Friday, February 7, 2014

Looking Back on My First Pelagic Trip

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When I started working at Eagle Optics almost 4 years ago, I had no idea what a pelagic was. Moreover, I couldn't pronounce it. Searching Wikipedia, I found that the word pelagic is derived from the Ancient Greek pĂ©lagos, meaning "open sea."  Knowing my casual Saturday birding-by-kayak trips didn't really qualify, I started to feel a pang for something bigger.  A pelagic, I read, means going out to sea, and being neither close to the bottom (!) nor near the shore.  The thought gave me goose bumps.  As a land-locked Midwesterner, a trip out on one of the Great Lakes would certainly count--and be a lot closer to home.  But as luck would have it, my first pelagic was handed to me as part of a Birding Blogger event hosted by Swarovski Optik--on the mighty Atlantic. Yes, I've come a long way, baby!  Though still a neophyte, I now have one fabulous pelagic trip under my belt.


It was just after dawn as we motored from our hotel in Cranston, Rhode Island and up around Boston toward Gloucester, MA. I must admit, I was a little nervous. What had been sunny and warm weather the day before, had turned to grey, pea-soup conditions, complete with wind and rain. We were socked in. I imagined the 7 of us bobbing in a little boat on the angry surf, me with barf-bag in hand, too seasick to raise my binoculars.  Thankfully, I needn't have worried.  By the time we arrived at the dock, the rain had abated. We were all smiles and anticipation as we boarded (to my relief and delight) the large, very seaworthy-looking whale watch charter boat dubbed Privateer IV.



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We grabbed coffee and sandwiches at the snack bar belowdecks and stowed our gear. While the other passengers settled in for the 45-minute cruise out to the whales, we positioned ourselves up top, where we could start seeing birds. Charming Gloucester Harbor was just shaking off the morning mist as we made our way toward the open sea.

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Sharon (Bird Chick) Stiteler had cautioned us in an e-mail to pack plenty of layers for the pelagic trip. It had seemed odd to bring a fleece jacket, Smart Wool socks, and silk long underwear to the East Coast in late July, but my oh my, I'm glad I did (let that be ingrained in your brains, too, in case you're planning such an expedition). We experienced just about every kind of weather on that boat except snow.  Below, Sharon takes her own advice as we get hit with a cold, windy mist.


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We saw 14 bird species during the trip (which we documented on eBird) and many of us picked up several lifers. I was amazed at the resilience of these birds living at sea, and impressed that my cohorts could spot and identify what were seemingly dots on the horizon or specks sitting on floating algae. Looking through my binocular, I marveled at the size of Northern Gannets, and how their whiteness positively glowed in the sun. A favorite sighting for me was an Atlantic Puffin fly-by; the lone Sooty Shearwater seemed to get the biggest rise out of my birding companions, judging by the whoops and high-fives exchanged. Oh, and by the way, we saw whales: Minke, Fin, and Humpback. What a thrill!

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After the last whale finished its cameo appearance, most of the regular folks were satisfied and sat back as the boat turned to head back to Gloucester. The 7 of us successfully took over the bow of the boat, which stuck way out over the water, to log in as many more bird sightings as possible. By this time, we all had our sea legs, and the rest of the passengers just smiled and gave us a wide berth.

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Blue sky and bright sunshine greeted us as we cruised in past the lighthouse on the rocky island that guards Gloucester Harbor. It was hard to miss seeing the many lobster boats--and we realized what an appetite we had worked up that morning. I guess the sea will do that to you. Our host, Clay Taylor, led us to the Gloucester House Restaurant, right on the dock. It had colorful vintage buoys for decor and a lunch special I've since dreamt about: Twin Lobsters for $19.95. All 7 of us ordered the same thing. The perfect end to a perfect morning, and a first pelagic trip to remember!

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Nina Cheney
Eagle Optics Staff
Binoculars: Bring them. See what they bring you.

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