Choosing a pelagic trip
We venture out from Half Moon Bay (Pillar Point Harbor), Monterey (Fisherman’s Wharf), Morro Bay (Morro Bay Landing), and Bodega Bay (Porto Bodega). The majority of our trips are from Half Moon Bay and Monterey. Only one or two trips a season are from the southernmost port, Morro Bay, and the northernmost port (Bodega Bay). Pillar Point Harbor is approximately 35 minutes from SFO airport, and is the easiest of the localities to arrive at for anyone flying from other regions. Monterey is approximately two hours south driving from Half Moon Bay. Some weekends there is a Half Moon Bay and a Monterey Bay trip, or sometimes there is a Morro Bay and a Half Moon Bay trip.
Comparing the trips:
TThe Farallon Island trips are only offered in July and early August. This is because Southeast Farallon Island is a breeding colony, and numbers of breeding seabirds are highest in the late summer before the murres begin to fledge, which begins in late July. This is the key spot to find the Tufted Puffin, and several hundred breed on the island. You should expect to see numbers of Common Murres, Pigeon Guillemots as well as Cassin’s and Rhinoceros auklets. The typical trip allows us to spend a couple of hours around the island, also watching the California Sea Lions, Harbor Seals and the growing colony of Northern Fur Seal. Note that visitors are not authorized to land on the Farallons, so we will do all of our observation from the boat. Once we leave the island, weather dependent we will head to deeper water looking for Black-footed Albatross, shearwaters and other seabirds. Sometimes en route or in the deep water we have the chance to find Humpback and Blue whales, as well as dolphins. Apart from the Tufted Puffins, the Farallon Islands have been quite reliable in recent years for Brown Booby, and sometimes the Northern Gannet that lives in the area is found here. We have also seen Blue-footed Booby in recent years, but that species is less reliable. Great White Shark is a possibility, although this is not to be expected, as we are there earlier in the season than their peak.
The Farallon Islands are distant, it takes 3 hours to get to Southeast Farallon Island. In the morning on the way to the Farallons, we may be moving against the wind and wave. If weather is good, this will not be an issue. If the weather is choppy, we may need to slow down, lengthening the time to get to the islands. Once there, we do have sheltered areas where we can watch, even in choppy weather. The trip from Half Moon Bay has the advantage that on the way back to port, the wind and waves are at our back, allowing for a much smoother ride. Note that some (other) tours head out from the Golden Gate. The angles of travel there are such that you often have the winds and wave sideways to you on the way out and in! If the weather is too choppy, we will not be able to get to the islands, this can sometimes happen. This is a 10-hour trip.
Summary: This is a trip with a specific destination. Seeing Southeast Farallon Islands is worth it by itself. On the bird front, the keys are Tufted Puffins, and tens of thousands of murres. A Brown Booby is a distinct possibility. Trip length – 10 hours, leaving at 7 am.
Half Moon Bay:
From Pillar Point Harbor, north of Half Moon Bay we have nice access to a deep-water region called the Pioneer Canyon. Most of our trips head NW towards the deep water off the edge of the continental shelf. Then we head south crossing the Pioneer Canyon and birding in these deeper waters before heading back to port. The classic Half Moon Bay trips are called Pioneer Canyon on our website. The Summer Pelagic is also a visit to the Pioneer Canyon, but earlier in the season than other trips. The San Francisco County Pelagic trip attempts to stay within deep water of San Francisco county, so it heads a bit more to the north and offshore. Similarly, the trip labelled San Mateo County Pelagic is shifted to the south (weather permitting), so we head straight out to the deep water and then move south from there. All trips from Half Moon Bay aim to head offshore to deep waters, they vary in how north or south shifted our route will be. On particularly choppy or windy days, we may be limited to heading NW and minimizing our southern component, as wind and waves tend to come from the NW here. All trips are 10 hours long.
Half Moon Bay has become a hotspot for pelagic birding since we started going out in 2009. Overall, the diversity of birds can be high, and in this last decade or so it has been the better port for finding storm-petrels and storm-petrel flocks. Half Moon Bay has been particularly good as well for finding Laysan Albatross. Whale watching can be great when the food conditions are right, and we often see various dolphins and other cetaceans.
Summary: Half Moon Bay is great for accessibility to the Bay Area, and great and diverse seabirding. It is one of the prime ports for finding storm-petrels. Many rare birds have been found here in the last ten or so years. Trip length – 10 hours, leaving at 7 am.
A pelagic trip out of Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf is perhaps the classic California pelagic trip as at one point nearly all trips left from this port. It is still a popular whale watching destination. The beauty of a Monterey Bay boat trip is that the Monterey Canyon brings very deep water close to shore here. As well daily boats in the area, know where the activity for whales is, and the boats communicate regarding bird sightings as well. As such you can run a shorter trip in Monterey than from other ports. This is the difference between our Monterey Classic and the Monterey Albacore Grounds trips, length, and distance we go offshore. The classic is n 8-hour trip, the albacore grounds a 10-hour trip. The albacore grounds are not a place, and in many years, albacore do not show up in the area. But when they come in, they are a sign of warm and blue colored offshore water coming close to shore – this can be good for rarer seabirds, and warmer water birds from the south.
