Trip Report: 4/27/02 Condor Express - Santa Barbara,CA
This trip was the inaugaural deepwater pelagic birding
trip aboard the Condor Express. After many years of
loyal, faithful service from the Condor, a new era has
begun with the high-tech, high-speed catamaran, Condor
Express. This is the finest vessel ever available to
the general public for pelagic birding on the
west coast and maybe the whole country.
Instead of departing at 11 p.m., and trying to sleep
our way out to deepwater, we departed at 5 a.m., and
in less than 2 hours we were past Pt.Conception, heading
asea. The first 90 minutes was deceptive in the calm,
flat waters of the Santa Barbara Channel. 30 knots
and you can't really tell how fast you're going.
A few birds became evident as it got light and we
neared Conception .... some Pacific and Common Loons,
a Red-throated or two, a few Brandt's Cormorants, and
several flocks of Black Brant each containing 150-300
birds. Some Surf Scoters flew past, one partially
albinistic with the outer wing white. It was a white
winged Scoter, but not a White-winged Scoter. A Pigeon
Guillemot was near the kelp beds just inside
Pt. Conception. A few Sea Otters, a Harbor Seal, and
a Gray Whale were seen in the area too.
But, now for the rude awakening. Perhaps the greatest
change in oceans and weather, consistently, within a
5 minute stretch of sea, would be rounding the corner
at Pt.Conception. Legend has it, that it makes
its own weather. There is usually a wall of standing
10' swells there waiting to greet you to the real sea!
And we were not disappointed! Well, some were ....
It was quite rough for some as we headed out,
but not at all for others. Particularly the first
hour of hitting the big swells. As you head to
deeper water, things aren't being pushed up by
the bottom so much, and it usually calms down a bit.
Of course, we'd just had this cutoff low hang offshore
for 3 days before making landfall, and the post-frontal
blow was just finishing up as we arrived. We had
about 15 knots of wind, and 8-10 swells stacked up
pretty close. It layed down throughout the day,
with wind and wave diminishing significantly. But,
during the course of the day, we saw swells and
wind from South, West, and North! We also saw
rain and sun.
The first 6 hours or so we mostly head as far west and
northwest as we can, and shortly after 1p.m., turn
downswell, and downwind, for a smooth calm ride the
rest of the day. We averaged 22 knots into the 10'
seas, not bad! We got over 80 miles west of Conception!
We spent over 8 hours past the 1500 fathom line, and
probably 6 past the 2000 fathom line, transecting some
150+ miles of very deep water.
Pterodroma hunting is not like regular pelagic
birding. You go to where there are very few birds.
It is not like nearshore pelagic trips where there
are usually lots of birds to look at, and almost
always at least something to look at. There is
often nothing to look at. You scan and scour a
vast empty sea for signs of life. Hour after hour.
You might see one bird an hour, for several hours.
Deepwater is as different from shallow nearshore
waters as the desert is from the mountains.
The first bit of excitement came in the form of our
first Albatross, a Black-footed, crossed our wake,
but not too closely, at 14 miles west of Pt.Conception.
We were getting a few Sooty Shearwaters, some Cassin's
and Rhinoceros Auklets, and Red-necked Phalaropes.
Then a Fulmar, Pomarine Jaeger, and Sabine's Gull,
all loosely assorted with a group of 6-8+ feeding
Humpback Whales, about 37 mi. SW. of Pt.Conception.
A couple each of Western, Herring and California
Gulls were noted, and 4 Sooty Shearwater.
In the next hour heading WSW we saw a dozen Pink-footed
Shearwater, 6 Sootys, and a couple more Pomarine Jaeger.
One observer saw a couple dark Storm-Petrels. Then
our first sign of real deepwater animals appeared
in the form of a pod of logging Sperm Whales! They
were loosely scattered over an area of several
hundred square yards, perhaps 8, or more of them.
We pulled up to a bull, and sat next to him for
15 minutes. While doing so, a LAYSAN Albatross
flew right up our wake, and past the rail, and
through the frame of cameras videoing the Sperm Whale!
It was a field of view few will ever forget! After
the whale gave us that incredible vertical fluke,
we headed towards another to see a nice white-rumped
Leach's Storm-Petrel, hanging over it!
We turned N into the swell for about 20 miles from
11:30 to 12:30. Another Leach's, and some Pacific
White-sided Dolphins were seen. And then a most
unusual looking, mostly snow white bird appeared.
We floored it and gave chase. It required 32 knots
to overtake the bird (fun into the swell!). It
apparently was an abberrant, partially albinistic
Fulmar! It is not fair for the bird gods to do this
to us, the only bird in an hour, out over 2000 fathoms,
what are we supposed to think!?!
Hoping to get away from this bird, we headed west,
further out over the abyss of the deep. We
are plying waters 12000 feet deep! We pretty much did
a big square about 20 miles per side out over the deep.
