Beyond the Shelf Again

Late summer is usually a busy time, filled with pre-work preparations and plenty of outdoor exploration as vacation ends and migration begins. This year I was fortunate enough to join a pair of offshore journeys with See Life Paulagics. The first was a two-day cruise from Point Pleasant, New Jersey on the Voyager in mid-August. The latter was a September overnight outing aboard the tried-and-true Brooklyn VI. Both trips visited the deep blue waters off the continental shelf near the mouth of the Hudson Canyon, and both trips, as expected, delivered plenty of great encounters with marine beasties.

August 17-18, NJ Voyager Pelagic

I have attempted to join two-day “extreme pelagics” on several occasions in the past, and my efforts have seldom worked out as planned. The main name in the game for double-length tours is the Brookline Birding Club, which runs biannual expeditions out of Hyannis, Massachusetts. More than once I have attempted to sign up too late to get a spot, and the one time I did secure a seat the trip itself was cancelled due to foul weather. When Paul and Anita announced that they would be conducting their own 32-hour pelagic, I jumped at the opportunity.

I carpooled from Manhattan to the docks in Jersey with Doug Futuyma and Ryan Zucker. There were relatively few familiar faces in the crowd of Garden State birders, mostly Paulagics people, fellow Cornellians, and a handful of other visitors from New York. A thick fog surrounded us as we made our way out of the inlet, but it quickly burned off once we were out on the open ocean. The seas were flat calm with almost no wave action, which made for great viewing conditions. It wasn’t long before we started encountering sea creatures, including a pod of Inshore Bottlenose Dolphins and several Loggerhead Sea Turtles. A little further out, we found our first Ocean Sunfish and a group of about 30 Cownose Rays. The birds soon followed, with sightings of Great and Audubon’s Shearwater, Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, and Lesser Black-backed Gull. We also saw a Red-necked Phalarope with a damaged bill, though its apparent injury didn’t seem to slow it down.

As we continued our journey into deeper, warmer water, the activity kept increasing. A pod of Short-beaked Common-Dolphins provided some entertainment, and an unidentified billfish made for another nice sighting. In the early afternoon, a call went up that someone had sighted a distant White-faced Storm-Petrel, one of our primary hoped-for species. Everyone rushed to the railing to get their optics on the bouncing bird. The captain did his best to chase down our target and managed to stay with it for several minutes despite its fast pace, but the bird was clearly trying to keep away from the vessel and we elected not to harass it further.  

The evening hours brought Cory’s Shearwaters, Band-rumped and Leach’s Storm-Petrels, and plenty of flying fish skimming over the glassy surface of the sea. A few folks on the bow were treated to glimpse of another White-face, but it quickly moved on before most of the boat got on it. We set up a chum slick in the waters along the shelf edge as the sun sank lower in the sky. A large pod of Striped Dolphins put on an impressive show of acrobatics, and we also spied a trio of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins cruising through the area. When darkness finally settled over the seascape, we retired to our bunks for some much needed rest. 

I was up before the dawn on the 18th, and the chum started flying well ahead of first light. The windless conditions that made for such a smooth ride apparently kept many of the aerial seabirds grounded, so most of our sightings involved birds making short flights or sitting on the water. Our only Black-capped Petrel of the trip swooped past the slick in the early morning gloom, and we enjoyed decent study sessions for comparing Wilson’s, Band-rumped, and Leach’s Storm-Petrels. A few individuals of all three expected shearwater species also visited our breakfast offering, and a migrant Barn Swallow circled around the boat several times. A Wandering Glider dragonfly was a noteworthy find as well. All in all, it was a pleasant sunrise at sea.

Once we left our slick and began exploring, we came across yet another White-faced Storm-Petrel. After an overnight sighting by a few folks fishing in the dark, this was the fourth individual of the trip, and it was by far the most cooperative. We stayed with this bird for over 15 minutes, watching it hop along the surface of the water as it fed right next to our vessel. The calm seas and the slow pace of its foraging flight made for unparalleled viewing opportunities. Our prolonged encounter with this unique little creature was the obvious highlight of our voyage, a thrilling experience for every single birder on board!

We began our run back to shore around mid-morning. Non-avian sightings of note included Offshore Bottlenose Dolphins, an unidentified shark, and good numbers of flying fish. A small flock of southbound Black Terns passed by, and we were also visited by a Cliff Swallow. The biggest surprise we found in the shelf waters was a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel observed along the 30-fathom line, and exceptionally rare inshore sighting of this deep sea species. During the quietest portion of our journey home, Paul and the other leaders invited me to join an impromptu beer tasting on the bow. It was a fantastic opportunity to swap stories and drinks with some wonderful people. Back on dry land, I thanked the crew of the Voyager and the Paulagics team for an incredible weekend at sea. The traffic between New Jersey and Long Island was unsurprisingly brutal, but our wildly successful journey was well worth it!

