July 17, 2019
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Birdwatching at sea without the sickness

Bob Duchesne | BDN
Bob Duchesne | BDN
Great Shearwaters

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of tossing cookies. For birders, it’s an important question because some of the best birding in September happens several miles out to sea. The Gulf of Maine is filled with unusual birds from the South Atlantic. Boating out to see them is lots of fun. Unfortunately for many, “caution to the wind” isn’t the only thing getting hurled offshore.

The Gulf of Maine is particularly cold, fed by the Labrador Current and bypassed by the warm Gulf Stream. These cold waters encourage the creation of a rich broth of plankton and other nutrients, which draws in an abundance of whales and sea critters.

Many of our summer birds go south in the winter. Conversely, some birds of the South Atlantic come north during their winter. Great shearwaters, sooty shearwaters and Wilson’s storm-petrels nest on islands across the southern oceans, then visit us from July to October. They are joined by our northern hemisphere breeders such as puffins, gannets, phalaropes, fulmars, jaegers and skuas. It’s easy to see why birders are anxious to hop on a boat and go witness this spectacle.

Except for seasickness. Some people are just more prone to it. Take my friend Ralph (not his real name, but it should be). Ralph can get seasick just drinking a glass of water. The motion of the ocean sends him into a fetal position. There are remedies that help; medications, wrist bands and patches. Ralph has defeated them all.

But I’ve noticed recently that Ralph does not get sick on small boats. It has caused me to rethink my wisdom on seasickness. I’m aware that the sea does not have to be rough in order to induce nausea. Gentle swells and fog often turn people greener than a gale does. Seasickness results when fog obscures the ability to see the horizon. Without the horizon, what the eye sees and what the inner ear feels are different. The brain gets confused, shutting down digestion. I postulate that on a small boat, passengers are just a few feet above the sea and the brain can process that visual cue even in a thick fog.

I also ponder that swells can make a small boat swing wildly from side to side, but the distance traveled is shorter than the slow, rhythmic arc one travels when standing on the third deck of a large boat, 30 feet above the sea.

I’ve had the pleasure of going out with Robertson Sea Tours of Milbridge several times this summer. Captains Jaime Robertson and Jim Parker are licensed to take only six passengers on each of their boats. On my last trip, we encountered a pod of 300 white-sided dolphins, a few ocean sunfish known as Mola-Mola and a couple of basking sharks. On a small boat, you can get so close to the birds and sea life that you can practically touch them — an experience well worth a few extra bucks.

Big boats have big advantages. Some of Maine’s whale-watching fleet are among the largest and fastest in North America. They speed to the whaling grounds and handle big waves better. They have galleys and large indoor cabins in case of inclement weather. Passengers are unlikely to get splashed.

But I’ve begun to notice that I witness more seasickness on large boats than I do on small ones, even when the small one is getting tossed around on eight foot swells. I hypothesize that this is just a statistical anomaly. The odds of seeing somebody chumming over the rail are much higher when there are 100 people onboard rather than six. Still, I’ve been on a lot of small boats over the last several years, and I don’t remember anyone revisiting lunch. Since I dearly love going out to sea, I intend to keep experimenting with large and small boats to see if size does matter.

You’ve got a chance to conduct your own experiments on Saturday, Sept. 20. Maine Audubon’s annual pelagic trip takes over one of the big boats from Bar Harbor Whale Watch and chases these sea birds all over the coast from Acadia to Grand Manan. This is a one-of-a-kind once-a-year event. Visit maineaudubon.org for information. The trip draws experts from throughout the region, ready and willing to help you find and identify rare birds. Veterans on the rear of the boat toss chum overboard to attract birds. Hopefully, that’s the only chumming you’ll see.

Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.


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