Monday, May 9, 2016

Post #65 - West Coast Cruise Ship Pelagic - tons of info!

Note 1 -  You might also want to check out a post from my second Cruise Ship Pelagic, in December of 2017.

Note 2 - This post is really long, but I hope it explains a lot of what happens on a California cruise ship pelagic. 

From May 3 through May 7 (2016), I was aboard the Princess Cruise Lines’ Ruby Princess as it sailed from Los Angeles to British Columbia. The trip was a repositioning cruise, a relatively quick, non-stop trip designed to move the ship from its winter base in Southern California and Mexico to its summer base around Seattle, British Columbia, and Alaska. These “repo” cruises are discounted but generally include the usual cruise activities and perks (live entertainment, all inclusive meals, etc). Prior to this adventure, I had never been on any sort of cruise and, truth be told, had never had any sort of desire to spend even a minute on a cruise ship. However, after this experience, I will say that anyone interested in pelagic birding – particularly those who are avid ABA listers – should consider replicating my experience because it's a great way to tick these elusive species.

The Ruby Princess

Wait – why the heck would anyone go on a cruise to see pelagic birds when there are already more traditional pelagic trips specifically geared towards finding pelagic birds off the Pacific Coast? The short answer is Pterodroma petrels, but it will take a minute or two to fully explain this. Traditional 1-day pelagics leave port in the morning and run out to deeper water before returning to the starting point later in the afternoon. These trips are incredibly good for finding albatrosses, shearwaters, storm-petrels, alcids, and jaegers, but they do not generally spend enough time in the deepest waters to find 3 highly prized members of the Pterodroma genus, Cook’s, Murphy’s, and Hawaiian Petrels. Yes, each of these species is occasionally seen on traditional out-and-back, 1-day pelagics, but rarely (at least these days) are all 3 seen on the same trip. A person would likely have to take many individual  pelagics to hope of seeing the 3 mentioned Pterodromas. These odds of finding these species increase exponentially from the cruise ship. Why? Well let’s look at my recent itinerary.

Day 1 - Tuesday, May 3 – Left LA/Long Beach at 4pm. Slept on ship.

Day 2- Wednesday, May 4 – At sea. Slept on ship.
Day 3- Thursday, May 5 – At sea. Slept on ship.
Day 4- Friday, May 6 – Arrive Victoria 7am. Ticked Sky Lark***. Departed 10pm. Slept on ship.
Day 5 - Saturday, May 7 – Arrived Vancouver 10am.
***more on this and other terrestrial British Columbia birding below

 Our route -
we rode the shelf edge the whole way.
We were anywhere from 40-60 miles out.

As we did not waste time getting to and returning form the deeper water on the middle days, our crew of 35 birders had more than an entire day of daylight in the deep, most Pterodroma-productive waters. 1-day pelagics rarely, if ever, make it out to the shelf line.  Those trips that did get out far enough struck out on petrels with such high frequency that those trips aren’t run anymore, especially since the cruise ship has emerged as the preferred method of deep water pelagic birding.

This brings me to the other huge consideration with regards to the cruise ship: comfort. While I actually like getting bounced around a bit on the 50- to 80- foot fishing-type boats used for traditional pelagics, most people do not. Many birders opt out of pelagic trips completely because of the potential for rough seas and associated seasickness. Aboard the 950-foot long and 165-foot tall Ruby Princess, jostling and seasickness are complete non-issues. Even in 40 MPH winds and 15 foots seas on our second day the boat was steady, so steady that we were able to use scopes even under such conditions!

Panoramic view from the bow birding area

Side birding location

An video intro to cruise ship birding

At this point, I do want to say that cruise ships will not make traditional pelagics obsolete any time soon. The views of birds on traditional pelagics are MUCH better than those from the cruise ship for a number of reasons. First, the cruise ship is huge. Not only are birders a long way up from the water but birds can see the cruise ship coming a long way away. They wisely get the heck out the way well before the ship advances too close. This means most of the birds are seen at distances of hundreds of yards from the ship. This leads into the second huge advantage traditional pelagics hold: they are designed specifically for birders. Chum often brings birds to within arm’s lengths of the boat, and the captain and leaders generally bust their butts to point out birds and position the boat for the best views. If you miss the bird on a cruise ship, its gone – no chum to bring it back and no slowing or turning to see the bird even if it does make another pass (which didn’t happen anyway). Particularly notable, photography is infinitely easier and more productive on traditional trips. Cruise ship pelagics are thus a complement to rather than a replacement for traditional pelagics.

