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I’m a pelagic tragic

Scott Ritchie | Guest contributor

If you’ve never done a pelagic bird trip, do it! I spent Christmas 2022 in Tasmania and started my visit with a pelagic trip.

Karen Dick, local bird guide, kindly organised a pelagic boat trip out of Eaglehawk Neck near Port Arthur. A pelagic trip involves a group of birders who charter a rickety old boat; cruise three hours straight out to the continental shelf; throw smashed and rotting fish into the water; try to avoid falling over and puking; and watch incredible open ocean birds – Pelagic birds.

Rugged up for the journey! Note the dot sight atop my camera.

Two days before the trip was the coldest December day in 50 years in Hobart (a high of 11°C!) and spitting rain. Karen had warned us to come prepared for cold and wet. I had multiple layers on: thermals and a rain jacket. I covered my head in a Peruvian alpaca beanie – it looks silly but really works. I wrapped the camera, my trusty Canon R5 with the 100–500 RF lens, in cling-wrap to protect it from saltwater spray.

We left at seven in the morning on the Pauletta, a good solid boat manned by an experienced captain and his first mate. We went straight out on the open ocean for three hours, with good birding along the way. Black-faced Cormorants, Australian Fur Seals, and a White-bellied Sea Eagle being harassed by gulls kept us entertained. Large numbers of diving Short-tailed Shearwaters were seen on the distant horizon.

Once we got near the target area, the first mate released a metal cage, containing pulverised fish, that we towed to create a burley trail. Seabirds began appearing, with the first view of a Shy Albatross off the port side generating a call of “Shy Albatross, two o’clock low” from Peter Vaughan, the tour leader. Frantic raising of binoculars and telephotos ensued.

As more birds arrived, we anchored and increased burleying. Shy Albatross sailed by and various seabirds approached the boat, keen for a feast of fish. The seas rose, and fell. Again, and again. I had a seat on a padded middle counsel, otherwise it would have been me in the drink! I took a sea-sickness pill and survived. The bloke next to me was not so lucky. “Hold my camera while I go puke!” he said. The idea of trying to follow passing birds through the viewfinder from a rocking boat made my stomach turn. Birds were flying past like balls in a pinball machine.

Northern Giant Petrel salivates over burley

To take pictures of these video parlour birds I used my PDG dot sight. Dot sights sit above the camera on the hot shoe. A small viewing glass has a lit dot that you put on the target bird. As the whole field of view is present, it’s easy to find, target and follow birds in flight. The camera autofocus does the rest. I was using a Canon R5, with 100–500 RF zoom lens, shooting in Electronic Shutter to get as many shots as possible. And believe me, there were a lot! With nearly constant flybys and dives, I felt like a tail gunner in a Lancaster bomber.

Peter called out the birds which was a huge asset (he tallied 26 species / variants!). I especially liked the small birds (the Prions and Storm Petrels) that dipped between towering waves. The cute little Wilson’s Storm Petrel and White-faced Storm Petrel literally danced across the surface of the water between wave sets, picking up small pieces of burleyed fish. They then dashed duck-like across the water surface to take flight before the next wave crashed down on them. Amazing fellows. The Antarctic Prion was a real challenge to shoot (with camera) as it flew just over the water surface, knifing through the air at high speed, beautifully camouflaged against the forbidding grey waves.

A few lessons learned…. The cling-wrap helped keep the camera dry. But most of the experienced birders did not use any protection for their equipment. I asked one what she did to protect her camera from salt spray: “I give it a thorough wiping with a moist cloth when I get back”.

The cling-wrap also restricted my ability to change settings. For the most part this wasn’t an issue as the light was consistent. However, some birds were sparkling white, such as the Wandering Albatross, and I really needed to stop down a couple of stops to prevent blowing out the whites. The cling-wrap made this impossible to do ‘on the fly’. Bird photographer Melissa Groo uses a clear shower cap: works well over the camera body to keep it dry.

The 100–500 lens offered flexibility and just enough reach. The dot sight performed very well and I would never have got the good images of the Storm Petrels and Prions that I obtained without it. That said, as the day wore on, the battery of the dot sight tired, the sky brightened, and I had a hard time picking the dot sight target against the sky. But by then I was pretty buggered anyway.

It was incredible trip. I went through 2¼ 128-GB memory cards, three batteries, and one body (mine). I am now a Pelagic Tragic.

Here are some of my favourite pics from the trip.

The Pauletta at dock

Wilson’s Storm Petrel dances across the waves

Antarctic Prion navigates the seas

A Shy Albatross cruises behind the surf

Shy Albatross points the way


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