BBC Extreme Pelagic #1, June 28

The 'Helen H' departed Hyannis, MA at 4am on Saturday morning with 75+ eager birders and naturalists aboard. The marine forecast had called for dicey conditions, but the captain predicted a smooth ride. This was a bit of an experimental trip for the BBC. The waters at the edge of the continental shelf have rarely been explored at this time of summer.

Birders search for the first seabirds of the day

Early morning at sea

The hazy morning began with a few scattered Greater and Cory's Shearwaters. Soon we hit the cool waters between Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard where we were smothered by a couple hours of dense fog. As we worked our way south, the water slowly warmed and the pea soup turned into a bright and sunny morning.

Beforehand the leaders decided to head for Atlantis Canyon, which is further west than the usual route. Sea surface temperature maps had revealed warm water there. Before we reached the canyon we encountered our first large flocks of seabirds, with several hundred shearwaters and storm-petrels on the water. We enjoyed the spectacle and scanned for rarities, but we couldn't spend much time here if we wanted to reach the canyon and beyond. As we proceeded south we were greeted by our first MAJOR pod of Common Dolphin. A few hundred of these acrobatic mammals charged the boat at once. They put on quite a display of breaching and bow-riding.

The first of many Common Dolphin

At the canyon we encountered more Wilson's Storm-Petrels and decided to throw out some chum, which brought more birds towards the boat.

Wilson's Storm-Petrels, adults in heavy wing molt

The first Leach's Storm-Petrels appeared. They put in a good showing of over two dozen birds, but they refused to come into the slick (typical of this species). Note the differences from Wilson's, some of which are evident in this photo: long and angled wings, deeper and less fluttery wingbeats, resulting in a nighthawk-like flight.

Leach's Storm-Petrel (click to enlarge)

A pod of Pilot Whales were incredibly cooperative. They loafed at the surface for quite some time.

Pilot Whales (click to enlarge)

Several Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) were seen in the warm water, including this relatively pale individual.

Mola mola

Our time working east along the edge of the shelf was mainly bird-free. As is typical for pelagic trips, there was a long period with very few birds. At this point we were shooting for quality over quantity. That sought-after rarity never showed itself, and we had to leave the 7,000 foot deep water relatively empty-handed. On our way back north we encountered a spectacular feeding frenzy involving several hundred more Common Dolphin, shearwaters including Manx and Sooty, and storm-petrels.

Greater Shearwater - note the capped appearance

Greater Shearwater

Cory's Shearwater - clean white underparts, dusky head, and straw-yellow bill

Sooty Shearwater

(click to enlarge)

We had to tear ourselves away from this event if we wanted to get home at a reasonable hour (and we were still late).

Vern and Phil relax on the return trip

And back into the fog of the Nantucket Shoals......

Other trip highlights included a subadult Pomarine Jaeger, a few Risso's Dolphins, Humpback Whale, Fin Whale, Minke Whale, and a Leatherback Sea Turtle. It really is a different world out there....

The rarities we had hoped for did not materialize on this day, but many birds, mammals, and fish made this yet another successful BBC pelagic. I've been on deep-water pelagics out of other northeastern states, but none of them produce as consistently good-to-great results as these trips. If you're interested in getting on the July trip, it may not be too late. Word on the street is that a few spots are remaining.

- Nick


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