OK, so how did our specific trip unfold? Well, here’s the birdlist from our two full days at sea. I should give a special thanks to eBird master Brian Sullivan for keeping the eBird lists the entire time. This list does not include the inshore species that we saw during our exit from LA or our arrival in Victoria/Vancouver. The most important thing to note is that we wrecked shop on petrels, scoring a hat-trick with multiple Cook’s, Murphy’s, and Hawaiian! We had also had 4 Laysan Albatrosses in addition to the more expected Black-footed. 

1 Pacific Loon
1 Common Loon
2 loon sp.
4 Laysan Albatross
451 Black-footed Albatross
40 Northern Fulmar
18 Murphy's Petrel
2 Hawaiian Petrel
32 Cook's Petrel

1 Pterodroma sp.
136 Pink-footed Shearwater
3895 Sooty Shearwater
48 Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel
402 Leach's Storm-Petrel
55 Ashy Storm-Petrel
9 storm-petrel sp.
4 Dunlin
30 peep sp.
24 Short-billed/Long-billed Dowitcher
452 Red-necked Phalarope
80 Red Phalarope
59 phalarope sp.
1 shorebird sp.
1 South Polar Skua
12 Pomarine Jaeger
7 Parasitic Jaeger
2 Long-tailed Jaeger
19 jaeger sp.
165 Common Murre
71 Cassin's Auklet
50 Rhinoceros Auklet
12 alcid sp.
234 Sabine's Gull
18 Western Gull
2 Herring Gull
1 Glaucous-winged Gull
6 gull sp.
8 Arctic Tern
2 Common/Arctic Tern
1 tern sp.
1 Eurasian Collared-Dove (road the boat for the whole first day)

 Cook's Petrel
This is uncropped from my 500 f/4 on 7D2.
This should give you an idea of the view of many birds.
Bird is right of center, midway up frame

Cook's Petrel underside 
(cropped from above)

 Murphy's Petrel topside

Hawaiian Petrel

Hawaiian Petrel 

Hawaiian Petrel 

Laysan Albatross

Interestingly, the vast majority of the petrels were seen on the first full day at sea (day 2 of the cruise). That day was nearly glass calm. Those conditions permitted us to bird from the exposed bow for the entire day. The sun rose as we entered Southern Monterey County, but it was not until around 1pm, when we reached the waters off of Marin County southwest of Point Reyes, that the birding really heated up. In the hour after lunch, we had views of dozens of Pterodromas representing all 3 of the sought species. Below is a video of the party just after a Hawaiian gave us a really nice, eye level fly-by! Interestingly, we thought that the calm conditions might make more difficult than usual the task of finding the wind-loving Pterodromas. We were thankfully horribly wrong on that assumption. After the afternoon mayhem, which included our first Laysan Albatross and our only South polar Skua, we continued through Mendocino County before darkness fell.

Hawaiian Petrel celebration!

Day 3, our second full day at sea, had us waking as we crossed into Oregon waters. The winds on that second day were wicked (>40 MPH) and relegated us to birding from the more protected sides of the boat. Here the cruise ship proved invaluable as we were able to productively bird the deep water in conditions that would have kept any smaller boat shore-bound. Scoping was certainly a bit challenging, but we managed to squeeze out a number of Murphy’s Petrels, a few more Laysans, and our only Arctic Terns of the trip. Sabine’s Gulls and Fork-tailed Storm-petrels were everywhere. We crossed into Southern Washington later in the evening before crashing for the night. 

