Stellwagen Bank Whale Watching trip

Published by Surfbirds Admin (surfbirds AT surfbirds.com)

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By Mark Edgeller

Having watched "The Perfect Storm" in Gloucester the previous evening it seemed appropriate that Jo and I should venture out into the North Atlantic on August 3rd. Wearing my best George Clooney checked shirt and rugged chin I stepped aboard the Cape Ann Whale Watch boat at 1.30 in the afternoon – fired up with the prospect of a couple of hours seabirding around the Stellwagen Bank.

Having read about the pelagic birding in the ABA guide to Massachusetts (see below) and checked the local hotline updates just before leaving the UK I was pretty confident of finally ticking off Wilson’s Petrel and having a few shearwaters and large cetaceans thrown in for good measure.

Before leaving port we were given a short informative talk on the lives of the Humpbacks that spend the summer in this part of the North Atlantic and on the safety drill should there be a problem on board. My mind drifted back to George and his Perfect Storm. The sound of the engines roaring and the sight of a Sharp shinned Hawk spiraling over Gloucester town snapped me out of my daydreaming. As we sped out of the harbour we were accompanied by the usual gulls –Great Black-backed, Herring and Ring billed – with a couple of Bonaparte’s as we whizzed past Ten Pound Island.

After 25 minutes of constant scanning, the first real sea bird appeared – a Sooty Shearwater boomeranging across the waves. It was quickly followed by a similarly speedy Wilson’s Petrel and a single Gannet. These sightings were all very well but the speed of the boat meant that there was no opportunity for close views or proper ‘grilling’ and I was beginning to get an uneasy feeling that I was in for a frustrating afternoon of brief flybys. I needn’t have worried. Twenty minutes later, we made our first whale stop and the sea around the boat was swarming with quality birds. Wilson’s Petrels fed close by in groups of up to 40 allowing all the relevant identification features to be noted. Their longer wings and powerful flight gave them a more substantial look than the British Storm Petrels I was familiar with back home. Every scan with the bins revealed fifteen or twenty Wilson’s and half a dozen each of Sooties and Great Shearwaters. The odd Gannet made an appearance from time to time with a larger flock of about forty see hanging about a distant fishing boat.

Of course this was a mere sideshow for everyone else on board. Luckily, the stars did not disappoint and we were treated to almost two hours of ‘Discovery Channel’ views of Humpbacks breaching and tail slapping as cameras and videos whirred and clicked. With an enormous Fin Whale twenty feet from the boat and a couple of Minkes as we turned for home everyone left the Stellwagen Bank contented. The scribbles in my notebook show that the final tally was three Humpbacks, one Fin and two Minke whales as well as 60 Northern Gannets, 350 Wilson’s Petrels, 150 Sooty Shearwaters and 250 Great Shearwaters. The numbers don’t begin to explain what an excellent time we had for a mere $24 each. As a British birder who has scrabbled around for odd birds on the Scillonian pelagic and from Cornish headlands I had a fantastic time. Even my non-birding partner tore herself away from the whales long enough for me to point out the birds and explain their rarity back home.