Whale Watching for Birds – Part I

The weather didn’t look very promising. My then boyfriend (now husband) and I waited in line for the Odyssey whale watch that was scheduled to depart at 9 a.m. sharp. My father, mother, brother, and grandmother (my unlucky sister had to work in Portsmouth all day) were off searching Portland’s cobbled streets for coffee and donuts while we guarded the tickets and snack bags. The snack bags were particularly important to me, as I had read that having a full stomach can stifle oncoming bouts of seasickness. Portland was still pretty quiet along the water, and a low fog hugged the shore and continued out over the ocean.

The Weather Channel had predicted a morning of steady rain, so at the moment we were relieved that fog was the only inclement weather we had to deal with. I was obviously excited at the prospect of spotting a whale – I had never seen anything larger than a dolphin – but I was equally excited for an opportunity to finally identify some pelagic seabirds. “Pelagic” sounds like a fancy word, but it just means being part of the sea that is not near the shore, way out on the open water.

lighthouse, portland, maine

Reading different birding accounts, it became pretty obvious that to see some of the far ranging seabirds I would have to get myself more than a few miles from the green outline of shore. The whale watch, my father’s birthday present from my brother, was just what I had been waiting for. Though real pelagic trips are aimed at birders – and include chumming the waters with bait and other bird food – and wrack up a few more species, at least I had a chance on the whale watch.

Pelagic birds are found way out in the ocean, soaring along the winds and feeding from the surface of the water. They can be small, like the Sooty Tern, or unbelievable immense, like the Laysan’s Albatross, but all share a mystery we associate with birds we rarely observe. In fact, they’re so hard to study we know little about the time they spend on the wing.

Though it wasn’t raining, we were prepared in case it did. We had raincoats, rain pants, umbrellas; snacks ranged from Tostitos to pretzels to saltines, and no sooner were we on the boat than I ripped open a bag of chips and stated popping one into my mouth every minute or so. I never mind having an excuse to eat chips!

We pulled out of the crowded harbor, watching the other boats make way for us. Our boat was large, with seating both on the top deck as well as below. The captains and the spotters sat in a raised control room, with giant speakers facing backwards, ready to alert us to any and all wildlife encounters. Though the below area was encased in glass to let passengers see out, I was wary of the slightly fuzzy view and stale air, and was determined to remain on deck.

nature, birding, maine

Common Eider. Photo by Lindsey Rustad.

Passing the lighthouses, I quickly had good luck. In addition to the Great Black-Backed Gulls and Double-crested Cormorants bobbing gently on the waves, we saw the sleek head of a Harbor Seal break the water, and a male Common Eider, my first at the time, floating all alone. However, once land slid out of sight so did the horizon, and we were enveloped by fog. The waves were high, and we crashed and rolled our way through them much to my stomach’s discomfort. In my family, it’s my father who is notorious for his sea sickness – his whale-watch present came with Dramamine, which he remembered to take – but we were all feeling a little green and cold, visibility limited to a few hundred yards in any direction. Stupidly, I had forgotten my long pants at my parents’ house. Brian lent me his Navy-issue waterproof pants, which were warm but billowed over my hips and legs, suspenders and ball cap painting me the perfect picture of a lobster-woman.

And so the first hour passed, with nothing but bright colored buoys passing the boat. Lobstering and fishing still makes up an important part of Maine’s economy, and it’s impossible to go anywhere near the shore without seeing dozens of the traps tied to buoys. One of the benefits of Maine is an abundant supply of fresh lobster, sometimes for less than half what it costs in the rest of the country. The travesty is I actually don’t like a lot seafood, can’t stand the seafood-esque aftertaste, which is such a waste! When Brian and I visit seafood restaurants, he inhales big and deep, pumped at the prospect of eating clams or lobster or scallops. I cringe, and order chicken fingers. I feel bad doing it, but the taste buds want what the taste buds want!

Stay tuned for Part II.


Erika Zambello

About Erika Zambello

Erika Zambello is a writer, birder, and photographer, born and raised in Maine. She has a bachelor’s degree in Government and Anthropology from Cornell University, and a master’s degree in Environmental Management from Duke University, specializing in ecosystem science and conservation. Her love of the outdoors was inspired by her childhood in Maine, and she returned for her National Geographic Young Explorer grant in 2015-2016.