Swansea Pelagic Trip Report – Thurs 24th July 2014
Boat: 45ft Randell, skippered by Brad Minors
Following a major southerly push on the weekend before, conditions today were due to be quite benign with northerly winds less than 10 knots forecast. In actual fact we experienced quite stiff nor-easters at around 15 knots, forming a few white caps on the ocean – always a good sign for pelagic trips. Notwithstanding, sea and swell were both less than a metre and not a single person of the 20-odd people on board were seasick (to my knowledge anyway!). Water temperature inshore around 17 degrees and at the shelf approximately 19 degrees.
No outstanding highlights but there were good numbers of albatrosses generally and 5 Buller’s in a day (all at the boat at the same time) is the best we’ve had on a pelagic trip run out of a Hunter port. A cow fur seal present at the boat at the shelf break provided plenty of entertainment too.
Departed Swansea Wharf at 0710 returning at 1655.
Chugging through the Swansea and Blacksmiths breakwaters with lifejackets awkwardly slung over our heads, the first ‘wildlife’ seen was a group of fur seals loafing at the heads. Soon followed some terns, gannets and then the first seabirds in the form of Fluttering-type Shearwaters, some of which gave good enough views to confirm as Fluttering (no Hutton’s were confirmed during the day). Albatrosses soon appeared on the horizon with predominantly Yellow-nosed and the occasional Black-browed and Shy-type. The occasional Fairy Prion started to show at about 10 miles out, with the very first bird appearing to some people to be “pale-backed” and “without much black on the tail”. The poor views were far from good enough to confirm an ID and the only images captured of the bird didn't help either. From that point on for the remainder of the day, all prions seen were clearly Fairy.
A distant Giant Petrel never came close enough to the boat for a positive ID – as it turned out, the only GP for the day. Things went extremely quiet for a long period, with activity picking up immensely as we approached our destination at a feature known as the North Canyons. Albatross numbers re-built and a few Solander’s Petrels were also seen well before we cut the engines. The punching into the stiff nor-easter made the trip to the shelf a long one and it wasn’t til around 11am that we reached the start of the deep water (at -33.24128 / 152.2501).
At this point the ocean came to life and it was a matter of not knowing which way to look as birds seemed to be coming in at every angle. Of note, there were constantly 4 or 5 Pterodromas on the horizon and for the 2 hours at the shelf there was always at least one bird at the boat and 2 or 3 visible in the distance. The most I managed in one scan was 6 birds, which I have attributed to Solander’s for the counts. For the first hour, it was only Solander’s Petrels that were seen.
Within a few minutes of cutting the engines the first Buller’s Albatross was seen and before long it appeared that there may have been more than one. Indeed, as it turned out we eventually (but within only 15 or so minutes) had 5 of these stunning birds flying around the boat. Two Brown Skuas and a growing throng of attentive Yellow-nosed Albatrosses kept us on our toes. There were very few Black-browed or Shy-types seen at the shelf.
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross
A great spectacle was a cow fur seal (likely Australian) that surfaced near the stern and hung around for about 10 minutes. This animal was very interested in the boat and even made a few lunges at the cod liver oil-soaked rag.
Australian Fur Seal
As often seems to happen, the initial flurry of activity tailed off and from then on it was a matter of waiting for something to creep in off the horizon. There was cause for some excitement when a smallish black and white bird arced up on the horizon but the only person who saw it well said it was a Fluttering-type Shearwater. A White-faced Storm-petrel came in and kept rather wide of the boat and out of view of several observers on board. The same thing happened later on, when the second (and only other) White-faced Stormy was seen. No Wilson’s were observed at all.
When the Wandering-type Albatrosses started arriving, this generated discussion about identification, and eventually it was generally accepted that the 4 birds we saw were comprised of one exulans bird, two gibsoni and a female antipodensis.
Great-winged Petrels were seen in small numbers and it is likely that the omnipresent Pterodroma petrels flying distant from the boat were Solander’s. All of the Great-wingeds seen were Grey-faced gouldi birds (we are yet to confirm a Great-winged since the start of the pelagics running from Port Stephens / Swansea since Jan 2010). Possibly the most excitement at the shelf once the initial buzz had subsided was having a Cape Petrel fly in. There have been very few reports of these birds on NSW pelagics in 2013/2014 so it was almost a novelty to have a bird come in and stay faithful to the boat for about a quarter of an hour.
A couple of observers saw some rather distant Humpback Whales just as we departed from -33.26695 / 152.23327 to commence the long, 35 mile haul back to port. As the skipper had thrown the sea anchor out, our position had hardly changed in the 2 hours spent at the shelf. A large pod of Offshore Bottlenose Dolphins crossed our path a few miles back in, then some acrobatic Indo-Pacific Common Dolphins a while later.
The journey back to port saw another very long period with virtually zero birds apart from the odd Fairy Prion. In summer we always look forward to the inshore feeding flocks of shearwaters and today it was very much a case of inshore feeding albatrosses, as we again had a throng of birds behind the boat when we hit about the 15nm mark. Again, Yellow-nosed clearly dominated (37 were counted at one point) and the closer we drew to shore, the more Black-browed-types seemed to arrive. The only additional bird to the day’s list seen on the return leg was a White-fronted Tern that flew past the boat just minutes before large numbers of Cresteds arrived.
All in all it was a rewarding winter’s pelagic and great to see so many albatrosses behind the boat.
Species: Total outside the heads (maximum number visible from the boat at one time) – many are estimates. Taxonomy follows the BirdLife Australia Working List V1.1
White-faced Storm-Petrel: 2 (1)
Cape Petrel: 1
Black-browed Albatross: 5 (2)
Black-browed type Albatross: 7 (2)
Shy-type Albatross: 4 (1)
Yellow-nosed Albatross: 50+ (37)
Buller’s Albatross: 5 (5)
Wandering-type Albatross: 4 (3) – made up of probable 1x Snowy, 3x Antipodean (of which 1x Antipodean and 2x Gibson’s)
Giant-Petrel sp.: 1
Fairy Prion: 20 (4)
Fluttering Shearwater: 20 (8)
Fluttering-type Shearwater: 30 (12)
Solander’s Petrel: 30-50, possibly more? (6)
Great-winged (Grey-faced) Petrel: 4 (2)
Australasian Gannet: 20 (3)
Brown Skua: 3 (2)
Crested Tern: 40 (25)
White-fronted Tern: 1
Silver Gull: 6 (6)
Offshore Bottlenose Dolphin: 30
Indo-Pacific Common Dolphin: 4
Humpback Whale: 2
Australian Fur Seal: 1