At sea

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Sunrise at sea

Sunday morning, I woke up at sea, having spent the night in a sleeping bag on the upper deck of a 110-foot fishing boat, looking up at the stars. It was still dark when I decided to quit pretending to sleep, and a thin mist enveloped the deck. I could make out dark waves, a few figures – sleepless, like me, or on duty, performing various nautical tasks – and the ghostly pale railings of the boat.

The queasiness hit as soon as I sat up. Eat something and it will pass, I told myself. I unzipped my insulated bag and took out the overnight oats I’d prepared, chunky with walnuts and dried cranberries, sweet with maple syrup, fragrant with cinnamon. I took a spoonful. Swallowed. Took another spoonful. Swallowed again, more reluctantly this time. It was not helping. I tore open the bag of ginger chews I’d picked up at Trader Joe’s for this very purpose.

They helped even less.

Near panic, I rose to my feet and lurched toward the stairs leading down to the lower deck. The worst thing you can do on a ship, I’d learned in our pre-boarding instructions, is to vomit on the deck. Not only is it gross, it’s dangerous: someone could slip. And so, determined to be a good sailor, I cupped my hands over my mouth to catch the first roiling, unstoppable tide of seasick, which came as I approached the top of the stairs.

Dear god, what to do now? I needed to get down to the lower deck, but the stairs were steep, like a ladder, and slippery with spray and mist, and I needed at least one hand on the banister to descend them, but both my hands were over my mouth, and both were covered with vomit. Feeling sickening as well as sick, I lowered my left hand to clutch the banister while keeping the right clapped firmly over my mouth, rivulets of vomit dribbling down my chin. Once on the lower deck, I lunged for the railing.

. . . 

Avert your eyes from this pitiful scene for a moment, and bear with me as I explain how I came to be clutching the railing of the Brooklyn VI with puke-damp hands, heaving over the stern.

I have searched for birds in vacant lots and scruffy city parks, along dusty roads, at water treatment plants, from subway trains – but I had never, until last weekend, searched for birds at sea. By “at sea,” I don’t mean from the beach (I’ve done that many a time), or from a ferry, or even from a boat circling otherwise inaccessible islands off the coast.

I mean going so far out to sea that land is a distant rumor.

This wasn’t for lack of trying. I signed up for a 14-hour pelagic trip out of Sheepshead Bay early last year; it was canceled because of high seas. I signed up for the rescheduled trip; it was canceled because of a lapse in the boat’s insurance. I signed up for a fall trip; it was also canceled, again because of high seas. This time, the rescheduled trip sailed as planned a week later, in beautiful weather, and the participants saw many fantastic birds, including some rarities. Unfortunately, this was on the day of the New York City Marathon – the one day of the year when I suppress all thoughts of birds – and so I was not among them.

I missed various pelagic opportunities again this year, either because of scheduling issues or my sensible decision to begin with a day-long voyage rather than an overnight one. But when a vaunted 34-hour “extreme pelagic” fell through for lack of participants and was converted to the standard 22-hour overnight trip, I thought: why not? Compared with 34 hours, 22 didn’t seem like such an awfully long time, and departing from Sheepshead Bay at a reasonable evening hour rather than an unreasonable morning one was appealing. I’d only been seasick once in my life, many years ago under challenging circumstances, and there’s always dramamine, and, oh what the hell, sure, sign me up.

. . . 

So there I was, on the far side of the continental shelf, with a 14-hour day still ahead of me.

My most immediate task was to clean my hands, and I’d already discovered that the sinks in the heads (see how nautical I am!) were dry. Wet wipes were one of the few items on the Overnight Pelagic Packing List that I had not packed.  And so, because desperate times and all that, I wiped them on my pants, which were actually Eric’s pants, and then rinsed them with water from my rapidly-diminishing water bottle.

“It’ll pass,” a very kind group leader told me. “Mornings are always the worst. Once the sun comes up, you’ll be able to look at the horizon. The main thing is to get something in your stomach, just snack through the day.”

And that’s pretty much how it went. I visited the stern once more, but it was less urgent, a matter-of-fact, taking-care-of-business visit. By the time the sun came up, I was feeling well enough to take the picture at the top of this post.

I did, though, spend the rest of the day fielding “how you doing? you doing okay?” questions from the embarrassing number of people who either witnessed or heard about my troubles.

. . . 

But let’s cut to the chase: what about the birds? I will say that I found pelagic birding challenging. Out there on the open ocean, with only the boat (think of the bow as 12 o’clock, the stern as 6) and the horizon for reference, and with most birds presenting as specks, I had a hard time getting on them. That was particularly true for storm petrels, which are approximately the size of starlings, dark in color, and fly close to the water, which of course is also dark in color. I was doing well to glimpse them at all (typically when they were already receding from view), much less to remark on their flight style or the color of their undertail coverts.

The Northern Fulmars were easier for me to see and appreciate, in part because they were big – like a gull with an over-stuffed sausage body – and in part for their habit of dropping down into the oily, fishy chum slick the boat’s crew had spread around us.

My favorites, though were the shearwaters (Audubon’s, Great, and Cory’s), and my best bird memory of the trip is the large group of Great Shearwaters – at least 50, maybe 100 – surrounding the fishing boats that were working the waters above the Hudson Canyon. They moved only slightly as we sailed up to them, squealing conversationally to one another. A handful launched into flight by paddling the water with their feet, wings extended, in a kind of running start; others simply ran on the water for a while and then changed their minds and settled back down.

I learned to listen for shouts of “bird on the water,” “bird flying low,” and “sky bird.” I even spotted one “bird on the water” that turned out to be a beefy Cory’s Shearwater and earned me a “good spot” nod that left me feeling pathetically proud. Mostly, I felt out of my depth (who knew “jaeger” was pronounced “yaeger”?) but also full of wonder and astonishment, very much like a new birder. It’s not a bad feeling.

. . . 

We got returned to Sheepshead Bay over an hour late, well after dark. I had added three species to my life list (five, as far as eBird is concerned). I’d also seen a shark rub up against our boat, dolphins race it, several Portuguese man o’ wars at close range, a whale spouting, and a bizarre-looking Ocean Sunfish. I knew going in that I was ignorant of the ocean; it wasn’t until I’d spent almost 24 hours on it that I began to grasp just how much ocean there is to be ignorant of.

Some people disembark from a pelagic and immediate want to go on another (well, okay, I know of one person like that, and am willing to believe there are others). That wasn’t exactly my reaction as I wobbled home, legs rubbery and head spinning.

But I’m not saying never.

 

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