December 11th – Life OnThe Bounding Main

My “post” for eight hours a day.

I’m halfway through my seabird excursion off the northeast coast of Newfoundland. At our furthest point, we were 300 miles north and east of St. John’s. I am the “bird guy” on this ship, a Coast Guard/DFO boat that is conducting research into the health of the groundfish stock in these waters. I am just a small CWS add-on, taking advantage of the fisheries research in order to take stock of the seabirds in the area, following a pretty structured protocol. Briefly (and more simply than it actually is), I count birds within a 300 m swath on the port side of the vessel in 5-minute time slots. I note whether they are in flight or on the water, and how close to the vessel they are: 0-50 m.; 50-100; 100-200; 200-300; and >300. Whenever possible I will also record birds on the starboardside and birds that are tailing along behind for the tidbits that are left over from the fisheries work (“ship-followers”). Ideally, I record my sightings directly into the laptop using voice-recognition software. But, it’s finicky (or maybe I just garble) and I have to input data manually more than I like (e.g., often when I say Dovekie, it hears Donkey…and there’s not a lot of those out here). As well, the computer recognizes that I am NOT technologically savvy and, so, just for fun, decides every now and again (and at least twice a day) to simply shut down. What’s with that!?

Northern Fulmars keeping well-fed on the discards from the trawling operarion.

Iceland Gull was another common ship follower.

On the whole, the birding has been unremarkable: Northern Fulmars (lots of these soaring round and round the ship); Iceland and Glaucous Gulls (usually following along behind looking for tidbits); Black-legged Kittiwakes (to me, the most beautiful and wondrous of the gulls – see my pictures of nesting kittiwakes in the Svalbard posts); Great Black-backed Gulls (usually 1 or 2 per day); and Dovekies and Thick-billed Murres (none of these in large numbers). The most “interesting” bird was a Black-headed Gull, presumably on a visit from Europe. The most difficult parts of the counting are a) to figure out what birds are “new” and what ones are “ship-followers” just circling the ship and b) see little black & white Dovekies and murres amidst the waves and between whitecaps (as the boat is rocking and rolling and sea spray is covering the windows…).

Northern Fulmar – common well offshore.

Longterm shiplife takes an adjustment, starting with the fact that the floor under your feet is NEVER stable. Now, I prided myself on the fact that I had never been seasick. But two days out we got into (literally) hurricane-force winds that pushed up 5-7 metre swells with individual waves topping 12 meters. At first the captain decided to sit it out and we maintained just enough speed to have steerage. But this resulted in a great deal of pitching and rolling….so, in short, I suffered through my first bouts of seasickness. God what an awful feeling!! (My condolences to those who succumb to it regularly.) So I would do my counts for an hour or so, until I just couldn’t hold it any longer, and then rush to the nearby washroom and puke my guts out and then go back to it. After 4 bouts I said “enough” and retreated to my bunk. The captain also chose to retreat and sought some calmer water in Bonavista Bay. Thankfully, I felt ok the next day….and every day thereafter, even though we had a few more days of high winds and big waves. I guess I had found my “sea legs”. Interestingly, the experience has helped me redefine what a strong wind is: 25-35 knot winds (45-63 km) are actually pretty comfortable and <20 knots I consider a "lull". Now, while the bird species at this time of year were pretty humdrum, the fishing trawls were anything but. The ship was sampling the waters along the edge of and over the Funk Island Bank. It was the deepwater trawls that I was most interested in as many of the creatures I had seen pictures of but had never thought I would see up close and persoal. The project's mandate was to sample fish stocks at a wide variety of "strata" or depths. Here are some of the fish from a trawl at about 1400 m depth (almost 3 kilometers of cable were used to reach this depth): [caption id="attachment_6119" align="aligncenter" width="300"] A gelatinous octupus.[/caption]

A deep water Squid

A type of Lancetfish.

Black Swallower. The massive jaws and enlarged stomach allow this species to swallow prey 2-3 times its size.

Short-spind Tapierfish

Cat Shark

Atlantic Gymnast

Different types of starfish from a deep trawl.

Baby Octopus

Deep water Ogrefish – aptly named I think.

Loose Jaw – the big mouth helps it in its quest for plankton.

And here are some of the fish from shallower trawls (200-400 m):

Redfish – one of the most commonly caught fish we encountered.

Round-nosed Grenadier

Rough-head Grenadier

Large-spine Tapierfish

Turbot was a common catch.

Rough-head Grenadier

Spotted Wolfish

Business end of a Wolfish – note the strong plates on the roof of the mouth for crushing urchins, crabs…and fingers if available.

Broadhead Wolfish

Cod would appear to be making a slow comeback.

Of course, the big beneficiaries from this, in an immediate way, were the birds who feasted on the discards. Being a ship-follower paid off!

There was a big storm forecast for the night of the 9th/10th and at midnight it hit with a vengeance with sustained winds of 50 knots and gusts recorded at >90 knots. All night the ship was rocking and heeled over to such a degree that I had a hard time staying in my bunk. Obviously fishing was impossible in these conditions so the captain decided to cut bait and run. It was the last day anyway – for the fishermen – although I still did counts all the way in (even though my vision was severely curtailed by rocking and rolling and big waves and whitecaps and salt spray on the windows and the bright glare of the sun glancing off the water directly in front of me).

The proverbial lull before the storm.

As we got further south we began to get some protection from islands and headlands and the wind dropped to the point that the last hour and a half approaching St. John’s was quite pleasant, Interestingly, though, there were almost NO birds to be seen in this stretch.

The entrance to St. John’s harbour.

What a wonderful feeling it was to be approaching the harbour – “home” – after a couple of weeks at sea. I thought about how marvellous and exciting it must have been for the crews of the old sailing ships on their runs from the Far East or whaling ships from the south Pacific. They would not have had news from “home” for, in some cases, two or more years. (What a treat it is for me to be able to keep in touch with people via the internet while I’m out. And I complain about a “slow” internet connection…..! Jeez!)

An old lighthouse guarding the mouth of the entrance to St. John’s Harbour.

And what a relief it must have been for the merchant ships during the Second World War to reach the safe havens of St. John’s or Halifax, having run the gauntlet of U-boats.

I mean, I was feeling great about reaching St. John’s and I had only been out for 2 weeks.

City of St. John’s.

Note that the two bright green lights, one above the other, are what are known as a “range”. They are there to help guide ships into the harbour. When they line up, one directly above the other, then you know that you are on the right course. If they are not lined up that way… might have a problem.

This is a day off while there is a crew change. Tomorrow we’ll be heading out again for another 10 days. Maybe there’s a remnant Dodo population waiting to be rediscovered…..

Here’s a few pictures of the “important” parts of the ship:

My berth and home away from home for 24 days.

We had wonderful meals, cooked here, despite tossing seas.

The “wet lab” set up and ready to go.

Part of the fisheries team set to go.

One of two powerful winches that can lay out over 3 km of net cable.

This trawl net used by the team is small compared to those used by commercial fisheries.


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