Sunday 14 April 2013

Beware of Coconuts

The most important thing I have learnt while travelling is just how dangerous the coconut actually is. Please. It's incredibly important that you read this article about how coconuts are trying to kill us all.

Day 1: A Mob of Mollymawks

Following my adventures across the pirate infested high seas of New Zealand, the terrifying unknown of Norfolk Island and the mysterious, sea serpent haunted waters of the Solomons.

 Day 1 At Sea: Tuesday 26th March

The ship left Port Lyttleton at 6.05 am, behind schedule. It was meant to leave at midnight, or preferably 6pm the day before, but had been having an engine inspection and there had been problems putting the engine back together. Most reassuring!

I nearly missed breakfast, but the staff found me something. The meal times are quite strict, as they feed the staff and visitors on a rota, and clean up in between. It feels a bit like a school camp.
Land ho!

The ship was moored a few miles out from land, close enough to see where the houses are. The sea was very calm, with little wind, which was both a joy for the sake of personal comfort, and a pity, as few birds were moving much.

Afterwards, I wandered outside, to find a few people avidly watching the first birds of the trip. I promptly dashed back inside for my camera, and returned. Four brown and white petrels floated off the starboard bow, speckled and piebald. You can tell petrels from gulls because they're just cuter, with rounder faces and beaks, like adorable seagulls. They tend not to have the sharp divisions in the distinctive above and below colouring divide that most seabirds have. These ones were Cape Petrels, and all they seemed to care about was floating around on the surface, moving around leisurely. The guide referred to them as “pintardos”, which I thought was a bad joke, but apparently is one of their names. 

Cape Petrels!

 After a bit, there was an announcement that something was happening off the stern (a lady next to me thought they were fishing off it – on making our way down narrow steps and around the stack Zodiacs, we discovered they were in fact throwing fish off it!). Everyone lined the railings or milled around behind; only about eight people could actually see anything. It turned out that there was a single Buller's Mollymawk (albatross species) bobbing lazily around, grabbing at the scraps being thrown down. The petrels wandered in on the starboard side, making desperate dashes in to grab bits of fish, often duckdiving their full bodylength under. There was very little wind, and the seas were calm, so the mollymawk had a lot of trouble getting out of the water. It was reduced to lazily wandering over and ducking its head under, or making flapping runs whenever it thought a petrel might get there first. By the end of it, the petrels were actively dashing away from the thrown fish, flapping to get up speed.
The Buller's Mollymawk chasing off a Cape Petrel

Nevertheless, everyone was pretty excited, these being the first birds of the trip, and hung around the whole time. I had to actually climb up and perch uncomfortably in a nook at the edge, just to see anything.

During this time, some Hector's dolphins were spotted, making their way towards us from the direction of land. Actually, they were more like Hector's Dots, as all we'd see was the dorsal fins occasionally, as they came up for air. We'd keep looking for them, but they veered off while still too far away to admire properly, leaving us with the lazy mollymawk and the now disinterested petrels. A couple of the dolphns did show up in front of the boat, giving me a chance to take a photograph,and possibly to see if we were worth investigating further, but apparently not, as they immediately swam back to join the rest.

Eventually the mollymawk tired of taunting us with maybe doing something interesting, and paddled lazily off. The only other birds around were about five ordinary gulls, which floated several hundred metres away. Occasionally, someone would say something like “can we get the gulls over here?” and tauntingly, a gull would actually fly over and continue past. The guide actively tried to encourage them, in the hope that they'd attract more birds over, but they just weren't interested.
Take off! The Buller's Mollymawk actually exerts itself for food.

After a while, the staff decided to try to tempt the birds in with a magic mixgture of rice crispies soaked in bright orange fish oil. They stirred it up in a bucket, to general amusement, then tossed it over the side. We all watched the little dots and the swirls of shining oil, as it floated slowly away over the waves, towards the birds. As if summoned by our hopes, a Giant Petrel came soaring in like a great dark albatross, stirring up the gulls. It tracked across our wake a couple of times, as if drawn by the delicious fish oil, then left.

