Life Offshore

There are few forms of birding that I find as captivating as pelagic trips. The ocean and its myriad inhabitants have long held sway over my imagination, and the potential for new discoveries that each outing promises appeals to my sense of adventure. The amount of time I spend offshore is only limited by how infrequently these excursions are offered. I would gladly greet the sunrise in the deep multiple times a month if scheduling, funding, and weather conditions allowed for it. As it stands, I count myself lucky if I find my way to the continental shelf at least once a year, especially after the forced hiatus that pandemic protocols imposed on our voyages asea. Fortunately, 2022 saw a spectacular return to form with a series of exceptional expeditions, and these wildly successful trips left me eagerly looking forward to my next opportunity to set sail for the distant horizon.

Growing up along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, I developed a deep appreciation for all forms of marine life early in my childhood. My love of birding by boat truly blossomed during the summer of 2014, when I was working for the Project Puffin team on the coast of Maine. As it happens, I had the good fortune to revisit some of my familiar haunts in the Pine Tree State this summer when Jacqi and I took a trip down east to celebrate her birthday. My friends at Cap’n Fish Cruises were kind enough to take us on a voyage out to Eastern Egg Rock, where Jacqi was delighted to meet Atlantic Puffins for the first time. My feathered former coworkers did not disappoint, and we were treated to spectacular close views of the dapper seabirds as they bobbed in the surf along the shorelines of the island I once called home. This brief jaunt aboard the Pink Lady II served as a fantastic oceanic appetizer, for once we returned to New York City I knew that I had just one day to pack and prepare for an overnight odyssey to the submarine canyons off the coast.

Organizing a pelagic is always a fickle business. Unpredictable sea conditions often result in last minute cancellations, and arranging backup plans can prove challenging when reschedules cause participants to drop out. I was initially signed up for a mid-July trip aboard the American Princess, but when the wind and waves proved too fearsome for the original date the outing was scrapped entirely due to overall low enrollment. Instead, the team honored my ticket purchase by transferring my priority registration to the planned August voyage. I was more than happy to accept this offer, since late summer has historically been the most productive time of year for trips in New York waters. Less than 24 hours after making the long drive home from Maine, I joined my friends on the docks in Sheepshead Bay just in time for our sunset departure. At long last, we were headed offshore again.

Once we loaded onto the vessel and went over the usual safety protocols, I spent some time catching up with the trip leaders and the many familiar faces among the participants. Paul explained that our plan was to target some especially warm-looking water off the mouth of the McMaster Canyon, a good bit further east than our traditional starting zone. As usual, I slept in fits and starts over the course of the long, bumpy ride overnight. It was still dark out when I finally committed to staying awake for the day, with the shadowy skies occasionally illuminated by a flash of lightning from a distant storm or a dazzling shooting star associated with the Perseid meteor shower. We reached our destination just ahead of daybreak, and before the action officially kicked off Doug led us all in a moment of silence for Tom Johnson. Watching the sun crest the horizon, our friend’s absence was felt especially strongly, but his memory was certainly present as we began scanning the surface of the sea together.

Despite the high sea surface temperatures and clear, blue quality of the water at our initial position, the day’s efforts got off to a bit of a slow start. Our dawn chum slick gradually attracted the attention of the expected offshore species, with Wilson’s Storm-Petrels and Great and Cory’s Shearwaters trickling in to sample our breakfast offering. Small numbers of Band-rumped Storm-Petrels and Audubon’s Shearwaters eventually joined them at the feast, but it definitely wasn’t as much of a spectacle as we were hoping for. We picked up a few more odds and ends as we began working our way westward along the shelf edge, including some flying fish and small pods of dolphins in addition to the usual avian suspects.

