Come and Sea The Real Thing: The Pelagic Experience

This article is co-authored by Rowan Mott and Cathy Cavallo.

The wandering albatross steals all of the limelight when it comes to the romanticism of seabirds. But picture the tiny grey-backed storm-petrel, a bird weighing only 35 grams, battling ocean gales and crashing swell as it patters across the water surface on dainty wings. Now that’s an impressive seabird.

Most of us never have the privilege of seeing either a wandering albatross or a grey-backed storm-petrel because our land-locked lives never coincide with the places either of these species call home. Although standing atop the cliffs at places such as Anglesea can be highly rewarding for spotting some seabird species, many of the truly majestic inhabitants of Victorian waters occur mainly beyond the horizon, over deeper waters at or past the edge of the continental shelf. If you want to see these birds in their natural environment, you’ll have to get on a boat. Thankfully, there are boat trips organised with the sole objective of seeing seabirds. Because these trips venture into what marine scientists call ‘pelagic waters’ (oceanic waters removed from the shoreline and sea floor), these trips are commonly referred to as a pelagic.

It’s hard to comprehend the diminutive grey-backed storm-petrel withstanding fierce ocean storms. Yet, they are equally suited to these conditions as the colossal wandering albatross. Image: Rowan Mott

It’s hard to comprehend the diminutive grey-backed storm-petrel withstanding fierce ocean storms. Yet, they are equally suited to these conditions as the colossal wandering albatross. Image: Rowan Mott

New Zealand wandering albatrosses breed across the Tasman, but their huge wingspan enables efficient flight and their wide-ranging movements make them a common sighting on Victorian pelagics. Image: Cathy Cavallo

New Zealand wandering albatrosses breed across the Tasman, but their huge wingspan enables efficient flight and their wide-ranging movements make them a common sighting on Victorian pelagics. Image: Cathy Cavallo

Before we went on our first pelagic, going out on one felt like an insurmountable hurdle. We didn’t know how to find out about them, and this mystery gave the impression that newcomers might not be welcome. Then there was the fear of exposing our naivety – how could we hope to tell one shearwater from another? Worse still, what if we succumbed to seasickness and ended up vomiting over the side of the boat in front of these diehard seabirders? Our inexperience and presumptions held us back, denying us the joy and thrill of the pelagic experience. Let us now allay these common misconceptions before they delay your own trip any longer.

There is an outside perception that seabirders are a cliquey group, but this is not the case. Your first chance to find this out will be if you arrive early enough to join the other participants for the traditional pre-trip dinner. On every trip, the more experienced participants are always glad to share their knowledge and passion for the birds you’ll see. The more unusual sightings will be called out so that everyone has the best chance of seeing them and even common species are called out the first few times they are seen. The really special birds ('megas') will be greeted by whoops and expletives - perhaps not the quiet birdwatching you might be used to. Often the excitement will carry everyone off the boat and into a local café for a debrief afterwards.

Experienced pelagic participants are only too happy to share their knowledge and point out the species you’re seeing. You’ll know if they spot an exceptional rarity, such as this Salvin’s albatross, by the loud whoops and maybe even an expletive when it’s spotted! Image: Rowan Mott

Experienced pelagic participants are only too happy to share their knowledge and point out the species you’re seeing. You’ll know if they spot an exceptional rarity, such as this Salvin’s albatross, by the loud whoops and maybe even an expletive when it’s spotted! Image: Rowan Mott

Wandering albatrosses lose most of their airborne grace the moment they splash down. On the water’s surface, they bear an alarming resemblance to an enormous rubber ducky. Image: Rowan Mott

Wandering albatrosses lose most of their airborne grace the moment they splash down. On the water’s surface, they bear an alarming resemblance to an enormous rubber ducky. Image: Rowan Mott

Petrels of many species are a common sight at the back of the boat. Here, a grey-face petrel (near) and white-headed petrel (far) mirror each other’s movements. Image: Cathy Cavallo

Petrels of many species are a common sight at the back of the boat. Here, a grey-face petrel (near) and white-headed petrel (far) mirror each other’s movements. Image: Cathy Cavallo

For most species seen on any trip, there will be ample opportunity to get great views. Upon reaching the continental shelf edge, the boat is allowed to drift with the current while berley (chopped up fish bits and other assorted delicacies) is thrown over the side. Seabirds are drawn to this free meal in their droves, and within a few minutes of the first bit of berley hitting the water, there are usually anywhere from tens to one hundred or more seabirds making close passes of the boat.