Giving up on the sluggard local birds, the ship started moving, powering quietly and steadily away from land, as if the captain was hoping to spot something and pretend he'd been aiming for it all along. Every ten minutes or so, we'd pass a bird, bobbing around, or a bird would pass us, and the remaining hopefuls lining the sides would rush to get their cameras out. We passed an albatross, probably the same one that had paddled away and left us before. After we had left it behind, it came soaring past to catch us up and overtake us, followed by a storm of camera clicks. It gave us a wide enough berth that I doubt many of the photos were any good, even the ones from cameras with lenses as long as your arm.

We're heading to Kaikoura next, were there may be whales. The ship stays about twelve miles out from land, which you can see misty and low in the background.

After lunch, the boat kept grumbling steadily onwards, the quiet rumbling coming up through my feet everywhere I went. I'm the only person going barefoot at the moment – my feet were instantly stained black with grime. The crew washed the decks while we were eating, but too late for my stained soles.

Most people are hanging out quietly outside. Down the back is quiet and warm, with a good view of the birds coming up in our wake and overtaking us. They tend to sneak up on you, dipping low among the waves and then soaring past. If you can see them coming, you get time to train your camera on them and hope they'll fly near enough for a good photo. Most don't. The closest so far was a petrel, I turned from following a distant mollymawk to find it wheeling almost directly overheard. It took great delight in soaring around in circles from boat to sky to water, always too fast to capture, before flying away.

There's not much talking; a few anecdotes about birds, murmurs identifying a species, and the odd cry of warning as a bird is spotted. Everyone's just enjoying the sun or waiting for more birds.

There are a suprising number of birds coming past. Most are too far off to accurately identify, but you can tell that they're mollymawks, shearwaters and petrels, of various species. Someone thinks they saw a Royal Albatross. I don't think they're deliberately coming past the boat, with the excetion of the Cape Petrels which enjoy swooping around in looping aerial displays while checking us out, as looking off into the distance, you can usually spot more birds. I imagine a sort of giant net of birds, each racing over the ocean, or flirting amongst the wabes, keeping its distance from the next bird. They aren't all loners; we have had a couple of pairs swirling around each other. I couldn't tell if they were mollymawks or giant petrels, as one was quite dark. Off in the distance, occasional clouds of shearwaters could be seen. Sometimes one or two would come in close, but most stayed on the edge of sight.

We kept going straight through the Kaikoura Trench, in order to get back on schedules (and because there weren't many birds around). Towards evening, we spotted larger numbers of birds winging past, and soon saw they were heading to a boat pulling up its nets. Our staff decided to try and compete, and lure away the mob to our boat. It took awhile, with only a couple of White-capped Albatross paying somewhat desultory attention, but we managed to attract four or five by continually throwing lumps of fish over. And then, suddenly, the sea behind us was full of birds! And that was the next half an hour, lumps of fish being thrown behind, to be swooped upon by Sooty Shearwaters and albatross, while a great tail of birds floated out in a white and grey and brown gaggle behind. This really was a mob of albatrosses, with six species showing up.

White-capped Albatrosses coming in for fish

They were dominated by the Whitecapped Albatross, with a handful of Salvin's, and a few lone representatives from other species (Buller's, Northern and Southern Royal and Wanderer). The little cape petrels were back again, zigzagging about and dodging the camera lens with buoyant glee. They looked exceptionally tiny among the giant albatrosses, and didn't attempt many grabs for fish. 
Grrr! My fish! A Cape Petrel lunges ahead of a White-capped Albatross.

Sooty Shearwaters were much in evidence at the chumming, charging up the front and doing their best to snatch away tidbits before the albatrosses caught up. They were quite delightful to watch, as they would often dive right under the water, leaving you wondering if they would come back. They were middling sized amongst the birds.

An albatross dives after fish.
A solitary giant petrel turned up in the evening, keeping back out of the way and staying in the company of the albatrosses. A couple of the Buller's Albatrosses' turned up for the chumming, and were extremely noisy, squawking in a most indecorous fashion, attempting to intimidate the White-capped albatross away from the fish.

