Pelagic Birding Trips to the Cordell Bank

The Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary

A few times a year Claudia and I join a group of friends on a pelagic birding/wildlife trip from Bodega Bay into the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The Cordell Bank is a seamount located 18 nautical miles due west of the Point Reyes Lighthouse that rises to within 115 feet of the surface. Rich ocean currents and upwelling around the Bank make it a spectacular destination for pelagic wildlife observation.

Whenever you visit the Cordell Bank, there is also the possibility that you might encounter an extreme rarity – for example the Northern Hemisphere’s first record of Great-winged Petrel occurred on one of these trips.

Pelagic Trips to the Cordell Bank

These trips aboard the 65-foot New Sea Angler typically depart at 7:00 AM from the Port ‘O Bodega. The ride out to the Cordell Bank usually takes 2.5 to 3 hours depending on the wind, the sea conditions, and whether or not we get distracted by wildlife along the way. If the seas cooperate, we will sometimes head even farther west to deep water hoping to find seabirds that resist visiting nearer to shore. It is not uncommon to spend 10-12 hours on the water.

Our trips are privately organized, but Debi Shearwater (Shearwater Journeys) runs commercial trips to the Cordell Bank aboard The New Sea Angler several times a year.

The New Sea Angler

The Bodega Bay Data Buoy

As our friend Rich says, the Pacific Ocean usually isn’t (pacific that is). During the summer months there is often a continuous 15-25 knot northwest wind. The combination of wind and the swell it helps create can result in uncomfortable conditions for humans trapped on board a small boat for 10-12 hours. For those (like me) who fight seasickness, the sea conditions will largely determine what kind of day we will have.

For better or worse, you can easily monitor the nearshore weather conditions from the comfort of your home. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) maintains a series of coastal data buoys that transmit the current sea and weather conditions to the National Data Buoy Center web site. Here is a link to the Bodega Bay data buoy web site:

In a perfect world, you would like to have wind speed less than 10 knots (but you want some wind so that the seabirds will be flying), wave height less than 5 feet, and the wave period as long as possible. It is rarely a perfect world…

A 3-Meter Discus Data Buoy
(photo from the NOAA/National Data Buoy Center web site)

Our Trip on 11/16/2008

Did I just say “it is rarely a perfect world…”? On Sunday, November 16th, we arrived at the Port ‘O Bodega at 6:30 AM, and I almost threw up as soon as I got out of the car. I had been fighting a stomach problem for the last day and it had not gotten any better (and the early start and anticipation of a pelagic trip never helps a questionable stomach). Although I considered bailing out, friends convinced me that I should suck it up and give it a try. After all it would be at most, only 10 hours of misery.

Sometimes you just get lucky…

The seas were calm, there was enough wind to keep seabirds in the air, and the light was good for photography and visibility. In the first couple couple of hours we observed seven species of Shearwater (Sooty, Pink-footed, Flesh-footed, Black-vented, Manx, Buller’s, and Short-tailed). We also encountered semi-rarities like Laysan Albatross and Tufted Puffin in addition to many of the expected “usual suspects”.

At one point we stopped, shut off the engine and could see and hear 20-30 Humpback Whales all around the boat – sometimes seeing ten “blows” at once. We also saw Blue Whales (and felt their underwater calls through the hull), had Pacific White-sided Dolphins and Dall’s Porpoises surfing the bow wake, and watched a pod of six Orcas and their encounter with some nearby Humpback Whales. It was a glorious day at the Cordell Bank!

Mini Photo Gallery

You can also view more photos from this trip on my main web site:

Shearwaters: Flesh-footed, Pink-footed, and Buller’s

Albatross: Black-footed, and Laysan

Alcids: Cassin’s Auklet and Tufted Puffin

Mammals: Pacific White-sided Dolphins, Orcas, and Humpback Whales

Our friends on board the New Sea Angler enjoying the
unusually calm seas and wildlife of the Cordell Bank

Comments on Pelagic Bird Photography

Pelagic bird photography has to be one of the most difficult disciplines of wildlife photography. While standing on a moving deck (sometimes pitching violently) in windy, rainy, and/or overcast, low-light conditions, you must try to locate, frame, and focus on fast-moving seabirds in order to capture sharp images. You are often either seasick, or trying not to become so (and peering through a camera viewfinder doesn’t help). The “keeper rate” is very low – suffice it to say I have many images of a sharp ocean and an out-of-focus, poorly-framed seabird. However, occasionally the gods smile on you and you are blessed with a combination of calm seas, light winds, and good light.

For pelagic bird photography, I am currently using a Nikon D2X digital SLR with a 300mm f/2.8 lens and a 1.4x teleconverter, which results in a 420mm f/4 lens. This is a heavy combination, but it can still be hand held and it provides an extra stop of light over other lenses with a maximum aperture of f/5.6 that are commonly used for pelagic bird photography. The extra stop helps with auto focusing in low-light conditions and allows a faster shutter speed to be used.

I usually also bring along a second camera body with a mid-range zoom lens to take photos of marine mammals that might come close to the boat (bow-riding porpoises and dolphins for example).

Additional Links:

© 2008, Scott Hein. All rights reserved.

Scott Hein

About Scott Hein

Scott Hein is a freelance nature photographer whose passion is photographing the native plants, wildlife, and landscapes of the American West. Although his explorations have taken him from Alaska to Antarctica, the wild lands and parks surrounding Mount Diablo near his home in Northern California remain his favorite photo locations.
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