Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Post #124 - West Coast Winter Cruise Ship Pelagic - Petrels and Albatrosses in record numbers! Duck Photos too!

Many folks have already heard of the tremendous pelagic successes of the most recent West Coast repositioning ('repo') cruise, this particular edition running from Los Angeles to Vancouver from Wednesday, November 29th to Saturday, December 2nd. To get right to the point, the birding was incredible, specifically along the Oregon Coast where we found record numbers of Laysan Albatrosses (40-50), Short-tailed Albatrosses (5), and Mottled Petrels (~200). Not to be forgotten were 8 Cook's Petrels, a nice bonus on top of our already strong haul. This post is meant as a complement to Post #65, a very lengthy recap of the spring Repo Cruise that I took in May of last year. As that post is filled with all sorts of helpful and advisory information, I will use this post to supplement that one.

Our Route

The general idea of a repositioning cruise is that the cruise company (Princess) needs to move ships around depending upon where they are needed each season. For example, our boat from last year's May trip was used for warm weather cruises all winter (Mexico, Hawaii) before being repositioned to Vancouver in spring for Alaskan cruises during the summer. The beauty of the repo cruise is that the boat makes no port stops, instead staying well offshore and following the continental shelf edge between the end points. With so much time in the deep water, birders have found these repo cruises a wonderful way to view pelagic birds, most specifically the Pterodroma petrels that have proven so difficult to find from more traditional, 8-, 10-, or 12-hour pelagic trips. As this video will show, the cruise ship is no longer a secret!

Me being a clown, as per usual

Hold on, hold on. If I went north (LA > VAN) last spring, wouldn't it make sense to go south (VAN > LA) this fall/winter, right? Yes, it would, but this was a special repo cruise, one that was repositioning the ship to Vancouver for painting, maintenance, and other upgrades. This is important as this late-Nov/early-Dec trip is unlikely to go every year. So, if you're looking into doing this exact trip next year, be advised that it might not run. There will most certainly be some form of southbound repo cruise in late fall (Sept/Oct), but, given that earlier season, that trip won't likely replicate the successes of this past week. 

This most recent repo cruise left LA on Wednesday, November 29th at 4pm. With the short days, we did little birding as it was dark by the time we left the harbor. At sunrise on the next day (Thursday), we found ourselves ~40-50 mils off Big Sur, and, in the course of the day, we made our way north along the shelf edge to reach central Sonoma County by nightfall (around 5:30pm). In that stretch, we had good numbers of Northern Fulmars, low numbers of Sooty Shearwaters, scattered alcids, a few Red Phalaropes, single numbers of Black-footed Albatrosses, and at least 2 very distant Laysan Albatrosses. On the whole it was a very slow day characterized by strong north winds and heavy seas. That night we traversed the remainder of the California Coast.

The sun rose just after we crossed into Oregon on Friday morning, and we immediately had more birds of every sort, most notably Black-footed and Laysan Albatrosses. It wasn't long until a juvenile Short-tailed Albatross materialized, quickly buzzing the port side of the boat before quickly disappearing. I got on it very late, enough for a decent ID view but not enough for photos. After that the albatross floodgates opened. For the next few hours, Black-footeds and Laysans were in near constant view on the horizon. Midday we passed an active trawler that had loads albatrosses around it, including another 2 or 3 Short-taileds (all juveniles). Those gave much nicer views than the first (photos below). 

We found passed this (and only this) fishing boat. 
It was probably half a mile away. 
So yeah, most of the birds were very distant.

All of the photos are terrible quality due to the distance of the birds from the boat. I have chosen to show the full frame and the cropped image so that you can see what you can expect with 560mm of focal length (400 + 1.4x). I expect those folks at the very front of the ship will have much better pics of this Short-tailed Albatross as it moved away from the boat by the time I got on it.

Short-tailed Albatross (juvenile) record shot - full frame, uncropped

Cropped from above. Note chocolate color and huge, pink bill

Laysan Albatross record shot - full frame, uncropped

Cropped from above

The albatrosses ensured that everyone on the ship was stoked, but we still hadn't yet seen a single petrel. Most everyone was hoping for Mottled Petrel, and it was with great excitement that the first of those was spotted and called-out mid-afternoon. I missed that individual as I was on the wrong side of the ship and was understandably despondent about it. Laying on my own scope, I quickly spotted another as redemption. At that point, petrels appeared everywhere, and we had Mottleds in near constant view until we crossed into Washington right as darkness fell. Many of them gave great views as they arced up and down just in front of the ship. As mentioned, there were also single numbers of Cook's Petrels mixed in. 

Mottled Petrel (underside) record shot - full frame, uncropped

Cropped from above. Note stocky body, short wings,
black ulnar bars on underwing, gray belly.

Mottled Petrel (topside) record shot - full frame, uncropped

Cropped from above. Mostly gray with classic "M" 
pattern traced across wings.

