Giants of the sea

Punta Arenas, August 2011

I’m with my brother Noam on the seafront, and we’re looking for something exciting. The water just in front of us is the mythical Strait of Magellan, not a bad start but what we’re really after is birds. Our dad stayed behind. Yesterday, our mom and Kevin, my other brother, were stopped at the border in Santiago Airport. In Chile, a minor doesn’t have the right to leave the country with only one parent if he entered it with both. Dad has to visit the police station and a solicitor to sign the paper that would release mom and Kevin, but we cannot help. We brave the icy wind and walk.

In the distance, we see gulls flying along the shore, against the wind. After a minute, we conclude that they are actually not doing any progress, the wind is too strong. Then a large dark shape glides past without any apparent effort. It’s a giant petrel, probably a Northern giant petrel (Macronectes halli), and it’s the first time we see something so close to an albatross.

My brothers are sailors (I escaped that fate thanks to mononucleosis). Kevin, in particular, is obsessed with the Southern Ocean. He wants to participate in the Vendée Globe, the greatest of all races, a non-stop circumnavigation of the Earth without assistance. Albatrosses are well-known by those sailors, as they meet on their respective voyages far south. That’s probably why, combined with my love for birds, these giants hold a special place in our hearts.

Fast-forward 7 years.

Kaikoura, November 2018

The small settlement of Kaikoura is reknown for its marine wildlife tours, and for a reason: its rich waters attract whales, dolphins and seabirds close to shore. Why? We’ll need to dive to explain it. A continuation of the Kermadec Trench, the Hikurangi Trench is located where the thick oceanic Hikurangi Plateau subducts beneath continental crust of the Indo-Australian Plate, and it ends near Kaikoura. There, the seabed rises steeply, and winds and tides bring squids and other deep-water creatures close to the surface. A feast for predators such as Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus), the largest toothed whale, or Antipodean albatrosses (Diomedea antipodensis).

Many wildlife watching companies operate from Kaikoura, targeting different animals or offering different activities (Whales or dolphins, by plane or swimming, etc). Of course, what I was interested in was the Albatross Encounter tour!

I had driven the day before from Picton, after crossing the Cook Strait from Wellington. It had been a windy ride, with short-lived but brutal rain showers, however, when I arrived in Kaikoura, the sun was shining. I had not booked any tour in advance, so I went to the office to enquire. They informed me that all tours for the day had to be cancelled because of the stormy weather, but that the morrow looked alright (to be confirmed). I secured a spot on the 6AM outing, hoped and went for a walk at the end of the Kaikoura Peninsula.

Kaikoura is a stunning place where worlds collide and merge. From the shore, the ocean extends until the horizon, but if one turns back, they can see the Kaikoura mountain ranges towering above them, two parallel, snow-capped ranges separated by the Clarence River. Their steep slopes only offer a brief flat space before diving deep into the Pacific Ocean. Around 1500 meters above sea-level, in the Seaward Range of the Kaikoura mountains, nest the Hutton’s shearwater (Puffinus huttoni). This endangered seabird, the only one to nest in subalpine and alpine habitat, used to dig its burrows in the Inland Range as well, but introduced pigs, deer and goats have destroyed six of the eight colonies discovered in 1964. An artificial colony has been established on the Kaikoura Peninsula, at a much lower altitude. Surrounded by a predator-proof fence, it is a safeguard measure should the fragile alpine colonies disappear.

Sculpture of a Hutton’s shearwater near the artificial colony

Just below the man-made colony, Silver gulls (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae) gather in the largest colony for this species on the South Island. In November, start of the breeding period, they were all very active.

Silver gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae)
Silver gull
Silver gull
Kelp gull (Larus dominicanus)

Song thrush (Turdus philomelos)

After sunset, I watched the stars in the cloudless sky, then went to bed inside my van.

