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About Arguello Canyon
by Mitch Heindel

Arguello Canyon and vicinity is probably the single most biologically
productive offshore area in southern California. For birds, mammals,
or fish, its numbers and diversity are likely unsurpassed in ‘SoCal’.
Historically this area was a significant and important whaling grounds.
The factors that made it such a good ‘whale spot’ then continue to
make it such today. And of course these biologically rich areas of
upwellings have birds too.

For a brief period of about four years ('93-96) I led trips to this
area for Los Angeles Audubon. They were, in my view, very successful
despite several being cancelled at the dock due to weather ... the
ultimate frustration in organizing a pelagic trip. Half of the days
of the year you might think you’d like to be there, it would require
an aircraft carrier. As I write this, the marine forecast predicts
25’ seas there.

Yet, despite it being only 40 miles from shore it remains virtually
unbirded, and little known. While to the north, Monterey Bay has
enjoyed 25 years of fairly constant thorough coverage generating a
wealth of knowledge regarding what might occur, the Arguello Canyon
area remains more a mystery than any site in SoCal. It is an
untapped goldmine.

Arguello Canyon runs SW from Points Conception and Arguello,
which are at the 90 degree ‘big bend’ corner on the SoCal coast.
It is where the currents collide off the Pacific Coast.
Off a continent there is usually a place where the warm tropical
currents meet the cold polar-born currents. Here in this case,
warm water from the south, the Davidson Current, moves north
nearshore in the SoCal Bight from Mexico past San Diego to
Santa Barbara. The cold California Current moves south down
the coast of California. They meet at or near Arguello.
So, both warm and cold water species occur here. Here is the
southerly edge of northerly cold-water species normal range,
and the northern edge of southerly warm-water species ranges,
combining for a diversity hard to find in many places.

The canyon itself is an ill-defined affair, wide and shallow,
beginning about 20 miles off "the points" (Arg./Concep.), and
continuing SW for about 30 miles to its rather broad and poorly
defined "mouth". The mouth is over 1500 fathoms, the nearest to
shore in SoCal one can get to this depth of water. It is roughly
5-6 hours by boat to the canyon from Santa Barbara, the nearest port.
The mouth is framed by two high spots. On the SE is Rodriguez Seamount,
rising to 356 fathoms, a famous Albacore spot, and the site of several
good bird sightings. On the NW is ‘the 948’ (fathom) knoll.
Just NW of ‘the 948’ is the SE corner of the San Lucia Escarpment,
one of the most precipitous shelf drop-offs in SoCal.

Besides the occasional CAL-COFI cruise through the area recording
bird data, a mortal birder's only hope to get there themselves, has
been getting on an albacore boat in fall, which often go to
Rodriguez Smt. Needless to say, this hasn’t occurred
often. For the few times I’ve been to this area, the list of things
I’ve seen is astounding. We found Sperm Whales here three times.
Once, Northern Right-Whale Dolphins were bow-riding on a bull
Sperm Whale’s "bow wave", directly under our bow! We’ve been
surrounded by Orca twice. Perhaps the only time I was ever leaning
over the rail photographing something when it dawned on me a few feet
between me and the rail wouldn’t hurt .... Baird’s and Curvier’s
Beaked Whales were also seen well on a couple trips.

The bird list is equally outstanding. I’ve seen over two dozen
Laysan Albatross, with three January trips producing three Laysans
each. Black-footeds are often common. A Nov Y2K trip had about 50.
Twice out here, I’ve had the unique experience of the "first bird seen
of the day", being a Black-footed Albatross. You know you’re gonna
have a good day when .... the first set of feathers you see belongs
to an albatross!

About five of us once saw a few Murphy’s Petrels here in late
April. A boatload saw half a dozen Cook’s Petrels on another trip.
A couple other likely Cook’s were seen on other trips. I saw a
Stejneger’s here one November. Then there is a several observer
sighting of a Wedge-tailed Shearwater, and a dozen that saw the
Red-tailed Tropicbird near the 948. A few of us saw a
Horned Puffin fly past, once in April. An Oct. day there were
thousands of Buller’s and 7 Flesh-footed Shearwaters seen!

Does this sound like the SoCal you know and bird? Incidently,
just west of this area (c.65 mi. W. of Pt. Arguello) is where the
many Parakeet Auklets were seen on the CAL-COFI cruise, in Jan. 93.

Chumming with popcorn mixed with squid and anchovies (to stink up
the floating corn) and dragging a flock all over behind you all
day should bring most of what’s out there by for a look see, even
if they don’t stop for some. You must keep chumming .... endt you
vill enjoy it! I can’t hear you singing :) ! Perhaps the most
important ingredient is several sets of keen eyes constantly
scanning in every direction. Pterodromas often blaze past in a
few moments, and are gone. Whistling (or even pishing) doesn’t
bring them back. They seem to me to give a dirty look for wasting
their time as they blast by.

Consider, that in this area in the last decade, the following have
been seen or reported at or near Arguello Canyon: Laysan and
Black-footed Albatross, Dark-rumped (Hawaiian), Cook’s, Murphy’s,
and Stejneger’s Petrels, Wedge-tailed, Buller’s, Flesh-footed,
Pink-footed, Sooty, Short-tailed,and Black-vented Shearwaters,
Wedge-rumped, Least, Fork-tailed, Black, Ashy, Leach's &
Wilson's Storm-Petrels, Red-billed and TAILED Tropicbirds,
Craveri’s Murrelet, Parakeet Auklet, Horned Puffin, and half a
dozen regular (common) alcid sps.. All four ‘Skuas’, Sabine’s Gulls,
and Arctic Terns. Add for good measure Sperm and Blue Whales,
Orca, Baird’s & Curvier’s Beaked Whales, Northern Right-Whale
Dolphin and Dall’s Porpoise!

It is out of this world! What’s next? There is no doubt in my mind
that with regular coverage this area would turn up new CA, U.S., or
hemisphere records, just like the well-covered spots to the north do.
It’s just a matter of coverage. What’s really rare there is birders!
There is no place in SoCal where you would be more likely to discover
a new state record, or see a "first SoCal" record.

See the 2002 schedule for opportunities to bird this incredible area
this year. The future of coverage will depend partly on support of
these trips. If we can get people to see some of the wealth
of life out there, surely more trips will be run.
These are true high seas adventures, birding where one
hardly ever gets a chance to, and no one can
really tell you what you might see. I believe everything that
has occurred at Monterey Bay or Cordell Banks flew by here.
It is the closest place to push the envelope of knowledge,
where we know the least. It remains a frontier in the 21st century.

© 2002 Mitch Heindel

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