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Santa Cruz County Pelagic

County lines are a bit strange when it comes to off shore waters. They can seem arbitrary in the same way that county, state, or country lines can be. Only these county lines are drawn over deep water.

One of Alvaro’s pelagic boat trips was scheduled to head north from Monterey Harbor into Santa Cruz County waters. So I had to take this trip on my quest fro 300 Santa Cruz County birds.

Pelagic birding can be sublime and maddening in equal measures. For one, you are birding from a platform that is pitching in constant motion and the birds are often on a surface that is undulating where birds appear and disappear at a blink of an eye. Some birds fly to and over the boat while other birds, that had been resting on the water, take off at the first sight of a boat and you get a view of a retreating bird. Also because the bird boats are really designed for fishing and not pelagic birding, it is impossible to be two places at once. So if you are on the starboard rail and a rarity is seen on the opposite side of the boat, you have to make a mad scrabble on a surface that make one look like a drunk sailor, and only to find that the bird is gone with a spotter pointing to the spot where the Manx shearwater used to be!

I suppose this is the draw of pelagic birding. It is challenging and it can often give you incredible memorable experiences. Such as the time when our boat was surrounded my a pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins that numbered in the high hundreds or the time when we kept pace with two blue whales or another time when a black-footed albatross flew in and rest in the water a few yards from the boat.

We where scheduled to depart at 7:30 AM and at 7 a group of Santa Cruz Bird Club members where milling about, cleaning their optics and looking at gulls in the harbor. Our leader, Alvaro walked down the wharf. I was surprised to see him upright because he had flow in the night before from Spain, having just finished a birding trip. He said he felt fine but joked that if we found him asleep later in the afternoon we where to kick him awake.

We left on time and we where only about an hour from port when we saw our first pelagic gem: the black-footed albatross. We soon crossed into Santa Cruz water and I wanted to add this albatross to my county list but unfortunately the four that we saw where all in Monterey waters. There where large numbers of shearwaters throughout our trip, the most common being sooty and pink-footed but with sightings of Buller’s and just one short-tailed and Manx shearwaters.

Looking down the port side of the Pt. Sur Clipper, or in pelagic birding parlance, 6 o’ clock to 9 o’clock. Here we are cruising above the Monterey Bay submarine canyon.

In all it was a very pleasurable cruise, even though I did not get an albatross over Santa Cruz waters, I did add 12 new county lifers, including: south polar skua, Arctic and common tern, Sabine’s gull, two jaegers, northern fulmar, Manx, Buller’s, and pink-footer shearwater.

As we headed back towards Monterey Harbor and the pelagic species where being replaced with inshore species like brown pelican, Brant’s cormorant, and western gull, there was one last surprise for use. One of the spotters picked out a far off brown booby flying along the coast. Not a bad way to ended a productive pelagic.

While we whiffed on black-footed albatross in Santa Cruz County, this photo of an albatross, blurred in motion over Monterey waters, sums up the motion and excitement of a classic Monterey Bay Pelagic.
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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.

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Monterey Orcas

As part of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators Conference at UC Santa Cruz a group of illustrators set out from Moss Landing Harbor on a Thursday morning for a three hour tour.

Monterey Bay is known for its pelagic birding and the many marine mammals that enter the bay throughout the year. The reason for this lies under the waters. Starting just off Moss Landing’s shores and stretching out to the west for 95 miles, lies the Monterey Canyon. This submarine canyon is larger than the Grand Canyon reaching depths of 11,800 feet and is the largest submarine canyon on the west coast. The deep waters provides a nutrient rich feeding ground for birds, fish, sea turtles, and marine mammals which includes the largest animal on planet earth, the blue whale.

I had first seen blues in the bay on a whale whatch trip out of Monterey when I was a junior in high school (to the disbelief of my biology teacher, but I had the pictures to prove it). It was not uncommon to see gray and humpback whales in Monterey Bay. But on this trip I was going to see a life marine mammal in the wild!

The first marine mammals we encountered in the harbor were sea otter, harbor seal and California sea lion. We turned to the portside at the foraging white pelicans and headed out of the break water to the open ocean and the Monterey Canyon.

It wasn’t long before I spotted our first marine mammal, a lone harbor porpoise (they always seem to be alone), crossing our western bearing, heading to the north of the bay.

After about 15 minutes our captain spotted a blow on the horizon and off we went to find the source. We caught up to the whale, a young humpback and were treated with nice views of its flukes as it dove down. We followed the whale and watched it resurface, take a breath and dive again. We then spotted another humpback and followed it.

Murmurings from the cabin let me know that something was afoot. The captain was on the radio with another whale watch boat and it seemed that they had just sited something special in the southern part of the bay.

As we throttled up heading on a southern bearing, scattering sooty shearwaters in the process, I knew it could be two things: a blue whale or an orca pod. I was hoping it was the latter! Our naturalist was keeping quiet about the sightings to the south.

My first experience with live orcas or killer whales, happened not too far from my childhood home. It was just north on Highwsy 101 on the western rim of San Francico Bay. The setting was the ambitiously titled Marine World Africa USA in Redwood Shores. This amusement park’s main draw, aside from the water skiing show, was the killer whale show where the world’s largest pied dolphin swam in circles and leapt up to snatch a herring from the trainer’s mouth. This is the way most children fell in love with killer whales in the last 1960’s and 70’s.

Since that time, attitudes have changed about keeping these magnificent marine mammals in captivity and training them to do tricks for eager audiences. Marine World left it’s original site on the west side of the bay in 1986 and moved to Vallejo later to be renamed Discovery Kingdom. The amusement park sent it’s last captive orca to San Diego in 2012, ending 40 years of orca captivity at the park.

I now wanted to see orcas in the wild, orcas swimming in a straight line, orcas not doing tricks for an audience. And hopefully we would be seeing a pod soon. We arrived at a location just off the coast of Monterey where there was five other watching boats in pursuit.

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Part of the pod whale watch boats following the pod of orcas. Here a female breaks the surface.

There was a moment of anticipation as we scanned the waters, willing every wave or shadow to materialize into the black back of an orca. Soon we were rewarded with a pod of about seven orcas consisting of females and calves. Two came within ten yards of our boat to give us a look-see!

Recently more and more orcas have been sited in Monterey Bay. It was previously thought that they appeared during grey whale migration to prey on mothers with their calf as they headed north from their birthing lagoons in Baja California to head to their feeding grounds to the north. But now they can be seen throughout the year.

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A sketch of a grey whale and calf from the Seymour Marine Discovery Center in Santa Cruz.