Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Monterey's seabirds are well known all over the world. Shearwater Journeys, Inc. has offered offshore birding trips from Fishermans' Wharf in Monterey since 1976— more years than any other individual person or business anywhere. We're talking about seabirds, often in vast numbers— tens of thousands of shearwaters, as many as 5,000 or more, storm-petrels! Monterey Bay is part of the National Marine Sanctuary system which also includes the Gulf of the Farallons and Cordell Bank protected areas. These areas are critical marine life zones. Here, we focus on Monterey Bay.
The main feature of Monterey Bay is the huge submarine canyon which is similar in size and shape to the Grand Canyon. Indeed, one marine biologist has said that, "If it were not filled with water, we would all be riding donkeys to the bottom of the canyon!" This submarine canyon along with the California and our prevailing winds, combine to make up the phenomenon of "upwelling" where cold, nutrient rich water is moved to the surface. These nutrients, beginning with phytoplankton, are the lifeblood supply of this amazing ecosystem. Very few places in the world have such rich, productive deep water so close to shore which attracts seabirds within sight of the shoreline. Deepwater areas of the Monterey region are under study by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI).

For best results, however, it is advisable to join a dedicated pelagic birding trip that searches for ocean birds. Shearwater Journeys has been, and continues to be, the distinctive leading operator of one day pelagic trips. Of course, we also see loads of marine mammals! In addition, being a half-moon shaped "bay," most fall trips are protected from the prevailing northwesterly winds by the Santa Cruz Mountain range. All of this adds up to an optimum experience for the seabird seeker, whether a beginner or seasoned salt. 

No other organization offers more seabird trips departing from Monterey than Shearwater Journeys. Debi Shearwater accompanies nearly all trips. Being out on the offshore waters on a regular basis allows Debi to see what it happening and how seabirds are distributing themselves throughout the fall season, late July through mid-November. Fourteen trips are on offer for the 2012 fall season. These trips can often be combined with departures from other ports where Shearwater Journeys operates, including: Half Moon Bay, Sausalito to the Farallon Islands, Bodega Bay and Fort Bragg. If possible, it is always best to book more than one trip from different ports. September is the absolute peak of the entire year, in terms of the vast variety of seabirds and marine mammals encountered on trips. It is also the month when the seas and offshore weather conditions are usually the best.


AUG. 3, FRI.
AUG. 10, FRI.
AUG. 17, FRI.
SEP. 7, FRI.
SEP. 11, TUE.
SEP. 12, WED. 
SEP. 28. FRI.
OCT. 6, SAT.
OCT. 14, SUN.

Many birders mistakenly think that Monterey "bay" trips might not produce as many seabirds because the trips do not go far offshore. It is important to remember that, in most places of the world, one needs to travel 20 - 50 miles offshore to reach the edge of the Continental Shelf. Not so in Monterey! Seabirds, even vast numbers, such as thousands of shearwaters, can be present just outside of the harbor. Indeed, the first world record for the number of shearwaters seen in one day on any pelagic trip, anywhere, was set only one quarter mile off Point Pinos on a Shearwater Journeys' trip! EIGHT species of shearwaters within sight of land! It is that huge submarine canyon mentioned above that is responsible for producing food that brings the seabirds closer to shore in Monterey, as opposed to anywhere else on the entire west coast! Monterey Bay trips typically head north from the harbor toward Santa Cruz. These trips often cover both Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties. Monterey Seavalley trips usually, but not always, head south from the wharf, toward Carmel Bay. Another submarine canyon is present in this region, as is the beginning of the Shepard Meander. Whether to choose a "bay" trip or a "sea valley" trip is not difficult because, you can be sure that the boat will head to the place where the most seabirds can be found. It is important to understand that seabirds distribute themselves according to food. And, that food is not evenly distributed across the ocean. Rather, it is found in patches. We are always looking for those patches. Food patches can and do change, every day, and even sometimes within the very same day. All Monterey Bay and Seavalley trips meet at 7:00 a.m. at Chris' Fishing Shop on Fishermans' Wharf, Monterey. Pick up your parking coupon in Chris' Shop and head to the boat, usually the "Checkmate." These trips return about 3 p.m., but can be delayed if really exciting wildlife is encountered. Many trip reports, along with images from the past can be found on the Shearwater Journeys' web site and blog. Please register for trips co-hosted by the Monterey Bay Birding Festival directly with Shearwater Journeys. 


Some years, migratory albacore, a type of tuna, come to the Monterey Bay. This does not happen every year. However, Shearwater Journeys offer one offshore "Albacore" trip each September. Albacore, caught on a single line, and not in nets, are highly prized by fishermen. Whether or not albacore are present, we still operate the albacore trip. This trip runs from 5:20 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Same location as the trips above. We depart at 5:30 a.m. SHARP! Usually, but not always, we go 20 to 45 miles offshore. In some rare instances, we might know with certainty that there is no marine life offshore. In such a case, we will still run a 12 hour trip, heading to wherever the best chances are for finding the largest variety of seabirds. On one particular albacore trip, we did not head offshore, but went for a known, dense concentration of seabirds. That day set the second world record for finding 8 species of shearwaters! Streaked Shearwater and Brown Booby were highlights of that day! On this particular day, we headed north to the Ascension Canyon off Davenport. Many trip reports from previous albacore trips can be found on the Shearwater Journeys' web site and blog. The albacore trip sells out every year. Book early to avoid disappointment. 

Should I do more than one trip?

I'm often asked this question. The following is the best answer I can offer. Think about your favorite migratory bird destination— Cape May, NJ and High Island, TX come to mind. The birder who lives any distance from these destinations is most likely to plan at least a weekend visit, if not longer, stay. The reasons being: 1. It costs money, both in terms of transportation and places stay. So, who wants to go for one day? 2. Throughout the migratory period, different species of birds will be present during different days. So, one day may see a lot of thrushes, while one day lots of warblers. 3. The weather can have an impact on migration. Well, sea birding is no different! If you lived on the west coast, you would not likely plan a trip to Cape May for only 7 hours! Seven and a half hours is exactly how long a Monterey trip is. If the weather was not so great for that one day, it would be a shame that it was the only opportunity for your sea birding experience. More birds might be on the move the next day, even in the same location. Even within the same day, seabirds change, as they are constantly following food. Doing two trips from Monterey, even back to back days, is a good idea, for this reason! Along the Texas coast, birders often check several locations, for instance, High Island as well as Sabine Pass, or South Padre Island. Doing pelagic trips from different ports is the same idea. In the next post, I will offer suggested combinations of trips. 

In summary, it is hard to beat Monterey Bay as a sea birding destination! I hope to see you "out there!"

Shearwaters forever,
Debi Shearwater

Long-tailed Jaeger image by Todd McGrath, copyright
Monterey Bay graphic by NOAA

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