Sunday, August 19, 2007

Whales and seabirds

It seems like it was ages ago that Shane, Sean and I signed up to go on a cetacean research trip with Arthur Kopelman of the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island. The trip was actually announced in March. When Tuesday arrived, the adrenalin from the anticipation of being out on the open water for two and a half days drove me to distraction. Shane was picking me up at 2PM and I didn’t even begin packing for the trip until noon.

CRESLI organizes regular research trips to various locations along the eastern seaboard to study cetacean populations. This August’s trip to the Great South Channel was also publicized to the birding community with the hope of attracting individuals interested in seeing pelagic birds that, under normal conditions, are never seen from land. Angus Wilson, current chair of the NYS Avian Records Committee, and seabird “guru” (my word, not his) helped to promote the trip and would be one of the passengers.

(there are maps of our route at the end of this post)


This trip would be motoring to an area within the Gulf of Maine, known as the Great South Channel. Many species of whales can be found in this area as the cold waters make it an extremely productive marine environment. It would be my first multiple day pelagic trip and only my second pelagic seabird-watching trip. To be honest, I was just as excited about seeing marine life as I was seabirds.

Shane and I arrived at the Viking Fleet dock with about an hour to spare before the scheduled departure. Sean Sime and Joe DiCostanzo (aka, “Joe D“) were already waiting on the dock. The organizers had booked the Viking “Starship” but engine trouble forced them to switch us to the smaller Viking “Star”. I didn’t care, as long as I had a bunk for my sleeping bag. It was close to sunset when we began motoring out of Montauk Harbor towards Gardiner’s Bay. The plan was for the captain to pilot the ship through the night, so that we’d arrive at the Great South Channel by dawn. Three or four silhouettes along the rock jetty at the mouth of the harbor stood out against a deep orange glow. Darkness had begun to merge the rocks with the inky water. Flattened shapes cautiously stepped over gaps in the boulders, moving slowly towards the shoreline.

The sun was a sliver on the horizon when I walked out onto the deck on Wednesday morning. We were 100 nautical miles east of Montauk Harbor and approximately 16 nautical miles southeast of Skankaty Head Light on Nantucket Island. Throughout the night, the seas had been calm and the temperatures mild. The four of us considered sleeping out on the benches of the upper deck. At one point, Sean, Shane, Joe D, and I were lying on our backs on the upper deck staring out onto a crystal clear, star-filled sky.

I remember that, as a child in the country side, the summer’s night sky was crisp, clean and blanketed with a trillion pin-pricks of light; some bright, some barely visible, and varying from white to yellow to red. The outer arm of the Milky Way appeared as a narrow wisp of clouds across the center of the darkness. It has been a long time since I’ve experienced that night sky. Out on the ocean, away from the reflection of city lights, peering up at the sky was like wiping early morning haze from my eyes. The clarity of the star-shine carried me back to those days in the country.

We were experiencing the tail-end of the Perseids Meteor shower, with the constellation close to the port side horizon. Joe D, who works for the American Museum of Natural History, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the natural sciences and pointed out constellations, planets and explained the phenomenon behind meteor showers. Particles no larger than a grain of rice created streaks of light as bright as a star. Like a heavenly underline to emphasize a star, brilliant blazes would grab my peripheral vision every few minutes. It was past midnight when I decided to go below to catch some sleep, but visions of whales and seabirds kept me awake most of the time.
Greater Shearwaters and Sooty Shearwater photos - Sean Sime
Most people were already awake and milling about the deck, coffee cups in their hand, when Arthur Kopelman made a wake-up announcement over the PA system. It provoked flashbacks of “Radar O’Reilly’s” droll announcements in the film “Mash”. We may have just begun our day, but Greater Shearwater’s were wide awake, numerous and active. The long-winged birds appear to expend very little energy as they swooped and glided above the ocean’s swells or the boat’s wake. Through the day we counted thousands of Greater Shearwaters making it a unique opportunity to study their markings, shape and behavior. As a group, shearwaters spend most of their life on the open water coming ashore only to breed. I observed more shearwaters in the first hour of light than I have, cumulatively, over the last 10 years. Greater Shearwaters were, by far, the most abundant species of seabird, but we also saw sooty, cory’s and manx/audubon’s shearwaters. I gained new found respect for nature photographers when trying to take photos on the moving ship - and I wasn’t using 30 pounds of gear like most of the professionals!

