Albacore Feeding Grounds

Took my first pelagic trip off the West Coast yesterday. It was a long day – we left at 5.30 a.m. and returned at 5.30 p.m., and we saw a lot of terrific things, although not as many birds as I’d hoped to see. 

Pelagic Tour Boat
Pelagic Tour Boat

We went about 35 miles offshore to the albacore feeding grounds outside of Monterey Bay. When the conditions are right, this area can produce some really fantastic rare birds, although the density of birds is never as high as you’d find in the bay itself (because of the geography of Monterey Bay . . . there’s a big underwater canyon there, and deep water relatively close to land produces a great feeding habitat for birds).

Unfortunately, though some of the conditions were right, the birds were a bit sparse. Even so, I saw 14 new species, which is a fantastic day for me. Plus, what we missed in birds was well made up for in the mammals that we saw. These were the highlight of my day, and we saw some things that are pretty uncommon.

Common Dolphin
Common Dolphin

We saw four species of dolphins, including a species of common dolphin:

These guys were great – they rode the bow of our boat for several minutes. Plus, they’re really pretty; the picture doesn’t do them justice, unfortunately.

We also saw Risso’s dolphins, Pacific white-sided dolphins, and my personal favourite, lots and lots of northern right-whale dolphins. These guys were AMAZING! Not only did several of them ride our bow, but we also go to see them leaping in the air in formation, as well as jumping high out of the water and spinning around before splashing down. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen in my life. It totally kicks the ass of any marine park dolphin show to see these guys doing this in the wild. Fantastic! And I really get the feeling that these dolphins are interested in us, and love playing with the boat. It’s just really heart-warming to experience them like this.

We saw two species of whales, as well: blue whales (yes – they’re big), and Baird’s beaked whales, which are apparently not seen very often.

We had a great viewing of them – they stayed near our boat for about 20 minutes, and we got to watch them swim, blow, dive and then resurface several times. The adults are each about 40 feet long, and there was a pod of at least 13 of them. They were really, really cool.


We also saw a northern fur seal who played by our boat for several minutes (very cute, not commonly seen), and a variety of other things including blue sharks, and lots and lots of jellyfish (Connor was very excited to hear about the jellies). Plus, a possible great white shark (I was astounded to find that the area we were in is part of a triangle off the California coast which has the highest density of great whites on the planet. Note to self: don’t go swimming here ::grin::). The only thing I really wanted to see but didn’t was an Orca. They’ve been seeing them a lot lately on trips, but we never spotted any. 🙁 But that’s okay. It’ll give me something to look for next time. 🙂

As for birds, my favorite of the day was the black-footed albatross – we saw several of these, and they are big and really fantastic to watch. A few of them followed our boat for a while, which was great. I also loved the Cassin’s auklet we saw, and it was great learning to tell the difference between the various jaegers (we saw all three possible species on the trip), and also between the common west-coast shearwaters.

My bird list for the day (life birds are noted with an F):

F Long-tailed Jaeger, Stercorarius longicaudus
F Ashy Storm-Petrel, Oceanodroma homochroa
F Sabine’s Gull, Xema sabini
Northern Fulmar, Fulmarus glacialis
Sooty Shearwater, Puffinus griseus
F Flesh-footed Shearwater, Puffinus carneipes
F Pink-footed Shearwater, Puffinus creatopus
Red-necked Phalarope, Phalaropus lobatus
F Red Phalarope, Phalaropus fulicarius
California Gull, Larus californicus
F Rhinoceros Auklet, Cerorhinca monocerata
Western Gull, Larus occidentalis
Connecticut Warbler, Oporornis agilis
Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura
Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina
Pomarine Jaeger, Stercorarius pomarinus
Brown-headed Cowbird, Molothrus ater
F South Polar Skua, Stercorarius maccormicki
F Black-footed Albatross, Phoebastria nigripes
F Buller’s Shearwater, Puffinus bulleri
F Cassin’s Auklet, Ptychoramphus aleuticus
Parasitic Jaeger, Stercorarius parasiticus
F Short-tailed Shearwater, Puffinus tenuirostris
Heermann’s Gull, Larus heermanni
Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis
Common Murre, Uria aalge
Pelagic Cormorant, Phalacrocorax pelagicus
F Brandt’s Cormorant, Phalacrocorax penicillatus
Pigeon Guillemot, Cepphus columba
Elegant Tern, Sterna elegans
F Arctic Tern, Sterna paradisaea

Not a particularly long bird list for a 12-hour trip, but I saw some things (like the Baird’s whales) that not many people ever get to see. So, it was very worth it – worth the money and the drive (and the alarm ringing at 4.30 in the morning ::grin::). Next time, I’m going to take one of the shorter trips that stays in Monterey Bay, where there will be a higher density of birds, since I still haven’t seen all the common species in the area. It was also worth the strangeness of getting home last night (after driving two hours) to feel the world swaying (aftereffects of being on the boat). Really, really weird that this hit only after I’d gotten all the way home. A good thing, of course, as driving while in that condition might not have been the best idea.

Anyhow, it was a fabulous adventure, and now I’m ready to go out and do more birding soon. I’ve been ignoring it, and having a day like yesterday reminds me how much I love it.

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