Secrets of the Deep: Pelagic Legends Come to Life

Pelagic birding is one of my absolute favorite forms of birding. There’s no thrill quite like an expedition at sea to seek out wildlife that spend most of their lives far beyond the realm of land-dwellers. I’ve been a diehard boat birder ever since I worked for Project Puffin back in 2014, and my fondness for seabirds has only grown over the intervening years. Starting in 2017, I had the good fortune to partake in multiple trips per year with the esteemed See Life Paulagics team. Regrettably, the onset of the pandemic had a dramatic impact on the pelagic scene, completely shutting down voyages for the entirety of 2020. By summer 2021, people were starting to feel a bit more comfortable about group trips aboard crowded vessels, but there were still some obstacles preventing a swift return to form. I was devastated by the announcement that Paulagics was officially closing down after nearly 2 decades as the top name in the game for the Mid-Atlantic region. To my great relief, however, Paul continued working behind the scenes to help reestablish the thriving pelagic community that he had been instrumental in cultivating.

In New York, the seabirding mantle was taken up by American Princess Cruises, a company that already possessed a great deal of experience with boat-based ecotourism. Even so, graduating from coastal whale watches to overnight excursions to the continental shelf is far from an easy transition. The first efforts in late 2021 experienced some understandable growing pains and setbacks, including an October outing that was forced to turn back overnight due to mechanical problems with the ship’s engine! Fortunately, the AP team proved determined and flexible, learning from each attempt and collaborating with Paul and the other community leaders to get trips running on a regular schedule again. In 2022, nearly 3 full years since I last greeted the sunrise over the Hudson Canyon, we finally recaptured that pelagic magic we’d been missing. 

August 15th – Just Like Old Times

On a warm Sunday evening in the middle of August, hopeful birders once again congregated at the docks in Sheepshead Bay. These outings always feel like a big reunion with fellow seabird aficionados, and I was delighted to see a number of familiar faces in the crowd, including Brendan, Ryan Zucker, Ryan Mandelbaum, Tripper, and Gabriel. We had some newcomers along for the ride as well, with this trip serving as Dmitriy’s initial introduction to the world of pelagics and Liam’s second trip ever. Paul himself was also present, along with stalwart leaders Doug, Jay, Tom, and Amy, so I knew we were in good hands for this voyage. After a quick safety briefing, we loaded our gear onto the American Princess and set sail for the continental shelf. As usual, I set up a sleeping space on the top deck, chatting and catching up with old friends for a bit before we all settled down to rest. The run out to the canyons took the entire night, in part because the crew was targeting some productive looking waters slightly further east than usual. We reached our starting location a bit after sunrise, and the mates dutifully began flinging chum to establish a slick. The game was afoot.

It didn’t take long for this pungent breakfast buffet to attract attention. A variety of tubenoses gradually approached the vessel from downwind, drawn in by the irresistible odor of menhaden oil and beef suet. Both Band-rumped and Leach’s Storm-Petrels made strong showings early in the morning, allowing for fantastic side-by-side study opportunities as they foraged together at close range. At times, these deep water specialists outnumbered the more familiar Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, and everyone on board had their fill of close views for all 3 species.

After about an hour of chumming, the crew elected to double back along the slick and see what had accumulated while we were drifting with the current. It wasn’t long before an excited cry went up: “WHITE-FACED STORM-PETREL!” There was a mad rush to the starboard side of the boat, all eyes fixing on a tiny, grayish form bounding along the surface of the sea. A cacophony of shutter clicks swelled, punctuated by exclamations of awe as the bird hopped to and fro. This sighting was a highly anticipated lifer for many of the assembled birders, and it was a welcome and overdue reunion for me. White-faced Storm-Petrels are among the most remarkably unique creatures to roam this planet, and we have the incredible fortune to encounter them consistently enough that they’ve become a specialty species for summer pelagics in our region. Every time I cross paths with these wandering wave-skippers, I’m just as elated as I was the very first time. This individual proved to be exceedingly cooperative, dancing about in our slick for several minutes before springing off into the distance. The trip was off to fantastic start, and the atmosphere aboard the ship was electric.