The morning was sublime: no wind, no cloud, a photographer’s paradise. Even better, we headed out to sea just as the sun was rising, thus colouring the mountain tops with pastel pink. Bliss.

Of course the birds were there as well, for they know that boats often bring food. We were about to do some “chumming”, which consists in letting a piece of frozen fish into the water at the back of the boat to attract seabirds. I’m quite unsure on how to feel about this practice: on the one hand, it’s a very artificial way to watch birds (but it’s absolutely exhilarating); on the other, birds are already habituated to following fishing ships, which are much more numerous than tourist boats I believe… so where’s the harm?
I haven’t found much research to enlighten myself, so if you know more on the topic, specifically about seabirds, please let me know. I’ve found this paper that deals with the topic from an ethical point of view, but it’s nothing more than questionnaires and interviews of tourists like me, who say they don’t necessarily like the practice but enjoy seeing seabirds at such a close range (like me, basically).

(Sidenote: on my Subantarctic odyssey, we used chumming near the Chatham Islands while we waited for the Magenta petrel (Pterodroma magentae). See this link for more pictures and more stories)

The first birds in our wake were the Cape petrels (Daption capense), small black and white seabirds that are very common in the southern seas. Because our boat was really low on the water, I was able to make pictures of these birds with the Seaward Range in the background. In the early morning sun, it was properly stunning.

Cape petrel (Daption capense)
Cape petrel
Cape petrel

Then Northern giant petrels joined the fray, an echo of that frigid walk along the Strait of Magellan. These ones are special, they give an impression of power, of aggression… is it because they are big? Is it because they are ugly? They are truly gigantic… well that’s what I thought, until a Southern royal albatross (Diomedea epomophora) appeared out of nowhere and flew by, almost brushing the top of our heads with its immense wings.

Northern giant petrel (Macronectes halli)
Northern giant petrel
Northern giant petrel
Salvin’s albatross (Thalassarche salvini)
Salvin’s albatross
Northern giant petrel
Cape petrel
Cape petrel
Cape petrel
Southern royal albatross (Diomedea epomophora) ?

It’s difficult to describe the feeling induced by watching these birds at such a close range. There’s awe… and the urge to make pictures that do justice to the moment.

We stopped the boat, our skipper put the baitball in the water, and the feast started. Giant petrels had the upper hand until an Antipodean albatross (Diomedea antipodensis) landed on the water, folded its rigid wings and approached. The Antipodean is part of the Wandering albatross “complex” (which taxonomy is still heavily discussed), i.e. the birds with the longest wingspan, with giants measured at 3.7 meters. For those of you used to them, in the Alps for instance, Griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus) only reach about 2.8 meters. Only 😉

Northern giant petrel and Cape petrel
Northern giant petrel
White-chinned petrel (Procellaria aequinoctialis)
White-chinned petrel
Westland petrel (Procellaria westlandica), notice the black bill tip
Salvin’s albatross
Cape petrel
Antipodean albatross (Diomedea antipodensis)

I don’t know how wide our bird was, but it was a superb creature, and a large one indeed.

At this point, light was becoming really harsh, and I thanked myself for choosing the 6AM tour instead of a later one, which would have been pointless in such a clear weather.

Salvin’s albatross in good low warm light
Salvin’s albatross in too harsh light
Northern royal albatross (Diomedea sanfordi)
Greater albatrosses, Diomedea sp.

These hardy seabirds face many threats in a world under growing human pressure. One of the biggest is the introduction of invasive predators to their breeding grounds; on Gough Island, giant mice bleed young albatross alive until death. The birds have never known any predator, so they don’t know how to react to the aggression and let the rodents kill them slowly. On this island, mice kill about 2 million seabird chicks of all species every year.

