My Pelagic Experience

I popped two Dramamines in the back seat of the van and ‘washed’ them down with a bite of a Slim Jim: breakfast. Megan’s headphones shared between us blasted the Hamilton soundtrack into my right ear. A total of six students had gathered behind the biology building on campus at four in the morning to meet Dan, the ornithology professor, who would provide a ride to Virginia Beach where we would board a small boat and go to sea for the day.

We arrived at the inlet parking lot at six and brought our backpacks, binoculars, and coolers on to the gently rocking boat in the dark. Brian Patteson, THE man for east coast pelagic birding, greeted us at the dock and checked our names off his clipboard. I knew a few people already on the boat, and I had heard of a few more (the birding community is very tight knit). After sitting through the mandatory safety talk, the boat’s engine rumbled, and we pulled away from the dock.

“I’m here for the sea turtles and whales,” I told Peyton, a fellow William and Mary student, as we slowly puttered out of the inlet. She excitedly agreed with me that whales were what she was most looking forward to too.

It took us about an hour to lose sight of land. In that time we watched the sun rise over the ocean (the photographers when mad) and spotted a humpback whale off the port side. When the spotter, the person who gets a free ride as long as they identify birds for other passengers, yelled he had seen a whale, we all scrutinized the water to see if the whale would surface again. The animal’s back slid out of the ocean very far away and breathed, spraying water into the air, then slipped back into the deep. It was underwhelming.

I stood at the bow of the ‘ship’ with my friends Nick and Trevor and talked for a while. We occasionally raised our binoculars to look at passing birds. There weren’t many and most of them were species you could see on land, though they were more numerous at sea. These are species like scoters, gannets, and certain gulls.

Brian slowed the boat down and told us over the intercom we were about to pull up alongside a loggerhead sea turtle. The turtle was sunning itself on the surface of the water, its shell covered in barnacles. When we got too close for comfort, it dived.

loggerhead sea turtle
Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) “It’s back covered in barnacles” taken by Nick Newberry.

It wasn’t long after that I began to feel really queasy. I knew I was starting to get sea sick so I stared at the horizon (the only fixed, non-moving thing you can look at at sea) and nibbled on pretzels. Matt, my boyfriend, told me to eat pretzels to help settle my stomach. My eyes kept dropping from the horizon, because I was so tired, which didn’t help. I remembered what Brian said about sea sickness during our lesson in safety: “Don’t throw up over the side of the boat. We will be moving at high speed and it will fling onto the people behind you. Be sick off the back.” I stumbled to the back where bloody water from the chum slid across the deck and puddled in the corners.

I leaned over the rail, smelling the gasoline and dead fish, felt the bloody water soak into my tennis shoes, and threw up. I fished some pretzels out of the bag zipped into my coat, forced myself to eat a couple, and watched the occasional gull settle into the frothy path of ocean we left behind us to eat a bit of chum. This cycle repeated itself five more times. I wanted to throw the bag of pretzels at the next person to suggest I eat yet more of them to settle my stomach. I pushed against the pressure wristbands, worn to supposedly ward off sea sickness, and cursed the money I spent on them. Matt had the gall to tell me sea sickness was all in my head. I debated vomiting on him but instead told him that sounded a lot like what people told the mentally ill, and he could go back up front since he wasn’t being helpful.

Dan approached my listless form draped over the back railing and asked me why I wasn’t up front like all the social, healthy people. I looked up at him, wondering if the wind had swept the horrid mix of pretzel and bile off my face, and told him I didn’t feel well. He went into the cabin and came back with ginger tablets, a natural alternative to Dramamine. I took two and went into the cabin, against all recommendation (you can’t see the horizon in the cabin), where I fell asleep on the bench.

I woke up maybe half an hour to an hour later with drool on my arm but feeling 1000% better. Bounding out of the cabin, I joined the social, healthy people at the bow and offered my pretzels to the William and Mary crew. It was 10:30am – only ten more hours at sea to go.

We weren’t seeing any crazy, winter pelagic bird species because of the recent warm weather. We did see hundreds of Bonaparte’s gulls, sitting on the water in groups. Schools of false albacore, a species of tuna, jumped out of the water as they chased their prey at the surface. A Pepsi can floated as we sped by.

We were almost at the Gulf Stream, 50 miles off shore and our turn-around point, when Ned Brinkley, editor of the North American Birds field guide and a spotter for this trip, yelled out, “PUFFIN! STARBOARD!” I ran through the open cabin to the starboard side. It was almost certainly an Atlantic puffin, and I was super excited. As everyone trained their binoculars on the small, black bird on the water, someone shouted, “It’s a coot!” Bizarrely enough, it was an American coot, a species typically found in lakes and definitely not a bird that should be 50 miles offshore. We all agreed it would probably die very soon.

Unfortunately, that was pretty much all we saw besides some very distant razorbills, but I don’t count those, because I didn’t get very good looks at them. We did see one more loggerhead sea turtle, but the warm weather had kept the winter birds further north than we would have liked. It was a nice, sunny day to sit on the deck, drink Dr. Pepper, and chat with friends though. Megan had fallen asleep in the cabin during the puffin fiasco, and I gravely told her she didn’t get to see the Atlantic puffin when she emerged. She looked a bit panicked until she learned I was messing with her.

When land decorated the horizon, chum was thrown off the back by the handful to a hoard of seagulls. Everyone migrated to the part of the boat I had been violently sick on earlier and identified the different species of gulls flying above. There were a couple of lesser black back gulls which are uncommon on land but not rare. Another humpback whale was spotted as we approached the inlet, but only one person saw it. We docked at eight in the dark.

Sitting in the back of Dan’s van while everyone piled their things into the trunk, I decided I was never going to sea again, and Dramamine doesn’t work. But it was an experience. It was worth it to do it once.


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