Most of the bird species that we observed on the trip are long distant travellers that breed in remote locations. One species of bird we saw that I think embodies the spirit of an ocean wanderer was the South Polar Skua. The robust, gull-like bird breeds along the coast of the Antarctic. After breeding, they spend most of their time at sea, ranging as far north as Greenland. We saw two individuals on the trip, one of which was banded. Angus Wilson is hoping to be able to read the band from photographs and identify where it was banded.

Another bird that was fairly common in some areas was Wilson’s Storm-Petrel. On the opposite side of the size scale from the skua, these dainty, long-legged birds frequently pick food from the surface of the water; a behavior called “pattering”. It looks a bit like the avian interpretation of “Swan Lake“ performed on a liquid stage. On the second night, while I was standing at the stern looking out into the darkness, I noticed storm-petrels periodically flashing through the beam of the ships lights.
South Polar Skua and whale fluke - Sean Sime
Of course, it wasn’t all birds on the trip and the Humpback Whales put on a show that I’ll never forget. For reasons that aren’t understood by biologists, whales will sometimes launch themselves out of the water and crash down lengthwise, sending up a huge spray of water and creating a loud smack. I have only witnessed whales breaching a few times, but at the Great South Channel they were splashing down, seemingly, everywhere. Arthur counted off the numbers over the PA system as one individual breached 55 consecutive times. Humpback Whales weigh, on average, between 25 and 40 tons. I’ll leave the math to those more proficient at physics, but suffice to say it requires unimaginable force to move that much mass out of the water. Another interesting behavior that we observed was “flipper slapping”. That is when a humpback lies on its back or side and slaps its 15 foot flipper against the water.

Flipper slapping fun at the Great South Channel

Wednesday evening the ship anchored for the night approximately 30 nautical miles from Skankaty Head Light. The wind had picked up and the water was much rougher than the previous night. I’m fortunate that I have never gotten seasick, but attempting to sleep in an upper berth while the ship is lurching from side to side was an exercise in futility. I would either get slammed into the wall or have to hang on to the bunk to keep from being throw out of bed. It was sort of like a roller coaster, but without the coasting or fun.
Humpback tubercules - Sean Sime
We spent a few hours in the morning looking for whales before heading back to port. It wasn’t as productive as the previous day due to rougher seas and less visibility. The estimated arrival time was 10PM and we pulled into the dock at around 9:30PM. I was amazed at how calm the conditions on the water became the moment we entered the protection of Gardiner’s Bay.

One of the people we met on the trip was a college student named Efrim. He was from Shane’s neighborhood in Brooklyn and had taken the railroad out to Montauk. Shane offered him a ride back with us. During the drive, Efrim told us that it was his eighth trip with CRESLI and that this was, by far, the best one. Apparently, weather conditions can change rapidly and it was the first time he was able to spend an entire day whale-watching. On one trip, he explained, the sea had become so rough that they had to pilot the ship into the Nantucket Shoals for the night. I might be a glutton for punishment, but I didn’t mind very little sleep, getting bounced around when I tried, not being able to eat my usual healthy breakfast or feeling damp most of the time. For reasons I can’t explain, the smell of the ocean and expansive open horizons felt right to me. Maybe it is because I grew up in the Northeast, with the ocean always nearby, but I don’t think I could ever be content living in the center of the continent, any continent.

Me looking out into the darkness - Sean Sime

Marine mammal totals (provided by Arthur Kopelman):

The cetacean totals as of now are:
28 humpbacks photographed*
8 ID'd cow/calf pairs
9 ID'd singletons
3 unknowns

*There were probably about another 10 or so that we didn't reach
1 minke
1 fin whale
~ 24-30 common dolphins

Seabird totals:

Common Loon (30.)
Cory's Shearwater (3.)
Great Shearwater (5,816.)
Sooty Shearwater (780.)
Manx Shearwater (36.)
Manx/audubon's Shearwater (5.)
Wilson's Storm-petrel (630.)
Northern Gannet (19.)
White-winged Scoter (1.)
South Polar Skua (2, incl. 1 banded.)
Pomarine Jaeger (6.)
Parasitic Jaeger (2.)
Long-tailed Jaeger (1.)
Herring Gull (400.)
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull (282.)
Black-legged Kittiwake (4.)
Common Tern (1,050.)
Black Tern (4.)

The following two maps were created using coordinates provided to me by Joe D., who had brought his GPS unit on the trip (click image to enlarge):



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