Binoculars are essential on these trips. Spotting scopes are discouraged because they are only of use if mounted on a shoulder stock, and even then are only useable during the calmest conditions. Scopes also take up valuable space on the boat.
If you are a photographer, we suggest a telephoto lens 300-400 mm in focal length. Shutter speeds of 1/1000 second or higher are necessary for truly sharp photos, so you may have to use fast film or an ISO rating of 200 to 400 on your digital camera. Even if you don’t have a long lens, you may still be able to get some good photos of the seabirds and other marine life we encounter. There are also many opportunities for getting good video coverage of what we see. Remember to stay on the lower deck for stability, whether shooting video or stills.
Winter – Dress warmly, but in layers. Some trips may be bitterly cold. Even if we are having a balmy spell on land, the cold water temperatures offshore can still make for a cold trip. A good two piece rain suit (no ponchos please) and waterproof footwear are essential on these trips.
Spring/Summer/Fall – Layering is suggested. Spring and fall trips may start out on the cool side, but all of our North Carolina trips go to the Gulf Stream, where the surface waters often exceed 80 degrees F in the summer. Shorts and sunscreen are the usual attire on these trips. There is always a chance of getting wet, so be sure to wear something that will dry during the day. A good two piece rainsuit (no unsecured ponchos please – they flap wildly in the breeze!) is helpful should we encounter rough weather or showers.
All Trips – Remember to wear soft-soled shoes on board. Some hiking boots and Teva type sandals are not acceptable because hard soles don’t provide enough traction and dark soles leave marks on the deck. Sunglasses are essential on bright days.
Prevention of Seasickness
Be sure to take any seasickness remedies before you get on the boat. Dramamine, Bonine and Marezine are all available over the counter. Scopolamine (“the patch”) works well for some but requires a prescription. If you weigh less than 150 pounds, you might want to try using half a patch to lessen side effects. (Remember to wash your hands after handling the patch.) Alternatives include ginger root pills and “sea bands” – wrist bands that work by accupressure.
Perhaps the best prevention for seasickness is a good night’s sleep before the trip, followed by a good breakfast, frequent snacking, and a positive attitude.
Here is a link to a blog post by one of our leaders, Nick Bonomo, about seasickness. Good to peruse!
Food & Drink
At present, you need to bring all your food and drink along. In all cases please try to consolidate food and drinks into as few coolers as possible to maximize deck space on the boat. Because coolers should be kept outside to free up cabin space, Styrofoam coolers are not appropriate for these trips.
While these are indeed birding trips, we do often troll a couple of fishing lines on these offshore ventures. If you are interested in catching a fish, please let us know so that you might participate. On some days,. however, we spend so much time drifting, that it is impractical to do any trolling, so likewise be aware of that. We also seldom fish on the winter trips.
All bait and tackle are provided by the boat. Dolphin – the fish (“Mahi Mahi”) is our most frequent catch, but we do sometimes catch a tuna or wahoo, and occasionally a marlin (all billfish are released on these trips). On some trips we don’t catch anything.
In the past, some conflicts have arisen about fishing either when birders came expecting to catch a fish to take home for dinner and didn’t, or when others were irritated that we spent any time at all fishing. If we do stop to spend several minutes fighting a big fish (like a tuna or Blue Marlin) or catching several smaller fish, we will compensate that “lost time” by staying a little later and/or sharing some of the catch.
In some cases, fishing time isn’t lost time anyway. We’ve often enjoyed good looks at a variety of pelagic birds around feeding schools of Yellowfin Tuna, and curious tropicbirds have been known to appear overhead when a fish was being fought.
Nevertheless if you have a strong aversion to fishing, we suggest that you not sign up for these trips, but be advised that you will be very hard-pressed to find any North Carolina pelagic trips where there is absolutely no fishing.
What to Expect From Our Pelagic Trips
When you go on one of our pelagic trips, you can be assured that we will do our best to make it as productive as possible. We will use our many years of experience (which includes understanding the movements of currents) to find the best places to go birding on any particular day.
Generally, on the East Coast, we have to travel a lot farther to reach the edge of the continental shelf (where the real pelagic birds occur) than one has to go off the West Coast. Off North Carolina’s Outer Banks, this means that we usually spend at least two hours running at full cruising speed to reach productive waters. (Note – off Virginia Beach the shelf is even wider and we may run for twice as long.) When we reach a productive area (usually, but not always at the shelf edge) we slow down to a pace at which we can scan for birds. When we spot birds (or cetaceans, or other marine life for that matter) we make an announcement over the boat’s P.A. system to alert folks on deck, and if possible, try to get the boat in a better position to see what has been spotted.
During the winter, we do a lot of chumming which attracts some species (including gulls, gannets, fulmars and Great Skuas) quite close to the boat. During the warmer months, we don’t do so much chumming, although we often put out a little fish oil from the stern of the boat. This sometimes helps us to get closer looks at some of the tubenoses when they come in to investigate the scent. We’ve found that because there are usually no gulls offshore in summer and because the shearwaters are usually unresponsive to our tossing scraps off the stern, that some methods of chumming which work in other parts of the world (usually in cooler waters) are not as effective on our Gulf Stream trips.
One thing that we do during the warmer months that is not done on pelagic trips in cooler waters is to troll baits and lures behind the boat in order to catch a few fish. This adds to the excitement of the trip when a fish is hooked, and it gives the crew of the boat an opportunity to show us what they do for a living. As a result we get to see some species that we otherwise may not see, like dolphin (the fish, also known as mahi-mahi), yellowfin tuna, wahoo, and occasionally Blue and/or White Marlin. Some days we might not even get a bite but on other days we get to take home some fish for dinner as a result of our efforts. We do make it a point to release the marlin that we hook though. If we spend a long time fighting a fish or if we stop to catch a school of smaller fish, the crew makes up for this break in our traveling by staying late looking for birds in the afternoon. Consequently, sometimes we don’t get in by 5:00, but rather 5:30 or 6:00. It is also worth mentioning that we’ve had many trips where we caught a lot of fish and also saw great birds. On May 29, 1998 off Oregon Inlet, NC we caught eight (8) big yellowfin tuna (40 – 50 lbs.) and several large dolphin (20+ lbs.) in addition to seeing a Fea’s Petrel and a Bermuda Petrel!
We also take note of cetaceans and other marine life during our pelagic birding trips, and may take a few minutes to study some whales or dolphins, but we don’t tend to stay around for a long time waiting for them to resurface, nor do we follow a particular group or animal for long periods of time. Nevertheless, our trips have yielded some very interesting encounters with various cetaceans, and we have been able to document the occurrence of some rare visitors to our waters.
Although the emphasis of our trips is clearly on birds, what we strive for on our trips is a well-rounded experience with all of the offshore wildlife, be it birds, whales, dolphins, fish, sea turtles, or something else.
The weather has a big impact on how we run our trips too. On calm days it might be possible to chase down a bird or flock of birds for a closer look. On rough days, which are fairly likely in winter, it is often a matter of getting the birds to come closer to us by chumming them in. On rough days it is usually not feasible to pursue birds in the distance, as they will often be gone before we would arrive and a change of course might make for a wet and miserable ride.