Oceangoing birds aren’t the only critters of interest to be found in the warm waters off the continental shelf. We encountered a diverse array of sea beasties as we motored along the edges of the submarine canyons, starting off with a lively bunch of Striped Dolphins just after daybreak. We ended up tallying a triple digit count of these strikingly patterned cetaceans, with repeated sightings of multiple large pods. Additional marine mammal observations included Short-finned Pilot Whales, Risso’s Dolphins, Offshore Bottlenose Dolphins, Short-beaked Common Dolphins, and Fin Whales. I unexpectedly picked up a lifer fish in the form of a Chilean Devil Ray gliding just below the surface, and we also spotted several Ocean Sunfish, a Mahi Mahi, a Portuguese Man o’ War, and countless flying fish. This spectacular spread of species was among the best I have observed on any pelagic, highlighting the rich biodiversity of these productive offshore waters.

As we were making our way west from the Jones Canyon towards the Hudson Canyon, a call went up that shocked everyone on board: “BEAKED WHALES!” To my amazement, I spied a group of 4 dark-bodied cetaceans cruising along the waves off the port side of the vessel. Shouts of disbelief echoed around the boat. Beaked whales are among the most mysterious and poorly known of all marine mammals. These denizens of the deep are champion divers, plunging into undersea canyons in search of squid and benthic fish, and they are seldom seen at the surface for more than a few seconds. During our ride out from Brooklyn the previous evening, Tom had mentioned that Captain Frank might want to turn off the echosounder, as studies show that these notoriously skittish whales demonstrate a strong aversion to artificial acoustic signals. Such prompt and stunning vindication is rare in the wildlife watching world, a testament to both the impressive wealth of knowledge Tom wields and the extraordinary good luck that seems to follow him. During our brief brush with these magnificent mammals, several of us miraculously managed to secure photos that showed the distinctive, breadstick-like shape of the elongated rostrum, clinching their identity as Sowerby’s Beaked Whales. Encountering any member of this cryptic family in the wild is exceptional on its own, and seeing them well enough to successfully determine the species involved is nigh impossible. Paul was over the moon: even with 45 years of pelagic experience to his name, this was a lifer for him. You truly never know what you’re going to find out on the ocean!

Throughout the rest of the day, we picked up most of the other expected species of pelagic seabirds for our area. A handful of Black-capped Petrels cruised by at high speed, and we also connected with Manx, Audubon’s, Cory’s, and Great Shearwaters. We were even treated to brief appearance by another White-faced Storm-Petrel. By midday, we had to start making our way back towards the docks, adding some migrating shorebirds like Ruddy Turnstone, Least Tern, and Red-necked Phalaropes along the route.

The long journey from the shelf edge back to the City typically takes up the rest of the day, and this stretch of the voyage is comparatively quiet in terms of marine wildlife activity. Though we keep an eye for any stray animals along the way, the afternoon portion of each pelagic presents a great opportunity for socialization and relaxation. This outing was no different. While the leaders reclined in their bean bag chairs, Paul passed around some drinks, and we spent the remaining hours of daylight regaling one another with stories of adventures gone by. In all honesty, the evening wind-down is one of the aspects of these trips that I missed the most. I savored the moment and basked in the company of my assembled friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in years. Every trip to the deep results in unforgettable memories, and it was clear to me that this voyage marked the beginning of a bright new chapter in the annals of New York pelagic history.

Before we returned to the docks, Doug made an offhand mention that there were tentative plans in the works for a follow-up trip in the coming months. There have been far fewer successful voyages to the deep water canyons during the fall season over the years, partially due to more volatile storm systems and rougher sea conditions. The prospect of such an exploratory outing was a particularly exciting one, and we were all hopeful that the weather and the wildlife would cooperate.

October 17th – The Big One

In keeping with the traditional challenges of organizing an autumn pelagic, this year’s effort went through several delays before we finally managed to get offshore. The trip was originally scheduled for September 26th, but stiff winds forced us to push the outing to the rain check day of October 3rd. To my great disappointment, a similarly brutal set of conditions reared its ugly head for the new date as well. Once again proving their tenacity and commitment to the community, the American Princess crew set up an unprecedented second reschedule attempt for October 17th. The forecast kept us on the edge of our seats, predicting some strong swells for the afternoon portion of the outing, but the third time proved to be the charm! The team announced that the trip was on, and I made haste to ready my gear for another full day at sea. 