And we haven’t even mentioned the countless birds bobbing mere metres from the back of the boat like giant rubber-duckies. The albatrosses lose all of their aerial grace as they paddle curiously towards the boat, staring up at you with their beguiling eyes. Petrels of all sizes quarrel over scraps of berley until the domineering giant petrel splashes in to claim it all. Terns hovering above spy tidbits before darting down to snatch one from the water’s surface with the deftest touch. Wherever you look, there are birds revealing the personalities and idiosyncrasies of each species.

Amongst all of the squawking squabbles and awkward landings, these close encounters will provide you with great opportunities to familiarise yourself with the identifying features of these seabirds, not to mention giving you great prospects for photography. With patience, the differences between a short-tailed shearwater and a sooty shearwater may even begin to solidify in your head.

Giant petrels are the vultures of the sea. Here, a northern giant petrel shows the gluttonous character typical of the species as it gobbles down a piece of berley. Image: Rowan Mott

Giant petrels are the vultures of the sea. Here, a northern giant petrel shows the gluttonous character typical of the species as it gobbles down a piece of berley. Image: Rowan Mott

Terns, such as this young white-fronted tern, fly above most of the seabird congregation at the back of the boat. They use this vantage point to spot tidbits floating on the water’s surface. They elegantly swoop down to pick them from the surface. Image: Rowan Mott

Terns, such as this young white-fronted tern, fly above most of the seabird congregation at the back of the boat. They use this vantage point to spot tidbits floating on the water’s surface. They elegantly swoop down to pick them from the surface. Image: Rowan Mott

Fear of seasickness is a major reason many people never partake in a pelagic. Although it can be daunting, most people find some relief in over-the-counter motion sickness remedies. Further reducing your chances of becoming ill, pelagics are cancelled if the weather forecast predicts strong winds and large swells. The precautionary decision on whether a trip is to be cancelled is usually made a day and a half before departure, giving you time to rearrange your travel plans and ease the worry on your fragile stomach.

Although the choice of whether to take seasickness tablets is up to you, it would be remiss of us to not mention that binoculars are a necessity for spotting the birds that don’t oblige with a close pass. You will also want to wear warm clothing (including a beanie and gloves) and a waterproof jacket and pants. This will not only keep out the cold sea breeze, but will guard against wind-blown splash. Suitable footwear is a must, and on your first trip you will notice a motley assortment being sported by other participants, ranging from gumboots and neoprene wetsuit boots, to elastic sided boots. Whatever your footwear of choice, a thick pair of woollen socks is most definitely recommended.

Fairy prions may be one of the most common species on a Victorian pelagic. If, like us, you don’t want to put your seabird naivety on show, make sure you pronounce their name to rhyme with iron, not neon. Image: Cathy Cavallo

Fairy prions may be one of the most common species on a Victorian pelagic. If, like us, you don’t want to put your seabird naivety on show, make sure you pronounce their name to rhyme with iron, not neon. Image: Cathy Cavallo

While travelling from port out to deeper water, common dolphins may join the boat for a spot of playful bow-riding. Image: Cathy Cavallo

While travelling from port out to deeper water, common dolphins may join the boat for a spot of playful bow-riding. Image: Cathy Cavallo

Pelagics in Victoria regularly depart from Port Fairy and Portland. These are the preferred departure points because they’re closer to the continental shelf edge compared to other localities in Victoria. This means that within about two hours of leaving port, you will be ‘out wide’ at the continental shelf edge, in the domain of the wandering albatross and grey-backed storm-petrel. On the way out, familiar coastal species including Australasian gannets, kelp gulls, and greater crested terns may chaperone you to deeper water, so throughout the day, there is always something to keep you alert. This is also the time that common dolphins may join you for a spot of bow-riding.

No matter what turns up on the day, you are guaranteed to enjoy what few will experience in their lives. An internet search for ‘pelagic birdwatching boat trips’ could well be the start of one of the best days you will ever have. From the grace in the effortless turn of the grey-faced petrel to the beauty bound in the splotched, black-and-white markings of a Cape petrel, floating under a swirling flock of seabirds on your first pelagic is certain to put a smile on your face as wide as the wingspan of a wandering albatross.


Rowan Mott

Rowan is a PhD student studying seabird ecology. When he's not thinking about the ocean, he likes to think about woodland birds. 

You can find him on Twitter at @roamingmoth


Cathy Cavallo

Cathy is a PhD student and science communicator with a passion for natural history, environmental engagement and photography. When she isn't running the Wild Melbourne social media, you'll find her working with little penguins on Phillip Island or underwater somewhere.

You can find her on Twitter at @CavalloDelMare


Banner image courtesy of Cathy Cavallo.