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In This Place

A Trip Far Out Yields Special Surprises

Peter Flood

This past weekend, the salty seabird enthusiasts of the Brookline Bird Club were at it again. Aboard the Helen H they steamed out of Hyannis on an overnight trip bound for the mythical canyonlands of the continental shelf 100 miles south of Nantucket. For over 15 years they have plied these pelagic waters in search of new ornithological discoveries, but this past weekend, in this exotic far corner of our state’s territorial waters, they weren’t the only avian adventurers with binoculars fixed on the horizon.

Not long ago the shelf waters of Massachusetts were “here be dragons” territory on the map of ornithological knowledge. Few went, with most left to wonder what might be out there. These BBC Extreme Pelagic trips, now running a few times per year, have changed that. And this past weekend, thanks to two concurrent NOAA research cruises, these formerly mysterious waters were practically crowded with vessels peopled with birders armed with cameras and smartphones, documenting every obscure creature. So it’s no surprise that many of their highlights have been burning up the rare bird alerts for the closest points of land, mostly Nantucket.

The waters of the continental shelf are warm and deep, holding the potential for all manner of tropical and subtropical seabirds and other creatures, thanks to the influence of the Gulf Stream. And sure enough, these boats documented unprecedented numbers of a sought-after warm water bird, the Audubon’s Shearwater, more than doubling the previous state high count, with 160 seen in an hour from the NOAA fisheries research vessel Pisces. Not to be outdone, the crew of the nearby NOAA ship Henry Bigelow documented just the fourth or fifth ever state record of a Masked Booby on Monday. These tropical seabirds are rare anywhere in North America, never mind in Massachusetts. For good measure, they also documented a Black-capped Petrel, a scarce Caribbean bird recently proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

For their part, the birders aboard the Helen H found everyone’s favorite sprite of the sea canyons, and a target bird of all of these trips, a White-faced Storm-Petrel. These mostly South Atlantic avian oddities, seen by relatively few North American birders, are famous for bouncing their way across the water on little webbed feet, sailing between bounds on outstretched, paddle-shaped wings. The overall impression left by a White-faced Storm-Petrel is that of a butterfly trying repeatedly to land on the ocean – here's a video of the encounter.

The thing about these pelagic trips is that birds are just part of the fun. The sometimes 80-degree waters hold sea creature riches we never see here in our cold near-shore waters – over the years they have tallied leviathans like Blue Whales and Whale Sharks, huge leatherback sea turtles, giant pods of frolicking dolphins of several species, and obscure cetaceans like Sowerby’s Beaked Whale. On this trip, the calm waters produced many drool-worthy sightings, including cooperative Hammerhead and Tiger Sharks that both posed for photos. Common and Bottlenose Dolphins did the same, leaping for the cameras like they were auditioning for Sea World.

Risso’s Dolphins, their grey skin crisscrossed with the scars characteristic of their kind, made appearances, as did both Pilot and Fin Whales. A Cuvier’s Beaked Whale was perhaps the shiniest sighting. These record-holding free divers dive deeper and longer than any other whale, topping out at nearly two miles deep for an astounding 3.7 hours, pushing the physiological boundaries for mammals.

While I used to enjoy co-leading some of these BBC trips in my free-wheeling childless years, the last couple I did pushed the physiological boundaries of my stomach, so I retired for now. But if you like your birds pelagic and your whales beaked, you should keep an eye out for the next BBC pelagic trip, or the next job opening on a NOAA research cruise. Either way, only the strong of stomach need apply.