Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.

Birding at sea

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird travels Updated: November 25, 2013 - 2:57 PM

This story is about a marine toilet, and some birds.

Birding from a boat – pelagic birding – is quite unlike birding on land, for the obvious reasons and others.

In late September I was in California for two pelagic birding trips. The first time we cast off from Monterey, the second time north along the coast, at Half Moon Bay.

The trips I took, and have taken about a dozen times in the past, are run by Debi Love Shearwater. Shearwater, name of a family of birds, is a sea-going nom de plume, an AKA.

I like Debi. She’s a solid, buxom blonde a long braid of hair trailing from her ball cap. She’s been doing this for 36 years.

Prior to boarding the 50-foot boatw, which usually carries recreational fishermen, Debi gives birders some rules and advice.

Rule One: Don’t stand in the bow of the boat, in front of the windshield, blocking her view and that of the captain.

Rule Two: If you get seasick do not DO NOT throw up in the boat’s lone bathroom.

The room called the head – nautical for bathroom -- is three feet square and an inch or two over six feet tall. This is an ordinary accommodation on boats like this. The toilet itself is the size of a large cooking pot. It flushes by sucking loudly, then releasing a cupful of water. It is a wannabe toilet.

Seasick: a devastating nausea caused by boat motion with no cure but return to shore, something that will not happen until the trip ends, usually hours and hours away.

If you are among the unfortunate, go to the stern of the boat, Debi says, and feel better back there. Don’t be embarrassed. No one cares. No one wants to watch you throw up.

The back of the boat is no picnic ground, stomach problems aside.

Diesel engine fumes fold back over the stern. There is a deckhand there digging into a five-gallon pail of smelly chopped fish, tossing it out to attract birds. You could be sick back there or get sick back there.

Advice concerns staying upright. The ocean has waves and swells, the latter at least 10 feet deep on the second trip. The boat moves in wicked ways. Standing free of grip on some solid boat part is unwise. Grabbing a fellow birder as you lurch is ill-advised, the domino theory applying.

About two hours into this 10-hour trip Debi takes the boat’s loudspeaker to tell us that someone didn’t listen. Consequently, the head is no longer unusable. Embarrassing? The culprit had to tell Debi.

Eventually, one of the deck hands, the heroic one, cleaned up the mess. Unimaginable.

Most people don’t get sick and do hang tight, so they enjoy the birds. And there always are birds: shearwaters of several species, skuas, albatrosses, jaegers, phalaropes, murres, auklets, sometimes storm-petrels.

The albatross we saw out of Half Moon Bay was of the Black-footed species. It settled on the water beside the boat, wings folded, tail tucked, a handsome brown bird with an upright attitude.

Before I saw my first albatross I envisioned those birds as seriously large and dramatic. Some albatrosses are large, but not this species, relatively speaking.

Compactly floating beside us it looked about the size of large microwave oven. Not exactly “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

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