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Know the West

Cruising the ocean, counting seabirds


The lone-flier screams, resistlessly urges the heart to the whale-way over the stretch of the seas.
--"The Seafarer," an Old English poem, author unknown

At 120 feet wide and 951 feet long, the MS Golden Princess is nearly as big as an aircraft carrier. At 109,000 gross tons, she weighs more than one. She has 15 decks to accommodate 2,600 passengers, and 1,100 crewmembers to attend to their needs. Within her bulk are lounges of varying repute, a casino, a ballroom, a movie theater, a bowling alley, four dining rooms.

On the 14th deck, Todd Hass is overwhelmed. "This is a lot bigger than I thought it would be," he says. He looks down to the water 200 feet below, where a few gulls paddle around. They resemble spilt salt. "There's no way we'll be able to identify any birds if we have to be way up here," he says.

Hass, 44, is the oil spill policy specialist for the Puget Sound Partnership in Olympia, Wash., but his first love is seabirds. He has a Ph.D. for his work on black-capped petrels ("sexy as hell"), and he spent a few years at the University of Washington, studying dead birds washed up on the beach. But spill work doesn't get him out to see birds as much as he'd like, so for the past two springs he has taken a room on a repositioning cruise.

A repositioning cruise is when a ship sails from its winter port to its summer one, or vice versa. It's an inexpensive and stripped-down trip, at least by Golden Princess standards. Over the next 86 hours, she will travel from Los Angeles to Vancouver, B.C., at full speed, all day and all night, up to 60 miles offshore -- more than twice the distance out of most ocean-going birding trips.

For Hass, this is perfect. Spending every hour of daylight on deck, he will document every seabird he sees. The data are vital, he says: Counts along the West Coast show population decreases in some colonies, increases in others. What exactly that means is unclear, and seabirds move so much in space and time that one or two additional surveys might not mean much, covering as they do just a sliver of a vast oceanic basin. But if you ride the boat every year, as Hass plans to do, a more robust dataset starts to form -- one that might give a better sense of distribution patterns. "We're pressing the frontiers of pelagic knowledge," he says. "We're going to a zone that's seldom visited, and we're going systematically to see who is where and when, and in what numbers." Not that his motives are entirely selfless. "If we happen to see a Providence petrel" -- a rare Australian vagrant -- "I'll go nuts."

At 1642 on May 11, the Golden Princess eases from her berth at the World Cruise Center and heads into a gaudy L.A. sun. On the seventh deck, Hass arranges his scope, datasheets, pens, GPS. With him is a crew of distinguished bird personages -- fellow scientists to help with identification, amateurs from Washington hoping to add to their life lists. Other cruise-goers eye us, but few approach, perhaps intimidated by our air of intense preoccupation, cultivated for their benefit. Calls ring out: "Rhinoceros auklet at seven o'clock!" and "Pair of Xantus' murrelets going left to right!" Hass spots a sooty shearwater. Another appears, and another. Soon, a loose tapestry of the slim, dark birds surrounds us, moving subtly past -- gliding, then flapping, gliding, then flapping.

It's an encouraging start. Hass makes no promises, but last year, among other highlights, he saw "crazy numbers" of Cook's petrels. (One or two would be a treat.) Two weeks ago, someone on another cruise saw a short-tailed albatross; fewer than 3,000 of the birds survive. A few weeks before that, on a cruise to Chile, two birders from Portland, Ore., identified a new species of storm petrel, the first such discovery in 89 years.

It was a pair of Oregon birders who first used repositioning cruises to look for seabirds in 1999. But to find the true spiritual father of this endeavor, one must go back to Robert Cushman Murphy. Born in 1887, Murphy was the first American ornithologist to study and popularize seabirds. Rather than rely on specimens taken from land, as most scientists did at the time, the then-curator of the American Museum of Natural History based his research on what he saw at sea, which, after all, is where seabirds spend most of their time.

Murphy's work was driven in part by fear that, if he didn't document the lives of the creatures he loved, the opportunity would be lost. He saw the ocean as the next frontier, writes historian Gary Kroll -- the "true agent in the fate of nations." This made him nervous. Murphy's first voyage in 1912 had been aboard a whaler, and he had seen how efficiently those ships could slaughter their way across the seas. During his younger days, the American West was ravaged by greed and the myth of infinite resources. He didn't want the oceans to suffer that fate.

