Whale Watching for Birds – Part II

Read Part I first!

We continued out into the open ocean. A giant seal finally slipped past, but they are easily spooked and the seal dove beneath the water before any of us could really get a good look at it. From everyone’s faces (and the retching we heard from some unfortunate passenger on the lower deck), I could tell we were all afraid this trip had been a mistake. An expensive mistake. We chatted in the beginning, then less, then lapsed into silence.

Except for me. I was still periodically crunching my chips.

Then something amazing happened. A crewman’s voice crackled over the loudspeaker, “A juvenile Northern Gannet has been spotted.” Before he could even finish his sentence, the giant wingspan of the gannet, the mottled brown and white of a juvenile, glided over our heads, tilting and passing us in ever tighter circles. I knew Northern Gannets were a possibility, but with the fog obscuring visibility I never thought we would see one so close.

northern gannet, nature, bird

Northern Gannet

Even as a juvenile, this gannet was a majestic bird, looking practically prehistoric – and did I mention huge? Their wingspan can reach 70 inches, their bodies around forty. Though they mostly shallow-dive for food, they can dive as deep as 70 feet. That’s far deeper than most humans can safely go without scuba equipment! They nest in colonies on rocky cliffs, but spend most of their life at sea. I wonder if it is a serene life, or if the angry ocean storms are frightening.

After a few good looks at us, the gannet slid away, melting back into the fog. I swear to you my mouth and eyes were wide open, and I high-fived my mom. My first pelagic bird. Even if we didn’t see anything else, the trip was worth it for just one look (Plus my semi-regular stream of crackers and tortilla chips was working, and my stomach had finally settled. All in all I was feeling pretty good!).

Lucky for us, it wasn’t the only wildlife we saw on our trip. The Northern Gannet had somehow broken the floodgates, and we started spotting creatures all over the place. Three Greater Shearwaters, at three different times, swam quite close to the boat as we passed by, close enough or me to see their unique curved beaks and brown and white plumage. Ocean bird #2! My grandmother and I were the first to see the fin tip of an Ocean Sunfish, a large, strange fish that swims on its side, its swimming flipper sticking up out of the water like a dorsal fin. I thought it was injured at first, before my more knowledgeable dad assured me that it was just fine. The captain turned the boat to circle the Sunfish, which was very close to the surface, until everyone on the boat had spotted the unique silhouette. Even if we failed to see a whale on the trip, at least we had seen some form of impressive marine life.

After the Sunfish we spotted two shark dorsal fins, and another seal. We were nearing the halfway point of our tour, and would soon have to turn back. My brother and I had talked quietly between ourselves a few minutes before. The sun had failed to burn off the fog, and it sat heavy and thick around us. We could still see a hundred yards or so on either side, but not much farther. To see a whale we would practically have to run it over. Still, despite no whales, we both felt that the trip had been a success.

My grandmother and brother had braved the swaying stairs to make it down to the lower deck to use the bathroom, and I was leaning over the rail on the left side of the boat to get a better look at the gray seal. Suddenly, a simultaneous cry went up from the other side of the boat. I turned just in time to see a monumental gray form spout and dip its sleek body back beneath the surface.

We had just seen a whale.

Stay tuned for Part III!

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.