A taste of the pelagic

Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen

Greater Shearwater

There’s a whole ‘nuther world out there. Out there on the water, past the islands—Metinic, Matinicus, and Monhegan—and further than the sunrise horizon. It’s the “pelagic” world of the Gulf of Maine and beyond, where animals are adapted to an oceanic lifestyle and sightings of land are less frequent than visuals of whales.

I recently joined Captain John Drury on board his boat, “Skua,” for a 12-hour voyage to get just “a taste of the pelagic.” We headed out from Vinalhaven Island for “11-mile ledge”—an underwater, topographical ledge system located south of Matinicus Island and Matinicus Rock. And while the pelagic world is vast—a little too vast for some people—ledge systems such as the “11-mile ledge” create habitats very attractive for pelagic wildlife. And it’s all about the food!

Oversimplifying a little, “upwelling” is a phenomenon that occurs when deep, cold, nutrient-rich waters riding underwater currents hit ledges (such as “11-mile ledge”) and are re-directed towards the surface. The cold water rises, bringing the nutrients with it and inspiring food chains from plankton blooms all the way through predators such as shearwaters, gannets and whales. The waters above such ledges become feeding stations for wildlife as well as a destination for those humanoids hoping to observe pelagic wildlife—and Captain Drury and I were not disappointed on this fine September day!

The most numerous sea birds we observed (other than herring and great black-backed gulls) were two species of Phalaropes—both the Red-necked (Phalaropus lobatus) and the Red (Phalaropus fulicarius). Living oxymorons—pelagic shorebirds?—these two phalaropes are Sandpipers (Family Scolopacidae), that breed in the northern reaches on North America. They take to the ocean once breeding season is done, overwintering at sea. To help with this pelagic lifestyle, Phalaropes have partially lobed feet for swimming and dense plumage for warmth. They are also known for their classic behavior of literally “spinning in circles” on the water. Through the spinning, Phalaropes create their own small currents which bring food closer to the surface where they can get it. It’s always fun to see shorebirds floating in the middle of nowhere!

Razorbill dad and youngster

And while the phalaropes are unique within the shorebird universe, we also had great sessions with members of a couple of classic sea bird groups. The Alcidae is a fun bird family that locally includes Atlantic Puffin, Black Guillemots and Razorbills. These birds, called Alcids, “fly” underwater, flapping their wings in graceful pursuit of fish. In the air, Alcids flap like “crazy” in order to keep their rounded, hydrodynamic bodies alight. Above the 11-mile ledge individual adult Puffins could be seen with fish in their bills for this year’s young. For another Alcid, Razorbills, it’s the dad that takes the lead in raising the youngster once it leaves the den. This favorite Alcid parenting technique was easily observed as several father/youngster Razorbill pairs–floating together for over a month at this point–were bobbing their way in search of the next feeding opportunity.

Members of the avian order Procellariiformes are (lovingly) referred to as “tubenoses,” in reference to the nostril tubes these birds have on top of their bills. The birds use the nostrils, called “naricorns,” to smell (an uncommon sense in the bird world) and to release salt after drinking ocean water. That’s right, Procellariiformes drink salt water (ain’t no fresh water in the pelagic zone!) and with the use of a salt gland just behind the bill, can extract the salt from the water and then release the salt through the naricorn. Salty boogers for sure, but a wonderful adaptation for the pelagic lifestyle.

On this day we “bagged” (not literally) four tubenoses, a trifecta of shearwaters–Sooty, Greater, and Cory’s–and many Wilson’s Storm Petrels. For a little more perspective, the Sooty and Greater Shearwaters, as well as the Wilson’s Storm Petrels, all breed on islands thousands of miles away off the southern tips of Africa and South America. They truly have come a long, long way to feed above the 11-mile ledges.

Atlantic White-sided Dolphin

Plenty of Harbor Seals and Harbor Porpoise were also to be seen and we crossed paths with a Minke Whale as it steamed away to different waters. The marine mammal highlight, however, was the 30 or so Atlantic White-sided Dolphins (AWSD) we hooked up with in the earlier part of the day. Calm, clear seas made the session exceptional as both humans and dolphins bombed towards each other upon first long-distance sighting. The AWSD made pass after pass by the boat, so close and so often we became familiar with individual dolphins, identifying them by nicks and cuts on their dorsal fins. Several calves were mixed in the group, which seemed to spend as much time watching us as we spent freakin’ out about how awesome this experience was. Nice to get this out of the way early, the rest of the day was a bonus as far as we were concerned.

Those with boats or who work on boats are undoubtedly familiar with the pelagic zone, or at least have crossed paths with some of the players out there. You are the lucky ones, because I for one can never get enough of the pelagic lifestyle, where life can be thick and I am always a visitor. If you have a boat and ever need a spotter–let me know! And then we’ll see you out there!

PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen

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