Northern Fulmar Santa Monica Bay California

Northern Fulmar

The Human Geography of a Pelagic Birding Boat

I spent a day recently on a pelagic boating trip organized by a cool new non-profit called LA Birders. The boat left out of Marina del Rey, and explored Santa Monica Bay west of Palos Verdes. I’m not convinced Santa Monica Bay offers good odds for successful pelagics. Most of the good sightings in the area seem to come from south/southwest of Point Vicente, or farther out past Catalina Island. Still, we had nice weather and calm-ish seas. We saw a decent variety of species, including Rhinoceros and Cassin’s Auklets, Black-vented and Sooty Shearwater, Northern Fulmar, Common Murre, and Scripps Murrelet. But there were no rarities, no lifers, and overall a very small number of birds. The flock of humans on the boat was bigger than any flock of birds we saw. Going in a boat that apparently had only a single gear, “ploddingly slow,” meant we barely covered more of the ocean than I’ve covered in 3 hour whaling tours. 

Our path around Santa Monica Bay

With all the down time of an 8-hour boat ride through empty patches of sea, I got interested (as I do) in the people around me. There must have been about 50 people on board. It was, naturally, a varied group (of mostly white folks). Many were familiar faces. Some were old timers and some were young(er). A couple guys had lenses that looked more like telescopes. A few were out on their first pelagic. What interested me the most was the gathering of certain kinds of birders in certain parts of the boat. Here’s what I saw:

The Bow – Team eBird (aka Eyes Always Peeled). Situated at the front of the boat, with eyes and lenses at the ready, are the listers. They’re out there because they want to see all the birds. Not only that, many of them want to be the person who spots the birds. There’s no distracting chit chat at the front of the boat (though there’s lots of inside-eBird talk, since many of those at the front of the boat are not just top eBird listers, they’re also eBird reviewers (god bless them for their service)). And there’s no napping up here either. Six hours into the trip, with the boat passing through another nearly birdless section, and with a couple dozen Cassin’s Auklets already seen, the folks at the front of the boat are still calling out excitedly “Cassin’s Auklet at 2 o’clock, 150 yards out and flying away!” This is also where you’ll find the highest concentration of top-notch camera gear. 

The Stern – Team Salty Yarn (aka I’ve Seen All These Birds Before). If you want to hear tales of pelagic trips from around the globe–or, better yet, if you want to tell tales of pelagic trips from around the world–then the stern is the place to be. Back here you’ll find a collection of birders who long ago moved beyond the never-ending county Big Year that Team eBirders at the bow can’t shake, if they ever pursued such an undignified calling in the first place. That said, there isn’t a seabird you can name that the birders back here haven’t seen in numbers on their breeding grounds (on a cruise up in Alaska, or along the coast of Peru, or on a chartered boat in New Zealand or around Laysan). Team Salty Yarn is more casual in their approach, but they’re also more likely to use scientific names for birds than anybody else on the boat. Hot tip: this is also where you’ll find the tupperware full of brownies. The popcorn, however, is strictly for the birds.

Sooty Shearwater Santa Monica Bay California

I spotted this Sooty Shearwater from the stern, the only one of the trip

The Upper Deck – Team Sit (aka Birds are nice, but they aren’t everything). Our boat had an enclosed galley with seating, and a small top deck with space for 6-8 folks to sit. The folks up on the top deck aren’t lazy, or tired. They simply prefer to do their birding while sitting down. They aren’t obsessed with compiling a big list. They aren’t out to get tack sharp close-up photos of the birds. This group is here for the birds, but they’re also here for the ride and the view. And the view is much better up here. Team Sit is also as interested in the whales and mola molas and sharks and dolphins (all of which we saw on the ride) as they are the birds. That is, they’re more well-rounded personalities. This is also where you’ll find the passengers most susceptible to sea sickness, so don’t sit too close if somebody up here looks a little pale.

Moving Around the Boat – Team FOMO (aka Lifers! Lifers!). On the boat are a small number of birders who can’t stay still. Maybe it’s constitutional. More likely, they are zooming from the bow to the stern, from port to starboard, chasing the calls coming from the loudspeaker because they don’t want to miss any birds or photo opportunities. (“Fulmar at 6 o’clock! Alcids at 12:30!”) Some are on their first pelagic. Others have a list of lifers they’re likely to get on this trip, and can’t miss their chance. All share a frantic commitment to see whatever everyone else is seeing. Unlike the folks stationed at the bow, Team FOMO (maybe because they’re newer to the birding game and haven’t gone all-in yet) are more likely to have smaller cameras with less zoom. But don’t confuse that with less interest. Usually the happiest people at the end of the trip are those on Team FOMO. While the rest of us are bummed that we saw so few birds, and didn’t bag a rarity like Short-tailed Shearwater or Brown Booby, these birders saw glorious things they’d never seen before.

Rhinoceros Auklet Santa Monica Bay California

We saw a bunch of Rhinoceros Auklets – this one sporting nice breeding eyebrows

Of course, there are storytellers at the bow, and compulsive listers at the back, and almost everyone took a seat at one time during the long ride. I spent about half of my time at the bow (I’m not ashamed), the other half at the stern (listening, not telling), and the last 30 minutes sitting up top wondering how badly my back was going to hurt the next day from all the standing. As usual, it was great to get out somewhere you don’t normally go and see some good birds.