We turned S about 1:30 and the ride smoothed to
nothing, from then on, no longer beating into the
swell and wind. White caps were all but gone. We
had seen a few swells that were 12'. But this vessel,
with a hull specially designed for "rough water",
handles it incredibly well. Most were amazed at
how there is almost no side to side roll - pitch
or yaw - only front to back motion. Stability at
sea is crucial to getting looks satisfactory to
make positive identifications. This is a new world.
44 minutes and 30 miles west from where we left the
odd snow white Fulmar with a couple gray inner
primaries, we saw another bird finally.... the
same freakin' Fulmar! It had not been sighted
between. We turned south attempting again to get
away from this abberant freak Fulmar... A couple
Parasitic Jaegers flew past us and a couple more
Leach's Storm Petrels were seen. Then 62 minutes
later, some 85 miles SW of Pt. Conception, the same
damn Fulmar shows up again! Three times in three hours,
we recorded the same bird, each time some 20-30 miles
from the previous sighting! By now of course, I don't
think this is soooo funny, and feel like the bird gods
are taunting me! We have probably established that
there are neither many birds, or boats out here...
A couple more Black-footed Albatross are seen. Just
after 4 p.m. all hell breaks loose when Pterodroma
is called out .... first I had heard people saying
something about "get on this shearwater." When I got
to the other side of the boat, the first thing I
thought upon laying eyes upon it was, "this
ain't no shearwater!" Fortunately, ace seabirder
Todd McGrath was up on the flybridge and got a
good enough look at the underwing to confirm that
it was indeed a MURPHY'S PETREL!
It was obviously a large dark Pterodroma Petrel.
I only got a good enough look to confirm that much
of an identification, unequivically. I did not see
the underwing well enough to my satisfaction to claim
an ID, which is why you need a other good eyes aboard!
We gave chase, but like a good fighter pilot, it
lost us in the glitter path. After a search pattern
in the area, we laid an oil slick. Two immature
Black-footed Albatross, 2 Pink-footed shearwater,
4 Pomarine Jaeger, and a Western Gull came in,
but that was it.
Initially, there were 2 birds together when the dark
Pterodroma was spotted. Although we all focused on
one bird pretty quickly, it was my belief both
birds were the same. I don't know how many people
saw the bird, but fair number did! A bunch saw it
well enough to say dark Pterodroma! At least someone
was aboard who knew enough, and got good enough looks
to confirm the specific identification as Murphy's,
the mathmatically most likely dark Pterodroma.
Thank you Todd McGrath! The bird was right on the
2000 fathom line. Water was about 54 degrees F..
Finally after 150 miles of solid Valella, we began
to see fewer and fewer .... one can't help but wonder
how they affect bird and other animal distribution.
Surely the can consume incredible amounts of plankton,
depleting the food source of say anchovies, which
are often a food source of our quarry, birds.
We had some Dall's Porpoise before and after the
Murphy's Petrel too. As we headed east back toward
the CA coast, we were still over deepwater, but
could see Pt. Conception in the distance
to the NE, as well as San Miguel Island to the SE.
I had a bird fly by that was likely another
dark Pterodroma, but it was unchaseable. Eventually
more Western Gulls were evident. A few more Rhinos,
and Cassin's again, and the numbers of Pink-footed
and Sooty Shearwater increased.
Another group of feeding Humpback Whales were found
and watched for a while. A couple of more Fulmars
were seen, and another Sabine's Gull, this a 1st
summer bird sitting in the water. A group of Risso's
Dolphins were found and gave excellent views in the
nearing sundown light.
Finally, as we ran out of light, dinner was served,
tri-tip or chicken, and after sundown we were
treated to a great view of the planetary alignment.
A fitting end to a great first birding expedition to
the socal deepwater on the Condor Express.
It was an unbelievably great mammal day too,
and it seems without the prop whine, the animals
are far less jumpy at our approach, and even
very nonchalant about our presence at all.
Perhaps the low rumble of the turbos is less
disturbing .... it certainly seemed like it ???
It was a great group of people aboard for the trip,
which has a lot to do with how much fun a trip is!
I'd like to thank everyone for their support!
For most it was an incredible, unforgettable experience!
The Captains Fred Benko and Ron Hart deserve special
mention and thanks for the outstanding job they do!
Thanks to all who went, and made the trip possible!
Join us on May 25th for another expedition to the
deep after Pterodroma Petrels - Cook's & Murphy's targets.
© Martin Meyers, 2002 - All Rights Reserved
Sea Otter - 6+ - in kelp just inside Pt. Conception
California Sea Lion - xxx
Harbor Seal - 2+
Pacific White-sided Dolphin - 12+
Common Dolphin - xx
Risso's Dolphin - 8
Dall's Porpoise - 6-8+ - never close up
Gray Whale - 3-4+
Humpback Whale - 20+ - two feeding groups
Sperm Whale - 8+ - logged at surface for 30 mins.!
Beaked Whale sp. - 2 - 2 observers - prob. Curvier's
probable Fin or Blue blows - several
© Martin Meyers, 2002 - All Rights Reserved
I'm sure I missed some things, but it is hard to
record it all .... I appreciate any corrections,
but reserve the right to reject or ignore them :):):)
The ocean rocks!
Get me to that sign-up page NOW!!!!!!