September 21-22, NY Brooklyn VI Pelagic

Fresh on the heels of the successful trip from Point Pleasant, Paul and the gang announced in early September that they would be running a similar trip from Brooklyn. This was a welcome surprise, especially considering that the Brooklyn VI had been put up for sale earlier in the year. The ship was slated to start a new life as a whale watching vessel on the West Coast, and we weren’t sure if we’d ever get to sail aboard this fan favorite again. This transaction didn’t go through as planned, though, so for the time being we still had access to Old Reliable and her crew of pelagic veterans.

I immediately booked a spot on this newly scheduled tour as soon as I heard about it. Unfortunately, the combination of short notice, long duration, and higher-than-usual price took its toll on enrollment. When it became clear that there weren’t enough sign-ups to break even, the team offered to change the outing to a standard 22-hour overnight trip. This brought a few more folks out of the woodwork at the last minute, and we were able to get offshore after all, albeit for a shorter period of time than expected. We departed from the docks in Sheepshead Bay at 9 PM, and I settled into my sleeping bag on the top deck for a relaxing night on the water. 

When dawn broke, we were 150 miles offshore and well beyond the edge of the continental shelf. The water at the site where we began our morning chum slick was 7,500 feet deep and about 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Birds were soon drawn to the irresistible odor of beef suet and menhaden oil, with Wilson’s Storm-Petrels leading the charge. We were surprised to see a Northern Fulmar soaring by in the distance, as this was a somewhat early date for this uncommon winter visitor. Soon a second individual appeared and started feeding in our slick, then another, and another. This species turned out to be the bird of the day, and we tallied no less than 21 individuals over the course of the morning! We also caught a brief glimpse of a Leach’s Storm-Petrel, and an adult Pomarine Jaeger appeared circling the far end of our trail of chum. The captain turned the boat around and motored back up the slick, leading to great views of the jaeger as it approached us and flew down the starboard side of the boat. 

One of the highlights of the day was a Blue Shark which rose from the depths and began scarfing down morsels of meat off our stern. So many shark sightings at sea involve a distant dorsal fin that submerges before you can get a good look. This individual was a real showstopper who stayed with us for several minutes, swimming directly under the boat and even breaking the surface several times as it lunged for food. It was quite a spectacle, and it elicited exclamations of awe from the assembled naturalists every time it circled back around.

Working our way to the mouth of the Hudson Canyon, we found Great and Cory’s Shearwaters and scattered groups of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels. Northern Fulmars continued to show in good numbers, and Audubon’s Shearwaters were similarly abundant. Further up the canyon, we started to find more non-bird marine life. Offshore Bottlenose and Risso’s Dolphins were seen along the way, and we enjoyed several Portuguese Man-o-war sightings. A pair of Ocean Sunfish were major crowd-pleasers, the first of which was a remarkably confiding, pale giant that floated next to our boat along with its own entourage of smaller fish. Skipjack Tuna also put in an appearance, and the mates fished up several Mahi-mahi near some lobster trap buoys in the shallower waters. 

A flock of Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls surprised us as we worked the western edge of the canyon, so we tossed some chum their way in the hopes of starting a small feeding frenzy. A few Great Shearwaters arrived on the scene and began gorging themselves, with one particularly animated individual dashing about and diving underwater to nab every bite that it could. 

We checked out a few weed lines of floating Sargassum as we slowly cruised vaguely northwards, but we didn’t find much in the way of interesting birds or other wildlife foraging in these areas. During a brief lull in avian activity, we found ourselves distracted by a small moth. It fluttered back and forth between several birders and their binoculars, and a crowd gathered to snap photos for later identification. As of this writing, I’m still waiting for a specific ID from iNaturalist, but it appears to be some sort of looper moth. You just never know what you’ll find offshore!

In the early afternoon, we came across a band of fishing boats with an attendant flock of fulmars, gulls, and shearwaters. The bulk of the congregation was made up of Greats, but there were quite a few Cory’s mixed in, including at least one Scopoli’s type individual. Most of these birds were loafing around after stuffing themselves with food, so they were pretty sluggish and allowed close approach. We enjoyed some nice top-down views, but it was clear that we were running low on time to spare. We took our leave of the feeding flock and began to pick up the pace on our journey home.

I’d made sure to bring ample extra beer as thanks for the hospitality on the Jersey trip, and I was once again invited to join a drink sharing session with Paul’s people. There was some fantastic conversation to be had with friends both old and new, covering every topic from recent adventures to plans for the future, and the long ride back to Brooklyn seemed to fly by. There were a few more additions to the trip list along the way, including Red-necked Phalaropes and Northern Gannet, but the quality company was the real prize of the evening. We returned to the dock right on schedule, and I staggered home to prepare for my Monday morning responsibilities. Both of this year’s outings with See Life Paulagics were brilliant fun, and I can’t wait until the next opportunity we get to explore the offshore waters together!