Pelagics or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bucket

The main excitement last week (well, the week before at this point) was our long-planned pelagic trip on Wednesday! Pelagic means “open sea” and so in this context it meant we would join a birding group on a chartered boat to go out and see birds, such as albatrosses and petrels, that live at sea rather than on the coast. We booked the trip with Wrybill Tours, which turned out to be part of of an extended 21-day trip led by Brent Stephenson, a well-known birder in NZ and one of the authors of our bird book! This would be our first substantial trip out on the water in NZ: the itinerary called for the boat departing at 8:00 a.m. and arriving back by 7:00 p.m.! Despite the early start, we were excited to go on this new adventure.

The night before the trip, we dutifully called Brent’s cell phone to confirm that everything was still on. After some phone tag, we finally got in touch. He told us that it would likely be rough and possibly wet, so to be prepared. Of course, the weather for every other day that week looked mild and sunny, but we collected our warm and waterproof layers. Since the trip was all day, we packed a lot of food: sandwiches, granola bars, oranges, crisps/chips and biscuits to share (tea and coffee were promised on the boat). Other than that, all we needed was our binoculars!

After waking up early for the Rugby World Cup, getting up at 6:30 for the hour-long drive to the boat was not as bad as usual (though M was still reluctant). It was overcast and rained on our journey north to Sandspit, a small community near Tawharanui Regional Park whose harbor allows good access to nearby Kawau Island and the rest of the Hauraki Gulf. We were the last to arrive: we had barely put our bags down before the skipper, Brett, fired up the boat and started maneuvering out of the dock. His boat, the Norma Jean, was only about 10 meters long, but cozy inside with walls covered in (laminated) pictures of his family, birds, etc. and comfortable padded bench seats.

The Norma Jean.
The Norma Jean.

Before long we started spotting birds. Since most of the people on the trip were part of the longer 21-day tour and weren’t from NZ, every bird species called out by Brent was met with interest and lots of shutter-clicking. We cruised past a tree filled with nesting pied shags, spotted a few NZ pigeons flying in the trees and heard some shining-bronze cuckoos. The first birds of real interest for M and I were the two little penguins floating about on the water, preening while ignoring the boat full of cameras drifting past them. Compared to camera set-up of most people in the group our point-and-shoots seemed pitiful, but we were there just to see and enjoy the birds.

A grey day.
A grey day.

As we moved out of the shelter of the Tawharanui peninsula, the waves started getting rougher. We began seeing more seabirds, including some diving gannets, and also spotted a pod of common dolphins. However, our goal was quite a bit farther out, so the skipper called everyone inside, saying that we would just gun it out into the gulf. This plan sounded good, but as we started accelerating, the boat started bouncing and rolling around the waves. The spray in front of the boat turned into a full deluge, so thorough that we could not see anything out the front or side windows.

The non-view out the window.
The non-view out the window.

It was like being inside a washing machine, and my body did not like it one bit. Brett, the skipper, slowed down enough for Brent, the guide, to fish out a bucket from the bathroom and sat me on the floor near the back of the boat. The back door was open and another person on the tour suggested removing my jacket: the combination of cold and fresh air did help, but no amount of focusing on the horizon could counteract the constant bucking and rolling. Though I was the first on the trip to lose my breakfast to the bucket, I was not the only one!

At last we arrived at the spot, chosen due to the reef below. We dropped the sea anchor, which at least removed the forward dimension of the rocking motion. Everyone busted out their giant lenses and went to the back of the boat, where Brett was preparing a seabird feast of chum (according to him, shark liver is key). I found a nice place off to the side of the action as the first birds started circling above. Brent pointed out the common Cook’s petrels and larger flesh-footed shearwaters that would swoop about the waves, picking fish out of the water. While we were definitely not enjoying the wind and rough weather, the birds clearly loved it, performing knife-edge maneuvers and zipping around.

Birds!
Birds!
Birds everywhere!
Birds everywhere!