The first red-letter sighting of the voyage arrived as we motored up the length of the Babylon Canyon. From my perch on the port bow, I noticed a pair of strange cetaceans cruising along the surface of the sea. From their unique shape and coloration, I had a hunch as to their identity even from afar, and I shouted to alert the guide team so we could attempt a closer approach. The creatures continued to surface cooperatively as we drew nearer, allowing us to secure photographic confirmation of the bizarrely bulbous snouts that marked them as Cuvier’s Beaked Whales. This species holds the record for the deepest and longest dives of any air-breathing animal, plunging to depths of nearly 3,000 meters and staying underwater for up to 3 hours or more. Crossing paths with these champion deep-divers is a rare treat, a welcome lifer experience for many of the folks on board, myself included. Little did we know, this remarkable observation would turn out to be the opening act for a truly incredible day of wildlife encounters.

The swiftly diminishing winds made for considerably calmer conditions as the morning wore on, and it proved much easier to pick out critters at long range as the waves died down. We started coming across larger groups of storm-petrels and shearwaters as we continued along, and we also passed several flocks of Red-necked Phalaropes. Flying fish were our near constant companions, launching themselves out of the path of the oncoming ship and sailing for impressively long distances on their wing-like fins. Mammals included Offshore Bottlenose and Risso’s Dolphins, and a good contingent of observers enjoyed distant views of a group of Sowerby’s Beaked Whales breaching fully out of the water on the horizon. I personally saw little more than the disturbed water where they splashed back down, but after my awesome close encounter with this mysterious species last summer I could hardly complain about missing out on this fleeting glimpse. I did, however, pick up an unexpected life crustacean when a Sargassum Swimming Crab paddled out from its floating seaweed lair to nab a morsel of chum. The seas were starting to feel pretty lively, and the frequency of exciting callouts was increasing at a steady rate.

Not all of the animals we encountered were species one expects to find far offshore. Northwesterly winds overnight had ushered in some light migration, and we documented a smattering of landbirds and more coastal species on the move throughout the day. Far and away the most surprising of these was a Downy Woodpecker that approached our boat over 100 miles from the nearest point of land. The awestruck commotion that this wayward woodland bird evoked as it circled the vessel undeniably made for one of the most memorable experiences of the day. Other migrants of note included Cliff Swallow, Solitary Sandpiper, Eastern Kingbird, and Least Tern. Such chance sightings in the deep offer insight into the amazing journeys these winged wanderers undertake, pushing their endurance to the limit and flying far beyond their comfort zones during their travels to and from the nesting grounds.

Eventually, the call went up that a dark-backed tern had been spotted in the distance up ahead. The trip leaders leapt into action, pointing out our heading to Captain Frank and urging him to pick up the pace in the hopes of closing the gap. To our amazement, he managed to successfully run our quarry down, pursuing the bird at a good clip until it finally came near enough for a positive identification. Once we caught up with it, the handsome adult Bridled Tern wound up making several close passes off the bow of the boat, diving to snatch tiny flying fish out of midair as volleys of shutter clicks and exclamations of awe rang out across the deck. This was a lifer for many of the birders on the trip, and it had been several years since my last sighting of the species, when we actually failed to chase down a faraway pair of youngsters during another memorable pelagic. I’ve been impressed with how quickly the crew of the American Princess has taken to these offshore excursions, and their willingness to roll with the punches in frequently unpredictable conditions is a testament to their commitment to the community.

As we made our way west from the Babylon Canyon, I started hearing chatter from the stern that there was a Basking Shark visible in our wake. I scrambled to the back of the vessel to find a large, broad dorsal fin and a tall, scythe-shaped caudal fin slowly slicing through the water behind us. I commented aloud on the impressive size of this specimen, though it had admittedly been several years since I last encountered a Basker. After admiring the scene for a few moments, I raised my camera just as the great fish began to sink out of sight below the surface. I did note some quiet mutters pondering whether or not the original identification was correct in the immediate aftermath of the observation, but it wasn’t until we were back on shore and folks had reviewed their photos more thoroughly that we fully grasped the magnitude of what we had witnessed. Multiple other observers captured images that show a distinct pattern of white spots and bands across the slaty background coloration of the fin, diagnostically identifying this individual as the one and only Whale Shark, the largest of all fishes! I have long dreamed of meeting this legendary leviathan in the flesh, but I imagined that if I ever got the opportunity it would be at some tropical snorkeling site rather than a chance encounter in the deep. What an incredible privilege to catch a glimpse of this bucket list beastie off the coast of my home state! You truly never know what you’re going to find when you set out on an offshore adventure, and this brief brush with the magnificent Whale Shark instantly became an unforgettable highlight of my pelagic career.