At sea, fisheries are each year more hungry for fish, and as such, they compete with seabirds. In addition to depleting their food sources, fishing vessels catch seabirds at an alarming rate. Trawl nets swallow the birds that dive for fish. Longlines that extend for kilometers behind the ship are another thing: to this main line are attached hooks with baits, and small seabirds dive for these baits. Albatrosses then come, swallow hook and bait, hooking themselves in the process, and drown. 300,000 seabirds, including 100,000 albatrosses, die this way every year.

There are several efficient methods to prevent seabird bycatch. A bird-scaring line set behind a trawler can reduce the number of birds killed by 99 percent! Regarding longlines, the Hookpod, a small capsule that protects the hook until it reaches a certain depth, prevents seabirds from being caught on the hook. Just like global warming, solutions exist! Unfortunately, not many people involved in fisheries are interested in them. South Africa has enforced mitigation measures that reduced the number of birds killed by its ships from 35,000 in 1996 to 500 today, but Taiwan and China, which represent 2/3 of all offshore fishing vessels, show little to no interest in protecting seabirds, and supply a market that cares not for sustainable fishing.

(Sidenotes: most of these facts above were taken from a story by National Geographic called Lost at Sea: Why the Birds You Don’t See Are Fading Away. It’s a long but good read, I recommend it to you if you have time 🙂 )

A few weeks ago, New Zealand fishing vessels caught four Hector’s dolphins (Cephalorhynchus hectori, Endangered), four New Zealand sea lions (Phocarctos hookeri, Endangered) and five Antipodean albatrosses (Endangered too…). News of this came within one single week, but that’s only what we know of. Forest and Bird, the local bird protection NGO, has been campaigning to enforce the use of cameras on boats, so that we know about all these deaths. Because, guess what, the vessel that caught these albatrosses was operating completely legally (there was an observer on board, that’s how we learnt about the incident). If we start learning about the extent of deaths in legal fisheries, maybe lawmakers will realize something needs to be done.

Just like with other environmental issues around the world, the New Zealand government has been slow to react, possibly influenced by the lobbying of powerful fishing companies.

At the end of our trip off the coast of Kaikoura, after we encountered several Hutton’s shearwaters flying low above the sea, we witnessed a peculiar scene: a New Zealand fur seal (Arctocephalus forsteri) surfacing, a big hoki in its mouth.

Hutton’s shearwater (Puffinus huttoni)
Hutton’s shearwater
Australasian (NZ) fur seal (Arcticophalus forsteri)

That put an end to our short but action-packed tour. Let’s hope they can keep running and find birds out there in the future.


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15 thoughts on “Giants of the sea

  1. Your photos are stunning (as always!)

    I am not sure how I feel about baiting the birds so people can take photos of them…I guess my first reaction was that it goes against leave no trace principles. But as you mention, if birds already follow fishing vessels, then it doesn’t do too much harm. It is a difficult one…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mange tak Hanna! Sangdrossel is one of the several songbirds (stilits, solsort, grønirisk…) imported to NZ from Europe… funny enough, I had never made so good pictures of them than since I’ve come down here 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Well it’s good that you have those lovely birds in your place too, Samuel 😎
      What do you mean by imported? – A deliberate action, like we need song birds on NZ! We want fifty stilits, 200 solsort —-

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great blog and photos. My hubby is Richard Crossley, author of The Crossley ID Guides Series. We’ll be in south Island from Jul 15th – 29th. Did you have other particularly good birding/photography spots. We will stay in Kaikoura 5 days, then drive the West Coast, look for Ocarito Kiwi, head to Stewart Island, end in Queenstown. Thanks if you have time to reply. Deb C

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fantastique ! Le genre de sortie indispensable à tout voyage en NZ ! Je suis déjà content quand je vois mes puffins en Méditerranée alors des albatros, j’imagine même pas dans quel état je serai ! Je me suis interroger de la même façon au sujet du “chumming” (dont j’ignorais le nom). Lors de mes sorties en mer, la façon de procéder n’est pas la même mais la finalité oui : ce sont des poissons qui sont jetés par dessus bord.

    Liked by 1 person

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