South Seas ferries- The public pelagic
The south Pacific- an unfathomably vast expanse of water peppered with myriads of sun-baked and hurricane-beaten islands- is relatively daunting territory for an independent travelling birder wishing to cover ground and experience the veritable smörgåsboard of spectacular natural history highlights on offer.
Although rife with terrestrial endemism, diversity is understandably very low on most islands and protracted periods spent in one location often lead to birding stagnation and sometimes insanity (in no given order).
Fortunately, however, as is the case with most island nations, regular (if not sometimes tenuously scheduled) boat services provide the main transport between islands. Although often creaky and a little uncomfortable, with an unevaluated capacity to deal with emergency situations at sea, these weathered bastions of the Pacific provide often unrivalled opportunities to spend cheap, quality time offshore in some of the least watched but most exciting pelagic locations in the world.
The unsung pelagic?
At sea in Polynesia
A long winter on the island of Tutuila in the American Samoan archipelago, Polynesia, working on terrestrial birds offered scant opportunity to get offshore, but the chance to visit a field crew working on an island nearby finally offered some decent time travelling between islands. Buckets of chum no where to be seen, some of the finest bathymetry in the Pacific beckoned as we struck out to a stormy sunrise aboard as fine a craft for exploration as any- an old rusty ferry chuntering into the grey blue yonder..
The outbound journey, interspersed with heavy rainshowers, provided short spells of interest with numerous Tropical-type Shearwaters, revealing insights into the ongoing taxonomic conundrum of the Audobon’s/Little Shearwater Puffinus complex. These birds are likely to pertain to the dichrous central Pacific group of Tropical Shearwater.
Tropical Shearwater wheeling around against a dark and stormy sea at dawn
A handful of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters kept tubenose interest up, while a pod of Indo-pacific Bottlenose Dolphins joined in the fun. Sulids, in the shape of Red-footed and Brown Boobies provided plenty of close fly-bys as well as the vast feeding flocks of Black and Brown Noddies, with the odd Blue Noddie, White-tailed Tropicbird and Bridled Tern added to the mix.
Indo-pacific Bottlenose Dolphin pup (note the Cookiecutter Shark wound)
Red-footed Booby (white morph)
Wedge-tailed Shearwater- interestingly, all individuals observed and reported are dark morph birds in the immediate region
Although this outbound journey provided plenty of interest in commoner fare, the real target tubenoses remained elusive, as did a distant breaching cetacean (likely a Spinner Dolphin) or large pelagic fish sp.
Far less elusive, however, were more Hawksbill Turtles than you could shake a palm frond at, cruising around with tropical abandon in the balmy waters in the harbour of the island of Ofu.
Subsequently, a week spent in the beautiful Manu’a islands group allowed for a clean sweep of the terrestrial birds, including several endemic races (including the to-be-split and disjunct powelli race of Fiji Shrikebill). Good at-sea conditions heralded a much anticipated return crossing, the morning after we watched an unseasonal Humpback Whale puffing away offshore.
Seawatching from shore Pacific style
Striking out again, this time to brighter and less moody skies, albeit on a smaller vessel, a steady stream of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters throughout the crossing indicated birds were on the move. Greater luck was had when a pale-morph Herald Petrel appeared seemingly from nowhere on the port side and seared past at no more than 20ft away, fading into the horizon as quickly as it came.
Further interest was spiked shortly after, when a breaching Humpback provided wonderful, if not again too brief, views; perhaps the same individual as the previous evening. Finally, however, the main target tubenose materialised, the commonest of one the rarest genera of tubenoses, Pseudobulweria, in the shape of a Tahiti Petrel, giving exceptionally close views before banking away in our wake.
Excellent views (albeit without photos to match) of Tahiti Petrel with its trademark massive bill easily distinguishable.
Shortly after this initial encounter, a second petrel, almost certainly another Tahiti, was seen briefly carving away to our starboard side. This time, however, being on a smaller boat was not in our favour as the bird was rapidly lost behind the swell and never to be seen again. Two large and very brief dorsal fins relatively close inshore shared the same story, staying frustratingly elusive but perhaps pertaining to the inshore population of Rough-toothed Dolphins around the island of Tutuila.
Wedge-tailed Shearwaters continued to provide plenty of enjoyable viewing well into inshore waters, despite many hours of seawatching from shore not yielding a single tubenose.
Wedge-tailed Shearwater close inshore
All too quickly the return journey was over and we were back onshore amidst hordes of invasive Myna’s and the bustling, polluted harbour of Pago Pago. My mind, however, was still firmly offshore, wondering what else is really out there…
The opportunities and discoveries to be made offshore in vast regions of the Pacific are untapped and fully deserve more attention, with recent examples such as the putative discovery of New Caledonian Storm-petrel paying credence to this . Although the efforts for more adventurous travel and birding come with inherent elements of difficulty, the rewards often vastly outweigh the difficulties from both a travel and natural history perspective.
I encourage anyone wishing to seek adventurous and exciting birding; the outcomes of which could have genuinely useful outcomes for so many poorly understood pelagic seabirds; to consult your bathymetry, identify an interesting island chain and get offshore and explore the Pacific. What finer way to do so as well than allowing the rusty ferry to facilitate your journey.
Just imagine the possibilities!