While August pelagics have been a more-or-less annual tradition in New York for decades, there have only been a handful of these 24-hour tours in the month of October. Due to the dearth of data with this small sample size, this time of year has a major wildcard element. Our list of plausible target species for the voyage was highly speculative. It’s a bit too late for summer specialties like White-faced Storm-Petrels, and a touch early for winter visitors like alcids, but there is strong potential for unusual migrants. I was intrigued by the possibilities, but I truly had no idea what to expect. Unfortunately, a number of the pelagic regulars were unable to attend due to scheduling conflicts with the new date, and some folks expressed concern that we wouldn’t find many interesting birds at this time of year. I put my trust in the skill of our crew and the unpredictability of the ocean to deliver a worthwhile venture. With Captain Frank at the helm and Paul, Sean, Jay, and Jason guiding the way, we set out for the deep in the dark of the night.

I finally awakened from a night of serviceable sleep to the sound of gentle rain on the canopy overhead. As I pulled my gear together, Max pointed out that there were some birds circling the boat in the predawn gloom. Several migrant passerines, including Blackpoll and Yellow-rumped Warblers, could be heard calling as they danced in and out of view in the faint illumination of the ship’s lamps. We reached our destination near the Hudson Canyon well ahead of first light, and by the time the sun peeked over the horizon the chum was already flying. The birds hit the slick hard, with several Black-capped Petrels gathering for the feast before the official break of day. We had expected to find a few of these amazing aerialists despite the late date, but we were all surprised by the numbers that were still present in the waters along the shelf edge. A single scan of the horizon at one point revealed that there were 10 individuals in view at once, and our final tally for the day reached an impressive 31. With so many petrels around, we knew it was important to keep a weather eye out for any rarer Pterodroma species that might be among their ranks. The crew decided to pause our chumming efforts and backtrack along the slick in search of any new arrivals that may have snuck in behind us.

At 8:23 AM, at the mouth of the Hudson Canyon 140 miles from the docks in Sheepshead Bay, it happened. The moment we’ve all been dreaming of for years finally became a reality. I was scanning the horizon from the port side of the boat, when I heard some excited chatter coming from the starboard bow. Jason had caught a glimpse of an unusual petrel, and there was some initial speculation that it could’ve been a Fea’s based on the lack of a pale collar and the crisp pattern on its upperparts. As I scrambled to get into position, the ID discussion suddenly took a shocking turn. “Wait…Bermuda? Bermuda?! BERMUDA PETREL, BERMUDA PETREL AT 1 O’ CLOCK!!!” My heart rate spiked, time seemed to slow down, and I watched incredulously as a slim, elegant seabird arced up dramatically over the waves a short distance away. When I finally got a good look at the bird, I saw that it had a full dark cowl on its head, boldly marked wings, and a thin band of white at the base of its tail. I swore, loudly and repeatedly, before bellowing out the original Bermudian name of the species: “CAHOOOOOWWWWW!!!” 

The story of the Cahow is one of the most sensational sagas in the history of wildlife biology. Nesting exclusively in the Bermuda archipelago, this species underwent a dramatic population crash when humans first settled on the islands. A combination of direct harvesting for food, predation by introduced pigs and rats, and land development exacted a heavy toll on the endemic seabird. By 1620, the Bermuda Petrel was believed to be extinct. The bird completely escaped detection for over 300 years, until the formal rediscovery of a small colony of survivors was announced in 1951. Intensive conservation efforts managed to save the species from the brink of oblivion, and the population is now estimated at roughly 150 breeding pairs. Second chances for salvation don’t come around often in nature, and the triumphant tale of this charismatic seabird’s dramatic resurrection has captured the imagination of nature lovers the world over.

