December 11th-13th – Dodging the Storms

In the lead-up to Saturday, December 11th, the marine forecasts for the seas offshore of St. John’s Newfoundland had been for “Gale Warnings” with winds up to 45 knots making for waves of 5-7 metres. Lovely.

By the time the 11th rolled around and I boarded the vessel, this storm had abated. The vessel was the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Hudson; 300 feet long; the boat used to do oceanographic trips by DFO scientists on the East Coast. These research outings are often accompanied by a CWS seabird observer whose job is to stand on the bridge (inside I might add…thank goodness) and count seabirds in a transect 300 m wide running down the port side of the ship. And that’s why I was there – to learn how to use the protocol as well as the voice-activated computer system that enters the data.

I was just catching the tail end of the trip which already had been out doing transects in the North Atlantic for 25 days. I was going to travel from St. John’s to Halifax and be taught by Dr. Rob Ronconi (who had done his research on Greater Shearwaters) in the art/science of seabird monitoring.

Right off the bat I must confess that I was born with a gift – I don’t, apparently, get seasick. This is a good thing, a basic thing, for seabird monitors. I must also confess though that I had been looking forward to high winds and seas to test out the limits of this “gift”. It wasn’t to be. When the ship pulled out of St. John’s at 1:00 PM on the 11th the wind was blowing out of the NW at 16-17 knots. On clearing the harbour we got in about 3 hours of observations/instructions before it got too dark to see birds.

The bridge of a big ship is an interesting place – lots of electronics. Nowadays everything is done pretty well automatically following GPS “waypoints”, so, although there’s naval personnel always present, there’s no one “manning” the wheel, so to speak – just the instruments.

The seabird monitor(s) is stashed in the front port corner of the bridge. Standing 12 m above the ocean, you have a great view of the sea out front and to the side (“abeam” I think it is in nautical parlance). Each count lasts 5 minutes and counts are consecutive with short breaks taken as needed. The idea is to try to determine the density of birds in a 300-m wide transect that runs continuously beside the boat. The monitor wears a headset to which is attached a microphone. Speaking into the mike records the species, # of birds, whether it/they was in the water or flying, distance from the ship and, when possible, the age of the bird and what it was up to behaviourally. Sounds straighforward, right? Well…it’s not. Despite my “training” the computer program to recognize my voice, it often didn’t. So, quite often “Dovekie” would come up as “donkey” and the computer knew enough to know this wasn’t a bird. Further, if your cadence varied or you put necessary information in the wrong sequence, you had to start over….and over. And at times, your fiddling to make corrections on the computer meant you weren’t seeing birds.

I spent all of the 12th on the bridge and by the end of the day was getting the hang of it. I was also seeing, besides seabirds, a few Minke Whales and Gray Seals. [The former were often given away by the presence of Kittiwakes.] During the course of the day, the wind dropped to 5 knots and the seas evened out and we were treated to a magnificent sunset.

But there was an atmosphere of anxiety on the bridge. A big storm was evidently approaching and due to hit Halifax on the 13th with winds up to 45 knots. So the captain decided to push it, to try to get into Halifax harbour and tied up before the storm hit because, with strong easterly winds, it would be very difficult to moor and the boat might have to anchor in Bedford Basin to wait it out.

I went to bed on the 12 th without much concern – I had learned what I’d come to learn, had had a lovely cruise in the North Atlantic, had met lots of great people, and had seen lots of really neat (and very hardy) seabirds, and the winds were 5 knots. I became aware of changes around 3:00 AM. The ship was rolling and pitching; my books slid off the desk; in the cabin next to me (and about at my head) the closet door began to slam…open….slam. This went on for over an hour and was due to the ship taking the growing seas on the beam as it made the long turn into the harbour entrance.

By the time I got up, the captain and crew were trying to bring the ship into its mooring at dockside. By now the wind was blowing at 25-30 knots, hitting the high bridge like it was a sail and pushing the boat away. It took 3 attempts and a snapped 3″ hawser before they were able to make her fast. And a good thing too as the wind only climbed higher bringing a driving rain. I’d be able to catch my plane after all….but not test out my sea legs.

Birds encountered:Dovekie
Thick-billed Murre
Common Murre
Double-crested Cormorant
Northern Gannet
Northern Fulmar
Iceland Gull (St John’s harbour)
Kumlien’s Gull (St. John’s harbour)
Glaucous Gull (St. John’s harbour)
Herring Gull
Black-legged Kittiwake
Bonaparte’s Gull
Greater Black-bakced Gull
Harlequin Duck (2 well offshore out of sight of land)

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