of Sunday, August 16. I was at my cabin the Santa Cruz Mountains and I first heard the deep rumble of thunder at 3 AM. This was a rare treat in the Coastal Region of California: thunder and lighting. I walked out on my deck and reveled in the sights and sounds of the power of nature.

This treat came with a trick. Lighting struck the extremely dry earth many times and ignited a forest fire, that was named the CZU Lighting Complex. At the time of writing the fire has consumed 78,769 acres and had been burning for eight days. 330 structures had been destroyed, including the Big Basin State Park Visitor’s center and taken one human life. (There is no tally for the lives of trees, plants, and animals killed in the fire.)

So with distance learning starting during a global pandemic, and a fire slowly creeping towards the cabin that has been in my family for almost 80 years I was especially looking forward to the opportunity to escape to the sea and look at the marine life; the whales, dolphins, and pelagic birds (including the black-footed albatross).

But it was not meant to be as the trip was postponed because of the wildfire and the displacement caused by mandatory evacuations in Santa Cruz County.

But this gives me hope. The fire is now 17% contained and I look forward to heading out to sea with the Santa Cruz Bird Club to see our first albatross appear through the rolling waves!

Image

The Wreck of the La Feliz

Along the Santa Cruz coast, just northwest of Natural Bridges State Beach, is a historic relic that is just shy of 100 years old.

It looks like a weathered flag pole that is leaning slightly shoreward, placed on a cliff above the rocky reefs. In reality it is the mast of the 72-foot freighter La Feliz, leaning against the cliff.

On the night of October 1, 1924, violent waves pushed the coastal freighter onto the rocky reef below where the Seymour Center at the Long Marine Laboratory (temporarily closed) now sits. Locals helped rescue all 13 crew members from the floundering ship.

Sketched and painted in sepia from a period photograph of the salvage of the La Feliz.

The mast was laid against the cliff in order to salvage the cargo and other equitment of the La Feliz. The cargo consisted of 3,100 cases of sardines from Cannery Row in Monterey.

There have been over 450 shipwrecks recorded in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Few relics of these wrecks exist today, except for the La Feliz auxiliary mast.

A beautiful Sunday morning, looking to the Northwest.

I did what I always do when I want to learn more about something, I sketch it! I hiked out to the mast on two different occasions and sketched it both times. It is always nice to sketch something more than once. I feel each time that I understand the subject at little more and each time I learn more and more about the mast of the La Feliz.

A Friday after work sketch of the mast of the La Feliz, looking south.

For my first sketch of the mast, I first drew with pencil them inked in the lines with a Uni-ball Micro Deluxe pen. I erased the pencil lines and then added watercolor the scene.

On my next sketch (featured image) I did the exact opposite. I loosely sketched in the scene with a water-soluble colored pencil (walnut brown) and then I painted the scene, letting some of the watercolor washes run into each other. Once the paint dried, I added ink lines with my Uni-ball. Both were sketched on location.