At Sea with the Marine Birds of the Raincoast


The following excerpt describes some of Caroline Fox’s time aboard the Achiever, a vessel operated by the Raincoast Conservation Foundation. Her mission was to gather missing information about birds and other wildlife in the path of oil tankers along the B.C. coast should the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline be approved. At Sea with the Marine Birds of the Raincoast by Caroline Fox is published by Rocky Mountain Books.

Out in the rough waters off the North Coast, my seasickness seems a thing of the past. Still within sight of the rocky headlands of the mainland, the bird community abruptly shifts and we enter the waters of the tubenoses, a term that refers to the birds that belong to the order Procellariiformes, which includes albatrosses, fulmars, shearwaters and storm-petrels. Tubenoses, as the name suggests, have bulky nasal passages atop their bills that are primarily used for olfaction. Among the most pelagic of marine birds, many tubenosed species use their sense of smell to find patchily distributed prey in variable marine environments and to navigate their way across the seas. Equipped with glands at the base of its bill that filter salt out of its bloodstream, a tubenose doesn’t require fresh water — a handy adaptation for birds that come to land only to breed. The concentrated salt, in the form of brine, then drains along their bills and drips back into the sea as the “tears of the albatross.”

Before I’m even accustomed to this new, extra-blue world, I sight a member of the tubenose tribe. Sooty shearwaters, the dark, streamlined birds from southern seas with long, narrow and perpetually crooked wings, appear in the deepening seas ahead. At high-flight speeds and in growing abundance, I initially struggle to systematically detect, identify and count their number, but it soon becomes easier; the vast majority are sooties, with the occasional, and virtually identical short-tailed shearwater. Hours pass in their buoyant company, and just as I’m considering a short break, a dark mass appears in my peripheral vision.

Focusing my eyes now on the steep, pelagic-blue waves off to starboard, I see nothing but water. A few seconds pass before I glance again, and just as I do, a brown giant soars up and out of the wave troughs: a black-footed albatross aloft. Only a few metres above the rough seas, the bird makes a slight adjustment to its chocolate wings and is back down in the troughs, gaining speed, before roaring up and above the waves.

Closer now, covering a distance of at least 100 metres in mere seconds, it glides by our boat, directing a persistent, glossy-eyed gaze at me. With eyes that are all at once familiar and unfathomable, I find it easy to understand why sailors sometimes looked on albatrosses as the reborn souls of lost shipmates and as kindred spirits of the deep.

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article: Caroline Fox


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