He saw seas as habitats as highly varied as any on land, marked by differences in temperature and salinity, with seabirds likewise distributed according to their tastes. Some, he observed, seemed to prefer the continental shelf; others, the open sea. "The majority of oceanic birds," he wrote, "are bound as peons to their own specific types of surface water." His hypotheses are still being confirmed. In 2009, the journal PLoS ONE published a study, "From the Eye of the Albatrosses," in which researchers strapped cameras to the backs of black-browed albatrosses on South Georgia Island, in the South Atlantic Ocean, and set them loose. The albatrosses ranged far and wide, as is their wont, and the cameras collected over 12,000 images. The researchers shared the most haunting: a fishing vessel in the distance, fretted by a cloud of birds; an albatross settling in behind a killer whale; albatrosses in formation; an iceberg, gleaming and enormous; a seemingly empty stretch of sea; the moon, almost full.

Gnomic hints, the chance to see as a seabird sees -- these things brought Hass to the Golden Princess. "I love that birds are picking up on things in the ocean that I can't," he says. "Distinguishing signs, determining where to go."

Even so, by day two, I feel like one of Murphy's bound peons myself. The first four hours on deck -- a tease of wind, a twinge in the back -- were but a gentle prelude to the 14-plus-hour per day marathons we are now taking on. When the glare and 50 mile-per-hour winds become too fierce, we seek shelter where the ship's hull forms a windbreak. Large overhead vents pump out pleasantly warm air, but it reeks of diesel. We debate the relative merits of hypothermia versus headaches and nausea. Somehow, we have managed to make a cruise physically exacting. But our reward is a flurry of activity: pomarine and parasitic jaegers, Arctic terns, flocks of red phalaropes, Leach's storm petrels, pink-footed and sooty shearwaters.

Then: "Murphy's!" Hass yells. "Murphy's petrel!"

The gray-brown bird -- first described by Murphy in 1949 -- breeds as far away as New Zealand. It streaks over the waves, impossibly fast on wings like scythes. When it flaps, it does so with quick, cutting strokes. It weaves through spume, and then crests a swell and tilts, and the wind somehow catches it and yanks it up like a kite. It soars high in the air and flashes out of the ship's shadow, and in that bare instant I see the white of its chin, the hint of an M on its wings. It rises, wheels over in a great arc, levels sharply, speeds away.

The encounter lasts maybe four seconds.

When we reach the Washington state line on the third day at 1340, the waters are cold and bare, the winds weak, and the birds stay down. Hass scans nonetheless. "For me, there's a difference between fatigue and boredom," he explains. "Out here, the challenge is always to see the next bird." He once spent eight hours 200 miles off the South Carolina coast. He saw one bird, a belted kingfisher. "I wasn't bored!" he insists. "I mean, I wasn't happy, but I wasn't bored."

The lack of birds, he explains, demonstrates the value of this work. The California Current, vast conveyer of nutrients along the West Coast, is warming, its waters consequently less productive. As the effects ripple through the food web, some seabird distributions have changed, with species from warmer tropical waters seen farther north, and in greater frequencies, while birds from colder waters disappear. Are relatively fewer sooty shearwaters being seen because they are starving to death, or are the birds somewhere else? How can we disentangle the effects of humans from natural variability?

Then: "Albatross! Black-footed!" he calls. "Straight off!"

Reeling from the fumes, I lurch to the scope. After 30 hours at the mast, my eye is so exhausted that it keeps fluttering closed, but I can just pick out the bird's dark shape against a blur of sea and sky. It sweeps towards the ship and examines us. Inwardly I bless it for sparing me the eyestrain.

The black-footed albatross is something of a tragic figure, emblematic both of the past hardships seabirds have endured and the newer ones they face. Most of its breeding colonies are on islands in the central Pacific, although a few nest closer to Japan. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Japanese hunters harvested millions of the birds for their feathers. World War II and its aftermath nearly finished off the rest. On Midway Island from 1955 to 1964, more than 60,000 Laysan and black-footed albatrosses were clubbed or bulldozed to death to prevent collisions with military planes. During the height of the cull, the Navy produced documentaries in which a narrator gently explained why the birds needed to be dispatched for the country's good. They were shown crash-landing in an absurd pile of limbs, or trying to take off, wings bizarrely spread as they plodded along. To a writer in Time, the "goony bird" was an "odd and charming creature which serves no useful purpose at all."

More recently, tens of thousands were killed in Hawaii's long-line tuna fisheries, snagged as they tried to snatch bait from hooks; the population declined by 19 percent in just five years. But mitigation efforts show some promise, and mortality has since dropped by over 80 percent. Perhaps 200,000 are left.

Now, one soars alongside us for a moment, so close that I can step back and watch it with my naked, weeping eye. It outraces the ship without seeming to move and then drifts away, drawn to something unseen. Here, motion is being and being is hunger. The bird coasts down, traces the contour of a wave, then turns into the wind to be borne aloft, and as it does, the tip of its wing brushes the sea, just barely, like a kiss.