A Northern Gannet shows off its goofy feet just behind the back of the boat.

All At Sea

Birding In the Middle of the Atlantic Ocean


A boat trip many miles out into the ocean in search of sea birds that spend the majority of their lives on thermals and gusts above the swell. Sounded amazing to me! I had wanted to try one of these amazing pelagic birding trips for ages.

I grew up going fishing in the Delaware Bay with my father and I love being out on the water. With my new found love of bird photography this seemed like a no brainer.

Sunrise behind the Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse as we leave Lewes Delaware in the morning.

I disembarked with See Life Paulagics out of Lewes, Delaware. It was November 2012, and I was counting down the days, hoping the weather would hold.

I awoke at 2am. Then, a 3-hour drive to the Atlantic. We had a gorgeous morning under the red of sunrise.

A Nothern Gannet flies so close to the boat you can see the beautiful soft blue eye ring.

Incredible birding began before there was even enough light to take the first photograph with my first sighting of a Great Cormorant on the way out of the port.

A Northern Gannet speeds by just to the side of the boat.
A Northern Gannet cruises by at almost eye level as we head out to sea.

By the time we were cruising by the harbor’s beautiful lighthouse there were a few Northern Gannets already flying by the boat along with the occasional Red-throated Loon and a few small groups of Scoters.

An extreme closeup of a Herring Gull as it hovers over the boat.
Part of the flock following the boat out in the Atlantic Ocean.
A 1st year juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull has very interesting patterns to it’s feathers.

As the 12 hour trip continued, more and more interesting birds started showing up, most of them I was seeing for the first time in my life. They called out a Black-legged Kittiwake that made two quick passes behind the boat, once coming close enough for me to get a good photo. Getting a decent shot was really fun too while trying to keep a flying bird in the frame with a 400mm lens while on a constantly rocking and rolling boat!

Left: A Black-Legged Kittiwake flies by. Right: A Great Shearwater banks along side the boat.

A group of Bonaparte’s Gulls flew by disappointingly far away so that I could barely make them out through the camera only to have another one make a closeup appearance a while later and stare right down at me.

A very striking Bonaparte’s Gull looks down at the boat.

When we reached about 30 miles out (I think that’s what I heard) we came upon a scalloping boat that had a large flock of birds already following it.

Since our trip was all about seeing birds our captain kindly drove directly behind that scallop boat while chumming like crazy and did their best to steal as many birds as possible. It was a success! Leading up to this point I had gotten a few far away and not to decent photos of the Great Shearwater.

A Great Shearwater effortlessly hangs in mid air.

After this boat maneuver we ended up having so many of these beautiful birds all around us I almost got tired of taking photos. Left, right, above, even below in the water, Great Shearwaters were flying everywhere as gulls swooped in and Northern Gannets dove from above, the action was intense and there were photographs to be had everywhere. It was one of the most exciting birding experience of my life!

A handsome adult Great Black-backed Gull.

After about an hour or so of the intense action things started to mellow out as we headed back to port. At this point we still had a good number and variety of birds following the boat but the light had gotten a little worse for photography so I just watched these amazing birds follow the boat. It baffles me how the Great Shearwater can be flying into the wind, up and down with the waves, keeping barely inches off the surface and keep up with the moving boat all while barely flapping it’s wings, what an amazing flier. Getting the chance to see these birds up close and to watch their flying skills it is easy to see how so many different birds have adapted to life on the ocean.

Another Great Shearwater shows off its beautiful pink feet as it lands in the ocean

Watching the sun rise and set from out on the water was another great perk of the trip. Once it was dark I went into the cabin to rest my eyes for a bit, not to mention my feet, it’s not easy standing on a rocking boat all day but you really don’t notice it until the end. I got the chance to meet some great people, enjoy a day on the ocean, and see and photograph some amazing birds, it was a perfect trip. I highly recommend looking into a trip with See Life Paulagics and maybe I’ll see you on one since I’ll definitely be doing this again.

A Great Shearwater frantically tries to get some of the chum.

Ray Hennessy is a professional wedding and portrait photographer based in Clementon, NJ. Nature photography takes up swathes of his spare time. Previously on Vantage, Ray has written about photographing snow geese and tiny critters. Follow him on Flickr, 500px, Twitter,Instagram and Facebook.


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