Here is a video of that second windy day 

We docked in Victoria at 10am on the morning of Day 4, May 6th. Birding in the straights as we approached port, we added more traditional inshore species (Mew Gull, Black Oystercatcher, etc). As we had a full 12 hours to explore Victoria and the southern tip of Vancouver Island, many of us elected to chase down our ABA Sky Lark near the Victoria Airport. Once thriving and now crashing, locals expect the introduced species to disappear in the next 5-10 years. As a recent census estimated the population at just 50-80 birds, this timetable might be generous. The cruise gave many of us the absolutely perfect excuse/motivation to tick the Sky Lark without having to make a dedicated trip to the area. As I discovered, SW British Columbia is stunning and very birdy, so a dedicated trip is anyway recommended!

Victoria Harbor

The cruise rapped up in Vancouver on Saturday. I spent the weekend birding the metro-Vancouver area. For a large city, it has easy access to many beautiful and productive biring locales. My various birding companions and I easily cranked out 100 species in those two days. The area is also particularly amenable to photography, at least compared to the chaos and crowds that I experience in LA.

Vancouver skyline 
For those thinking of replicating my experience in the future, I offer the following tips. 

There are spring repo cruises from both LA and San Diego. These are run by Princess and Holland America. The trips that depart from LA generally traverse more productive biding waters during daylight hours. The Ruby Princess of Princess Cruise Lines is also better set up for birding than are the Holland America ships. Though it is an N of 1, my trip on the Ruby Princess out of LA suggests that that combo is a winning formula for those that can make it happen. 

Air temperatures were in the 50’s and 60’s, but once the wind kicked up it got cold fast. The ship moves at ~20MPH, so that means there is a built in 20MPH breeze at all times. I took several layers including a heavy-duty North Face expedition weight down jacket. That was the single best decision I made in preparation for the trip though bringing gloves and a wool hat was a close second. Hiking boots are also recommended, particularly since you’ll likely be standing for upwards of 10 hours each day. There are many places to sit and rest, but viewing is a bit more challenging from the benches.

Me and my crew drank the water on the ship without issues. They try to get you to buy a case of bottled water ahead of time, but that, like many other things on the ship, is a racket. We birders generally ignored all the usual cruise hubbub and -- as a result -- were not upsold on stuff we didn’t care about or need. We basically birded sunrise to sunset and then went to bed.

The food was decent; with a wide array of dining options available, you can eat as however (and as much) as you desire. There was all sorts of entertainment, but I didn’t give any of it a second thought. I wanted to loose money at a casino or buy hella ugly artwork I could do that on land, right? But yeah, if throwing money away is your thing, then there are plenty of onboard opportunities.

Travel companion Dave "the locust" Petee hits the buffet!

Generally, the more people your group includes, the cheaper it gets per person. I can’t recall the exact numbers but the cheapest option is to put four people into a 4-bed cabin. That will keep costs for all to minimum. My advice is to round up 3 close friends  (so 4 people total) with whom spending 4 days in close quarters won’t be a problem. We were wiped out at the end of each day, so we basically ate dinner and then went to bed. There's plenty of space to hang out on the ship if someone is sleeping in your cabin.

Interestingly, there are fall/winter repo cruises to bring the ships back to SoCal later in the year. While the Cook’s Petrel and Murphy’s Petrel are generally spring birds, who knows what’s out there later in the year? Last year a September repo cruise found 2 Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels and a December trip found Mottled Petrel. As more birders hop onto cruise ships, more rare and interesting birds are going to be found. 

OK, hopefully someone finds at least some of this helpful. That's it for now. Cheers......


  1. Thanks Dorian for this informative post. I'm putting a repo cruise on my bucket list.
    Great hat trick! And I know 2 people who will love your choice of hat...

  2. Good stuff, Dorian - thanks! The videos were great!

  3. Well done Dorian. This was very helpful.

  4. If you have more time (and money), repo cruises from Alaska to Asia in September can also be great. We were especially lucky since because of a typhoon off Japan we crossed the Bering Sea. I was solo but lucky to meet excellent Canadian birders who could identity the tiny alcids as well as the numerous shearwaters, jaegers and albatross. At one pont there were over 4000 shearwaters in view. As for up close and personal, shearwaters regularly got blown onto the ship and had to be helped off by crew or passengers!

  5. Thanks for all this great information. I've been wondering about these repo cruises! I'm curious - were all those birders there on their own? Or was that some coordinated tour? Or both? Wondering if I do a repo cruise next spring, will I see other birders onboard as in your video? Thanks.