More birds started arriving, including the star of the show: the New Zealand storm petrel. This small black and white bird was thought to be extinct before Brent and his guiding partner Sav rediscovered it in 2003. Understandably, Brent was very excited to spot not one, but seven of these birds on this trip! Even through my seasick haze I could clearly see the difference between the NZ storm petrels and the other small petrels. They weren’t the only impressive birds, though: several albatrosses and northern giant petrels, which are the size of albatrosses, eventually showed up. These large birds landed in the water, perhaps less maneuverable in the wind than their smaller compatriots, and we got good looks at them as they drifted behind the boat.

Albatross coming in!
Albatross coming in!
Flesh-footed shearwaters squabbling over chum.
Flesh-footed shearwaters squabbling over chum.
Close-up.
Close-up.

Though the birds were amazing to see, I could not fully appreciate them. The wind had picked up and while being anchored was slightly better than moving through the waves, my poor body could only take so much. Slumped at the side of the boat, the birds wheeling overhead felt like part of a fever dream, punctuated by bouts of nausea and, at this point, dry-heaving over the side. My strategy was to open my eyes and try to pull myself together whenever I heard Brent shout out a new species of bird. I can’t say it was fun, but M and my favorite memory from the trip was me vomiting over the side only to have an onlooking white-capped albatross sample this undoubtedly tasty offering!

The albatross in question.
The albatross in question.

By the end of it, I was completely out of it, but M said that the wind had picked up appreciably: Brett and Brent mentioned that the gusts were about 37 knots and that it’s officially a gale at 40 knot gusts! Because of this (and the constant puking by me and others) they decided to cut the trip short. Brent helped me back into my spot on the floor, cradling the bucket, and we set off back towards calmer water. My body decided that the best way to cope with this renewed abuse was to shut down completely, so I slept for most of the way back, only waking to pass the bucket to others and peer at some common diving-petrels out the back door.

When I came to, it was like night and day: in the calm water off of Kawau Island I felt alive and lucid, with only the pain of an overworked stomach to remind me of the trials of the last three hours. Bottlenose dolphins (our second species of dolphin!) traveled with us as we cruised around the island, stopping in at various beaches where familiar birds like shags and dotterels were spotted.

A small pod of dolphins.
A small pod of dolphins.
They got quite close!
They got quite close!

Our last stop was Mansion House Bay on Kawau Island. The small bay had beautiful blue-green water and the sun was out. We cut the engine and drifted around for an hour or two, looking and listening for birds on the island (we would have been charged some fee for actually docking and disembarking on the island, but no rules against visiting the bay!). The highlight, and reason we stopped for so long, was views of several wekas running about on the beach and lawn of the mansion. These birds, which are like skinnier brown pukekos, are flightless, which is why they are uncommon on the mainland but thrive on predator-free islands like Kawau.

The mansion of Mansion House bay.
The mansion of Mansion House bay.
The weka!
The weka! If only we had a giant camera like everyone else!
The beach and island. A repeat trip is in order.
The beach and island. A repeat trip is in order.

In addition to the wekas, we saw many NZ pigeons feasting in a fig tree, spotted a shining-bronze cuckoo (normally they are only heard) and, to our surprise, heard a peacock calling on the island. Several ducks also paddled out and circled the boat, hoping for one of us to drop our lunch. These island birds were quite a bonus since we had only expected to see pelagic species, and drifting around a sunny, beautiful bay was a nice way to end the trip.

Who's watching who?
Who’s watching who?

We cruised back to Sandspit, arriving by about 3 p.m., considerably before the stated time of 7 p.m.! Before the rest of the tour departed, Brent signed our book and recommended us some places to visit during our South Island trip over Christmas. He also told us about the banded rails that lived right next to the Sandspit wharf, so we settled down at a nearby park to eat more of our food then wandered over. Sure enough, a rail was poking about in the mud. We admired it for a few minutes then, extremely tired and beat, headed back to Auckland.

Home of the banded rail.
Home of the banded rail.

Despite the suffering, the trip was good: we saw 14 new bird species, met some fellow birders, and learned that I get seasick! In fact, when we were considering what to do in Kaikoura during our upcoming trip, we (yes, M included) decided that another pelagic trip would be better than a whale-watching or dolphin-swimming excursion. After all, it can’t be any worse than near-gale force winds and this time we’ll be truly prepared!

Note: check out Brent’s blog and far superior pictures here.

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