I was guiding for One Ocean Expeditions, on a tour called Fins and Fiddles. I was most excited because it would take me to places I’d never seen before.
Leaving from Sydney, Nova Scotia, we toured the Magdalen Islands, P.E.I, Bonaventure Island, Anticosti Island, Newfoundland, St. Pierre, Louisburg, and finally the Sable Island, located 300 km south of Nova Scotia in the north Atlantic. For me, the Sable Island landing was one I’d dreamed of doing almost my entire adult life. I longed to see the “Ipswich” Sparrow, and the wild ponies, I saw both!
But this story is about life and death at sea. Generally, the wildlife we encountered fared very well, as gannets, seals, whales, porpoises and dolphins were seen in abundance along the route. One day, a Blue Whale graced our view briefly, as the ship came up unexpectedly on its flank. Rest assured, we were as surprised, as it because it gave no indication of its presence. I suspect it was sleeping and we simply woke it up. Later, a different whale was seen floating dead in the ocean; perhaps another Right Whale?!?
Aboard ship, 14 species of birds landed, at one point on their journey south, as we sailed the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The list was long and varied, and included: Cory’s Shearwater, a seabird loosely related to albatrosses; 3 American Kestrels, a falcon; several warblers, Palm, Black-and-White, Yellow-rumped, Blackpoll, Common Yellowthroat, Black-throated Green and Magnolia; two flycatchers, Yellow-bellied and Eastern Phoebe; and several sparrows, Song, Savannah, Lincoln’s and White-throated. Sadly, two of these were found dead on the ship, the Black-and-White Warbler and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, but the others survived.
So why did we see so many birds hundreds of kilometers from land? Simple, they frequently migrate over water, trying to follow the shortest route to their wintering grounds. But the perils at sea are much higher than those on land, sometimes. On land, they face cars, buildings, hawks and owls, cats and other predators, thoughtless people that shoot them, towers, turbines and wires. It’s amazing any of them survive the journey each year.
At sea, gulls and their allies are the greatest predator, but a stray falcon can also take prey on the wing, and then land on some safe haven to munch on it. But the real risk comes from wind, weather and fatigue. A headwind, of even a few kilometres an hour, can drain the energy fromthese tiny birds that might lose up to 25% of their body weight every night! The hurricanes sweeping the east coast will likely kill tens of thousands of these birds, and no evidence of their passing will ever be seen. If they become exhausted, they can’t land on the water, so they must find some refuge, and that’s where our ship came in. Each night, a few birds would land, and then each morning they would head out, if they were strong enough, and continue the relentless journey southbound to get to the Tropics.
One night, the crew called me to come and rescue a bird they thought was injured. It was the shearwater I mentioned earlier. It was sitting on the deck of the ship as we approached. Carefully I caught it, to examine it for injuries. I lost focus for a moment, to answer a question, and lo and behold the little varmint bit me. How ungrateful! The good news was, he was not actually injured but had come to the ship to rest for a bit.
Those traveling with me learned a great deal first-hand, about the risks and rewards of migrating over oceans. Everyone was amazing, in their caring attitude, as the adventure unfolded. I’m off to Antarctica in 3 weeks, with One Ocean Expeditions again. I wonder what marvels I’ll see on that journey?!
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, ecotour guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line, at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.