With midday approaching, we finally arrived at the outskirts of the Hudson Canyon. Sean sidled up to me and declared it was high time for “boingy-boingy,” a statement I emphatically agreed with. We knew that the temperature and depth of the water in this area presented our best shot at finding our most beloved pelagic specialty species, but successfully picking one out would require all hands on deck to contribute to the search effort. I kept myself glued to the rail on the starboard bow, and a few minutes later I spied a pale sea sprite skipping along the surface of the waves a short distance away. Bellowing “WHITE-FACED STORM-PETREL!” at the top of my lungs, I hurried to help get all eyes on the bounding bird, knowing that many participants had signed up for the trip solely for a chance at seeing this marvel of evolution. These delightful seabirds are among my absolute favorite creatures on the planet, and watching them pogo across the billows like tiny, marine kangaroos never fails to fill me with giddy joy. Captain Frank once again did a fantastic job following this challenging moving target, deftly keeping the storm-petrel in view as it sprang to and fro. How fortunate we are that we encounter these world-class birds on a regular basis in New York waters!

We began making our way up the Hudson and back towards port in the afternoon. The long run back to Brooklyn over the waters on the shelf is generally the quietest part of a pelagic, with extended periods of doldrums punctuated occasionally by sporadic sightings of passing critters. This trip, however, continued to surprise us, and our progress was frequently halted by unexpected brushes with denizens of the deep. The most dramatic of these observations was a close encounter with a massive Fin Whale that surfaced multiple times along the starboard side of the ship. Most sightings of these hulking marine mammals are distant and brief, and the opportunity to fully drink in the sense of scale was a refreshing change of pace. Fins are widely renowned as the current runners-up in the category of largest extant animals, second only to the mighty Blue Whale in length and mass, and this individual was an especially big one. Oohs and ahhs echoed across the deck as the enormous creature spouted and dove right next to us. Whale watching may not be able to compete with birding in terms of frequency or reliability, but it certainly holds its own when it comes to pure spectacle!

As we continued to motor back towards the City, we came across a stunningly diverse array of marine organisms. Pods of Pilot Whales cruised along the waves, hordes of Common Dolphins came in to bow ride, and distant Minke and Humpback Whale blows added to the day’s running tally of cetacean species. A school of tuna on the hunt set the sea aboil, and a contingent of sharks lurking nearby included an apparent Hammerhead. Our storm-petrel count soared into the thousands, with huge flocks dancing around the edges of the active hotspots. Loggerhead Sea Turtles put in a few appearances, and we passed directly over several awe-inspiring, tessellated shoals of Cownose Rays shimmering beneath the surface. The sheer variety and quantity of critters present in these shelf waters blew me away. Usually by this point in the trip we have all but hung up the binoculars for the evening, but this time the ocean saw fit to keep us busy right up until sunset. This bounty of sea life made for an unforgettable ending to a truly remarkable day offshore.

As dusk settled over the water, we finally treated ourselves to some well-deserved cold drinks and toasted to another successful voyage. After such a whirlwind tour of the continental shelf’s mind-blowing biodiversity, we all welcomed the opportunity to relax and slowly ease back into life ashore. I always thoroughly enjoy the evening wind-down at the end of a long day at sea, kicking back with the rest of the team and reminiscing on high jinks and adventures gone by. The spirit of camaraderie between the pelagic regulars in the community is undoubtedly one of my favorite aspects of these expeditions. Stories swapped and memories made are every bit as important to me as the wildlife sightings themselves. While exploring the deep is a fulfilling venture in its own right, it’s that much more rewarding to share the experience with good friends. That mutual appreciation of the ocean’s majesty it what really keeps me coming back, perpetually looking forward to my next opportunity to head offshore, together.