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Ask any fisherman

Bering Sea Bird Bonanza

Mike Henry


3:20 am on the Bering Sea: Mike Henry, French roast, Aleutian volcano. Courtesy Mike Henry
Aarrgghh! Three am! It's June 6th, and here in the Bering Sea the sun leaps eagerly into the morning sky. I roll out of bed, barely remembering to use my legs for support, and grabbing my binoculars, make my way up to the top deck, my observation perch for the next 12 hours.

After two sips of Salt Spring Island organic French roast, the reality surrounding me begins to take hold. It's now 3:20, and we are passing through Unimak Pass, a channel midway along the Aleutian archipelago, where the rising sun alongside a snow-capped volcanic mountain throws a deep bronze cast over the waters.

Ppssshhhhtttt!! Startled, I lift my binoculars and, peering down, bring the slicing dorsal fins of five Orcas into focus. Just beyond, another pod, seven strong this time, comes into view. To my right I tally six more pods--more than 60 whales in all, and it's only 3:22 am. While inventories of whales and other marine mammals are part of my job description, seabirds are really my game. Ask any fisherman "Where is the ocean most productive?" and they'll tell you "Follow the birds." Since the northern Pacific Ocean is a crucial migratory terminus during summer for several species of birds and marine mammals, as well as housing a tremendous fisheries industry, it is imperative to collect information that can be used for sound management practice and strong conservation measures.

Turning to my left, I'm about to get my fill: as far as I can see, the sea is black with birds--every direction I turn, as far as I can see. As the vessel cuts a path through the cloud of feathers, Sooty and Short-Tailed Shearwaters taking flight sound like a million bed sheets flapping in the wind. How do you count this many birds?!? One word: exponentially. One hundred, 1,000, 10,000, 100,000 shearwaters make the tally sheets.

What's that flying to the right, little fat things, now pouring into the water, crash, crash, crash, disappearing into the sea? Leaning over a rail, I catch a glimpse of one--white line from the eye, red bill, whitish below, Parakeet Auklet--ummm, 750 sounds about right.

A green blob in the water is headed our way, kelp, a white dot sitting on it, probably an Arctic Tern, too far to tell. Northern Fulmars circle the ship, rafts of Thick-Billed and Common Murres are blotted out by flocks of Crested Auklets that swarm the water's surface, and Leach's and Fork-Tailed Storm-petrels speckle this avian brew. The white dot is closer now, wait a minute, a white patch overlays its forehead, it's an Alaskan specialty, the Aleutian Tern.

Quickly taking stock: a million birds, give or take a hundred thousand--not bad for the last 15 minutes! And on it goes for the next two hours, before the birds finally slow to a trickle.

Sitting back exhausted, I gaze over the glassy gray sea where Pacific white-sided dolphins perform their acrobatic dance, and my mind drifts to endless possibilities lying ahead--the 10,000 Laysan Albatrosses near Attu Island, the chance for Kittlitz's Murrelets, Ross's Gulls, and Whiskered Auklets, and perhaps an encounter with the elusive and treasured Short-Tailed Albatross.
Tufted Puffin. ©Arthur Morris/VIREO

Suddenly a Tufted Puffin flies across the bow and peers over its shoulder at me, as if acknowledging that I now know what it always has--that there's no place quite like this on Earth.