Cook's Petrel (underside) record shot - full frame, uncropped

Cropped from above. Note cleaner underwing and more nimble, 
longer-winged form than Mottled.

OK, you get the idea; The birds were far away. But that's to be expected given the size of the ship and the fact that it doesn't slow down no matter what appears! Since the views are poor compared to a regular pelagic trip, the cruise ship won't at all replace those shorter outings. The cruise is really for those hardcore listers who want to tick tough species such as the Pterodroma petrels for their ABA lists. I had 32 Cook's, 18 Murphy's, and 2 Hawaiian in the spring and ~200 Mottled and 8 Cook's on this fall/winter leg. In comparison, I didn't see see a single petrel (besides fulmars) on the ~15 NorCal pelagics that I took this year. The cruise ship is the only way to go for these birds. There was actually a Red-legged Kittiwake called out on Friday, but only 1 or 2 people got onto it. I'm not sure if it made the official trip list or not. 

The list of marine mammals included Fur Seal, breaching Humpback Whales, Pacific White-sided Dolphin, Northern Right Whale Dolphin, Sperm Whale (I think), and a small pod (3-4) of Orcas not far from where we passed the fishing boat. I'm sure this mammal list is incomplete.

The cruise concluded when we pulled into Vancouver mid-morning on Saturday, December 2nd. So, we ended up with 2 full days of sea birding, the first boring and the second exciting. 

As I covered the layout of the ship, food, and other assorted cruise considerations in Post #65, I'll briefly touch on a couple of other considerations that people might find interesting/helpful.

Inside the boat. I avoided this except for boarding.....

Seasickness was - as far as I could tell - a non-issue on the trip. Some people wore ear patches but the ship really doesn't move that much. We had some long-period swell but nothing more. Interestingly, some people might find taking motion sickness pills near bedtime a good way to aid sleep. The ship is big but does pitch slowly if there is sufficient swell/wind.

Weather was quite chilly at times, particularly in the wind, but nothing that a decent parka wouldn't easily fend off. Interestingly, the weather on this fall trip was about equivalent to the last year's spring trip, a bit of a surprise given the time of year. The days were significantly shorter this time around, the light being usable from about 7am until 5pm (spring was more like 6am to 8pm). 

Sunset over the North Pacific

With upwards of 70 birders on board this time around, it did feel crowded at times, particularly when everyone was crammed onto the bow during the albatross and petrel madness on Friday. I have no idea how crowds will trend moving forward, but positioning is significantly more important on the cruise ship that it is on a traditional pelagic where it is easy for everyone to move to any point on the boat. If the wind permits, the bow is the place to be. If not, the sun angle dictates that the port/left side is better in the morning and the starboard/right side better in the afternoon - assuming you're going north; The opposite would be true going south. Wind on the Pacific Coast is almost always from the north or northwest.

Though it wasn't terribly rough on this run per se, the boat did move a bit slower than usual because of that long-period swell above referenced. This meant that we ported into Vancouver about 4 hours later than scheduled. I would highly suggest leaving a big buffer between the ship's scheduled arrival and your departing flight to allow for similarly unexpected/unplanned delays. Many people (myself included) actually stuck around Vancouver for the weekend, so that's a great option if you feel like doing some extra, terrestrial birding at cruise's conclusion. You've already made it that far, right? Winter birding around Boundary Bay is great. 

OK, that's it for now. If you like this sort of thing, you might want to 'follow' the blog so that you don't miss similar trip recaps moving forward. You can do that on the right hand side/column of the page as it appears in the WEB FORMAT on either your home computer or phone (sadly, you can't do it from the mobile device format on your phone). 

And since I made you put up with crappy photos for this whole entry, I'll leave you with a few decent shots from around Vancouver after the cruise. Enjoy!

***As always, click for higher resolution views***

Northern Pintail - Anus acuta
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D2
1/1250 at f/5.6, ISO 400, laying facedown in duck crap.

Northern Pintail - Anus acuta
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D2
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 400, laying facedown in duck crap.

Wood Duck - Aix sponsa
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Wood Duck - Aix sponsa
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/400 at f/8, ISO 1600


  1. Thanks Dorian for a good read. I am not a lister, but a bird photographer. I've wondered about these repo cruises and I read both your posts just now. Thanks for the detailed information.

  2. Hey Vivek,

    If you're into photography, a more conventional day-long pelagic trip from either Half Moon Bay or Monterey would be better as the birds come much closer to those smaller boats. It's difficult to fathom just how high off the water you are on the cruise ship! You can check out this post from this fall for more info on photographing pelagic birds:

  3. Wow, I can't believe I haven't heard of this before. I used to imagine trips like this but always assumed that the ships did not go out far enough, or were too high off the water to let you really see the birds. It's one of my bucket list dreams to see any of the Pterodroma petrels -- so far my efforts across the world have been fruitless.

    1. Yea, the cruise ship is by far the best way to go for the petrels. These days there are always other birders on board so you'll never get lonely. No seasickness either if that's an issue for you!