The Northern Giant Petrel, just landing.

There may have been a little white-fronted tern or two, further back; we could see it bobbing, and then flying away, silhouetted by the setting sun.

Eventually the light got a bit too low to continue, and the birds got too tired (or too full!) to bother keeping up anymore. 

Lots of birds following the boat!

We ended just in time for the evening bird list to carry on almost on time! (in which everyone more or less agrees on what was seen and how many of them; the staff generally have a good idea, and a few of the more experienced birdwatchers chip in with the rarer contributions or to round up numbers. There's a rule that three people need to see it (or have a photograph as evidence) for it to count, to the slight frustration of the more experienced birders!

Another White-capped Albatross
Unfortunately, I've discovered that my new little laptop – or possibly the Linux Mint 13 I've installed on it – doesn't notice my SD Cards. It can tell I've done something, as the lights change, it just doesn't read them. I'm going to see if the Ship Laptop will let me transfer photos to my USB stick, so I can sort them out as I go. The Ship Laptop is here for the sole purpose of satellite email, which is very pricy! I doubt I'll be using it for that, especially as every byte will count. There should be internet access in either Norfolk Island or at Port Noumea, New Caledonia, at which point I will submit my final assignment (on information technology, ironically) and reassure my ardent admirers and family that I am still alive.

That night, everyone headed to be pretty quickly after the evening recap wrapped up. I hung around upstairs drinking peppermint tea and reading bird books, then stepped outside briefly. Without the sun to take the edge off, it was blustery and cold, but the lovely full moon cast everything into stark silver and black shadow.

Some Species Highlights
  • Buller's Mollymawk – Thlassarche bulleri
    The first albatross of the day, with a nicely distinctive striped beak. I got some great photos of the very first bird, which was turned into three or four drawings. It's a smaller albatross, at 80cm and is endemic to New Zealand. It tends to follow boats around and suffers heavy losses due to trawl/longline fishing
  • White-capped Albatross: By far the most common bird towards the end of the day, it was bold and lively during the chumming, charging straight up the front and crashing into the water, head down after the food and wings raised awkwardly in akimbo Vs. 

  • Salvin's Albatross: nice and bold, with distinctive grey heads, these competed with the White-capped for thrown fish.
  • Southern & Northern Royal Albatross: We only saw a few of these, with one of each showing up for the chumming. Sadly, both were rather shy, and insisted on staying well back. They would come soaring up the wake occasionally in order to keep up, but always landing about ten metres away, and then just hobnobbing with the other birds until they'd floated out of sight, and then repeating the process.
  • Gibson's Wandering Albatross (Toroa) :The biggest flying bird in the world, this one got everyone excited, but, like the Royal Albatross, it stayed back, serenely swooping back and forth across the wake in imperious solitude as it inspected the disturbace in its realm.

Other Birds

  • White-Fronted Terns are lovely elegant things, especially compared to the albatross!
  • Misc brown shearwaters that I can't tell apart: Fluttering Shearwater, Buller's Shearwater and Hutton's Shearwater
  • The Sooty Shearwater is nice and dark, though!
  • Skuas: We saw two Skua species, which the birders with the really good binoculars and giant cameras where quite excited about; an Arctic and two Long-tailed. Both stayed too far away for me to see much.

  • Northern Giant Petrel: A couple of these soared past, one joining the chumming and staying back out of the way. It's a dirty brown bird, that looks like a cross between an albatross and a dodo
  •  Gulls – Black-backed (Kelp) gulls were sitting around on the water in the morning, but were too wary of the albatross (and too lazy in the lack of wind) to come over to the boat.
  • The Cape Petrels/Cape Pigeon/Pintado/Titore are adorable little things. They fly in rounded loops, and seem to like landing in the lee of the ship.They are very distinctive, mottled brown and white, little birds, very like seagoing pigeons. 

Non-flying marine life:
A Hector's Dolphin

  •  Other than the small pod of Hector's Dolphins, there was a distant humpback whale, a little blue penguin, occasional New Zealand fur seals and Dusky Dolphins.