All East Coast pelagic birders fantasize about crossing paths with one of these legendarily rare ocean wanderers, and now we were watching this flesh-and-blood phoenix turning graceful loops over a pod of Pilot Whales just off our bow. This was the first-ever record of the species for New York State, and the celebration aboard the vessel was exhilarating, a chaotic revel more intense than any birding victory party I’d ever experienced previously. Paul wheeled around and shouted theatrically to the crowd: “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!” I broke into giddy laughter as cheers rang out across the top deck. I hugged Brendan, I hugged Liam, I hugged Paul and thanked him for making this magical moment possible. My buddy Zac, who’d driven down from Massachusetts, expressed his disbelief at scoring such a magnificent megararity on his very first pelagic. The Cahow stayed with us for more than 3 full minutes, inspecting our slick and making repeated passes up and down our starboard side, until it finally turned into the wind and sailed off to parts unknown once more. In its wake, it left a crew of ecstatic birders slowly picking up the pieces of their shattered minds. The awe-inspiring experience was indelibly seared into my memory in an instant, and I’m honestly not positive that I’ll ever fully recover. We finally emerged victorious in our quest for the Holy Grail! This is what pelagic birding is all about, baby!

The rest of the expedition, once we eventually composed ourselves and got underway again, proved to be delightfully productive. Apart from our encounter with the bird of a lifetime, we documented a solid variety of species to add to our trip list. Multiple Parasitic and Pomarine Jaegers dropped in on our slick to scrum for chum, and we discovered several Lesser Black-backed Gulls among the flocks of more common gulls that begin to congregate offshore at this time of year. Single Leach’s Storm-Petrels and Audubon’s Shearwaters, small numbers of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, Cory’s Shearwaters, and Northern Gannets, and huge hordes of Great Shearwaters rounded out our tally of pelagic birds for the day. We also noted an interesting blend of migrants that typically keep closer to the coast, including a trio of Great Blue Herons, several Mourning Doves, a male Black-throated Blue Warbler mixed in with a small flock of other songbirds, and a lone drake White-winged Scoter. It’s always fascinating to catch a glimpse of the incredible overwater journeys undertaken by terrestrial birds during migration, and these sightings are every bit as impressive as our observations of the specialist seabirds that are at home in the deep.

As usual, we detected a lovely array of non-avian highlights to supplement our birding efforts. Several Ocean Sunfish lazed about on the surface right near the ship, a group of Offshore Bottlenose Dolphins blasted past us at speed, and we also enjoyed a close encounter with a passing Fin Whale. On our way back to shore, we came across a small group of Humpback Whales that were closely attended by a pod of Short-beaked Common Dolphins. The dolphins quickly came over to bow ride, offering wonderful topdown views as they cruised just under the boat. A cooperative Humpback gave us a fantastic fluke view as it dove for the final time, allowing the AP team to identify it as individual NYC0148, putting in its first appearance for the 2022 season.

While the wildlife ensured that this outing was one for the record books, we had to earn our keep by braving some intense wave action on the way back to shore. As predicted, the winds gradually strengthened throughout the day, peaking around 25 knots and producing dramatic swells. We fortunately had a following sea for most of the return journey, but we still got tossed around a bit as we passed through some patches of stormy activity. Captain Frank did a fantastic job navigating these rough spots safely, and once we reached the shallower shelf waters past the Canyon the skies cleared and the ocean settled down considerably. Even the rockiest ride could do little to dampen our spirits, and the majority of the afternoon was spent celebrating our success over drinks. We toasted the Bermuda Petrel itself, the crew, and all of the countless hours of hard work that had led to this long awaited triumph. It’s no exaggeration to say that this discovery was decades in the making. We had finally reached the unreachable star, confirming with our own eyes that this mythical Lazarus species is indeed a rare visitor to the waters of the Empire State. Such a momentous occasion provided exactly the assurance that we needed: the New York pelagic scene is alive and well, and there’s no telling what other thrilling experiences the future may hold!

2022 has been a pretty exceptional year for birding in general, and these astonishingly successful trips stand out as clear highlights. I genuinely missed being out in the deep during the long dry spell of the past few years, and I am grateful to the American Princess Cruises team and the old Paulagics vanguard for tirelessly toiling to bring pelagics back. We couldn’t have asked for a better return to the stage! I am eagerly looking forward to future expeditions, and I hope that this new partnership will endure for years to come. As long as incredible creatures like Cahows and beaked whales roam the billowing seas at the edges of the continental shelf, we will be there to seek them out, marveling at the wonders that the ocean has to offer. Hopefully I’ll see you out there next time!