Monterey is great for being able to get out deep relatively quickly, although the confined nature of the Bay does mean that you do need to travel a bit farther offshore to find the truly deep water birds at times. Historically the north edge of the Canyon was THE spot to find flocks of storm-petrels, but these have now moved farther north, and are best seen from Half Moon Bay or Bodega Bay. Monterey has hosted a great many rare birds over the years, and it is particularly good for Manx Shearwaters mixed in with Black-vented Shearwaters, the latter less frequent farther north. The whale watching is great here, although recently Half Moon Bay has been as active. It is overall a great port for other cetaceans including Risso’s Dolphin, groups of other dolphin species, and sometimes Killer Whale.
Summary: Legendary seabirding area where you can access deep water close to shore. Superb whales, and diverse seabirding. A great port for Black-vented, and sometimes Manx shearwaters. No longer a hot spot for storm-petrels. Trip length – 8 hours on Classic, 10 hours on Albacore Grounds, we leave at 7:30.
This is the southernmost port we work from, and we currently do one trip a year from here although in the future we plan to expand offerings. Being farther south, more readily accessible to folks in Southern California, although it has a distinctively more northern avifauna than trips out of southern California. It can be a nice mix one can see here, including a variety of storm-petrels, or species more associated with northern trips like Flesh-footed Shearwater and South Polar Skua. Key benefit to this trip is that it is not done in a marine sanctuary, as such it is the one trip where we can chum to bring birds in closer to the boat. Great for migrant jaegers, and at these lower latitudes Black-vented Shearwater is expected. We have not been doing trips from here awfully long, as such we are still learning about conditions. We expect that one of these years we will have a warm offshore water plume which could bring in some rarities. Good spot for whales and dolphins as well, and a gorgeous setting as we head out past Morro Rock.
Summary: Easier access to southern Californians and can be done in conjunction with Monterey Bay trip on following day. Nice assortment of birds and marine mammals here, with the benefit that we can chum birds closer to the boat. Trip Length – 10 hours, leaving at 7 am.
Our northernmost trip, and one which we will return as we are not operating there during 2020 unfortunately. This trip heads to the Bodega Canyon and then drops south and over the famed Cordell Bank. Cordell Bank is like a huge flat-topped “mesa” under the ocean. The offshore portion is steep and drops off to very deep water and facilitates much upwelling and a productive ocean here when conditions are right. Perhaps more albatross species have been seen here than any other place in North America, that is including some very rare sightings. It also has been good in recent years, as has Half Moon Bay, for storm petrels. Bodega can be a bit tougher in terms of weather, as it is windier here than points farther south, but the New Sea Angler is a heavy and relatively large boat that handles stronger seas well. There is an air about Bodega and the Cordell Bank that suggests that anything could show up here, and sometimes it has. Also good for cetaceans. Sometimes warm offshore water reaches here more readily than it does farther south, but these conditions vary from year to year.
Summary: Can be very productive when the conditions are right, but weather is more of an issue at this northernmost port. Super for storm-petrels, and albatross numbers, with possibility of a rarity as has occurred in the past. Given possibility for higher seas, perhaps not the trip to take as a beginner, although conditions can also be flat calm here. It is the luck of the draw. Trip length – 10 hours, leaving at 7 am.
Time of Year:
Winter and Spring
In some years we will have one winter trip (Jan or Feb) as well as a spring trip (April or May) from Half Moon Bay. Typical winter species include many Northern Fulmars and perhaps Black-legged Kittiwake which are absent later in the season. Both Black-footed and Laysan Albatross are possible at this time. Very few shearwaters will be seen, but the chance of finding the Short-tailed Shearwater is higher in winter than other times. In spring, we catch the northbound migration of some species. Always wonderful is to see Red and Red-necked phalaropes along with Sabine’s Gull in bright breeding plumages. Similarly, the Rhinoceros Auklets and Common Murres are at their finest during this period. It is also a good time for Laysan Albatross.
Our Farallon Island trips include a few at this time of year. This is when Common Murre numbers are highest at the islands, they can look like bees at the hive there are so many! The summer pelagic trip from Half Moon Bay has had some rare birds in the past, such as the Salvin’s Albatross record in 2014. This is when seabird migration is starting, and we may come up on some unusual species. We are waiting for a Cook’s Petrel invasion one year; July would be the month that this may happen. A very good time to find a Laysan Albatross.
Early August continues to be great on the Farallon Islands, we do not do trips later on in the season as bird numbers there decline drastically after fledging. Yet offshore, this is when things really begin to get hot on pelagics from central California. More migrants pop in, and late August to early September are peak for migrant Arctic Terns, and Long-tailed Jaegers. August seems to be best for northbound Scripps’s and the rarer Craveri’s murrelets. Similarly, storm petrels begin to show up and Black and Wilson’s seem to have an August peak. Laysan Albatross is a good chance, which decreases somewhat in September.
High diversity is the key in September, with continuation of jaeger and tern migration into this month. After puffins fledge from the Farallons, we begin to find them more readily offshore in September. Buller’s Shearwaters begin to show up in greater numbers in September, and late in the month the possibility of Flesh-footed Shearwater increases. Similarly, as the month progresses numbers and likelihood of finding South Polar Skua increases.
Late season pelagics are best for shearwaters, at this point Black-vented reaches more northern spots (in some years), and Flesh-footed and Short-tailed become more likely. Storm petrel flocks can hang in until October in some years. On the other hand, earlier season migrants such as Arctic Tern, Long-tailed Jaeger are less likely, by now Pigeon Guillemots have migrated out. The numbers of Northern Fulmar are building, and while diversity of shearwaters increases, numbers are starting to decline. October is the time of year when some very rare seabirds have shown up though. So while abundance may be lower, the unexpected is always possible.