Port Stephens Pelagic Trip Report – Sun 23 February 2014
Boat: M.V. Argonaut, skippered by Ray Horsfield
A stiff southerly wind persisted for most of the day with a solid ground swell of 2 to 2.5m. The 11 to 12 wave period forecast on all of the models turned out in reality to be closer to 4, which combined with the 15-20 knot southerlies made for a very lumpy and bumpy ride to the shelf. The downhill current near the shelf break did not help any, making some waves stand up somewhat, leaving at least 6 punters on board seasick. Water temperature at the shelf was predicted to be around 22.8 degrees.
Whilst diversity was generally, seeing 4 species of Pterodroma, including an intermediate phase Kermadec, a White-necked and at least 5 Gould’s Petrels (the most numerous petrel) were the highlights for today.
Kermadec Petrel - Photo: Allan Richardson
Departed Nelson Bay Public Wharf at 0706 returning at 1615.
Flanked by a small flotilla of game-fishing boats competing in the Port Stephens inter-club game fishing contest, the Argonaut headed into a very lumpy sea driven by steady southerly winds. Occasional rain cloud fronts would cause stronger squalls bringing white-capping conditions. As has been the case for the past few summer trips, there wasn’t a great deal of interest shown by the Wedge-tailed Shearwaters in the boat and berley offerings and only 3 or 4 Fleshy-foots were seen on the way out. A distant Gould’s Petrel was seen by 3 observers only 5 miles from the heads.
Approaching the shelf the downhill current was making the waves stand up a little bit, adding to the pitch of the boat. We set up a drift at -32 55 37 / 152 33 36 and it took only a few minutes before the first Great-winged (Grey-faced) Petrel flew in.
It also wasn’t long before the first Gould’s Petrel flew in and gave several passes close to the boat as it circled the vessel and then disappeared down the slick. 7 minutes later a Gould’s Petrel came back up the slick and at the time we all assumed it was the same bird. Closer inspection of images has revealed that it was a different individual. This illustrates the difficulty in counting seabirds at sea and sometimes assumptions like Gould’s Petrel sightings only minutes apart being the same bird can be very wrong.
As a large rain front from south gradually engulfed us, so too did the interest from the Wedge-tailed Shearwaters gradually grow, but still there was no sign of Fleshy-foots in numbers (only an occasional bird would fly into the slick). A second Great-winged with an ‘interesting’ underwing (approaching that of a Solander’s also joined the fray). The lumpy sea was taking its toll on some of the punters, with 6 people now feeling the pinch. One person in particular was quite ill and made the mistake of going into the toilet and refusing to come out. While all this was going on, another 2 Gould’s came in, both visible at the same time. Minutes after, a beautiful intermediate phase Kermadec Petrel flew in from the north, but didn't show any interest in the boat apart from making a few distant turns, enabling all aboard (that weren't behind a door!) good views of the upper and underparts of this unique seabird.
With the state of the person in the toilet seemingly deteriorating the skipper made the decision to head back to port. We still had nearly full hours at the shelf and having seen 3 Pterodromas we had been lucky anyway. Literally a mile or two from where we left our drift endpoint (-32 58 40 / 152 33 25) we encountered a feeding flock of brown shearwaters and lo and behold it was full of Fleshy-foots, most of which joined us for the return leg.
White-necked Petrel - Photo: Allan Richardson
The journey back was a lot more comfortable than the trip out, with the southerly backing off to under 10 knots. Two observers reported seeing 2 ‘small grey birds’ flying close to the surface that could have been White-faced Stormies but they weren't able to be confirmed. With no albatross or confirmed storm-petrels (for the 2nd consecutive pelagic for the latter) the day certainly belonged to the petrels. This was driven home when about half way back a call came out from Steve, “possible Streaked Shearwater!” which he made without binoculars. Once onto the bird though, we realised it was a White-necked Petrel, much to the delight of everyone except one regular that still hasn’t managed a Streaked Shear. Unfortunately this bird stayed very aloof and views were quite distant.
Gould's Petrel - Photo: Allan Richardson
A Hutton’s Shearwater was photographed well not long after the White-necked, being the lone small shearwater confirmed for the day.
A great pelagic enjoyed by most on board. Not high on diversity but a memorable day at sea. Thanks go to Steve Roderick for taking care of the berleying duties whilst I’m nursing an ailment of sorts.
Species: Total (maximum number visible from the boat at one time) – note that many are approximations.
Short-tailed Shearwater: 20 (4)
Flesh-footed Shearwater: 60 (30)
Wedge-tailed Shearwater: 750 (250)
Hutton’s Shearwater: 1
Fluttering (type) Shearwater: 1
Great-winged (Grey-faced) Petrel: 3 (1)
Gould’s Petrel: 5 (2)
KERMADEC PETREL: 1
WHITE-NECKED PETREL: 1
Crested Tern: 8 (6)
Pomarine Jaeger: 7 (3)
Silver Gull: 6 (6)
Little Black Cormorant: 1
Offshore Bottlenose Dolphin: 15+