Southern California Pelagic from San Diego Sept 4th-7th 2003

Published by Surfbirds Admin (surfbirds AT


On Board the Searcher

If you’ve ever taken a daylong pelagic birding trip out to sea on a slow boat, finally to find that elusive swarm of storm-petrels near the end of the day you were hoping to sort through, when the leader mentions the captain needs to go back right now because he has an early date, then you can appreciate the relaxing convenience of an overnight pelagic adventure. In Spring 2003, Searcher Natural History Tours began offering long range pelagic seabird trips out of San Diego, CA. I was on board the Searcher for the first exploratory 3-night Fall trip, September 4 – 7, 2003.

Spring and late summer / early fall are each good times of year to seabird "SoCal". While many birds, like Red-billed Tropicbird and Leach’s Storm-Petrel, can be seen at any time, the Bird Possibility Menu varies somewhat with the seasons. For example, Murphy's and Cook’s Petrels and Xantus’s Murrelets may be easier in Spring, but Fall offers a better chance for Least Storm-Petrels and Craveri’s Murrelets. The usual game plan is to look for known concentrations of birds in areas scouted previously on Searcher fishing trips and to keep an eye out for rarities.


The planned course of the Fall trip was to head due west from San Diego Bay, past San Clemente Island towards deeper waters and temperature breaks at Cortez Bank (a known Tropicbird X about 110 miles from land), go southwest towards warmer Mexican waters and fishing grounds, then east toward Baja California and north past 60 Mile Bank and the Butterfly, an odd-shaped seamount, back to San Diego. The official border zags southwest and is equidistant between islands owned by the U.S. and Mexico, so even when we were 135 miles out to sea and 20 miles south of Ensenada in at our farthest point, well south of the land border, we were still officially in U.S. waters.

In this case, the "X" for all the birds in general is the Searcher itself, out at sea.

Trip organizers and leaders were Walter Wehtje and Don DesJardin. Walter is a Ph.D. candidate, Don is a bird photographer; both are expert seabirders. In addition, volunteer experts on our trip were Todd McGrath and Mary Gustafson (actually a paying passenger), also seasoned pelagickers. These guys are interesting and fun to hang out with.

As we sailed, we searched for temperature breaks, which can mean upwelling of nutrients that creates a symbiotic temperature / depth / fish relationship where birds often congregate. But, in warmer waters, temperature and wind are more important than depth or topography for finding birds. Captain Kevin used temperature "topo" maps to help guide us, and at one point we were in 60.5° water at the continental shelf, relatively cool, on water with a depth of about 2,000 fathoms (6’ / fathom). When we found a temperature break we’d slow down to 10 knots (about 1.2 mph / knot), chum with popcorn and put out tuna oil slicks to attract as many birds as possible closer to the boat. If we found a chasable rarity, we’d make a box pattern and put out a slick to try to flush it into view. This involves traveling so far in one direction and making three 90° turns, say to the left, until you come back to the same area, trying to surround and cover wherever the bird could be.


It’s easy to fly or drive to San Diego; I flew. Airfares vary considerably, depending on when you check and book them. You don’t need much luggage for a Searcher trip, so I minimized to avoid checking anything. Because I changed my flight plans at the last minute and took a one-way flight out of San Diego on Southwest Airlines, my luggage was thoroughly searched when I left and getting through airport security was much more involved than expected. Contrary to rumor, small manicure pocket knives still aren’t allowed in carry ons, although fingernail clippers seem to be. Visit to see what’s really allowable in luggage.

Car rentals aren’t necessary unless you’re planning to go touring on your own before or after a Searcher trip. There are hotel shuttles available to / from the airport, usually free to the hotel, with sometimes a small fee back to the airport. The Fisherman’s Landing dock, where you board the Searcher, and restaurants are within walking distance from the Ramada Inn.

The Ramada Limited San Diego Airport Hotel, 1403 Rosecrantz St. @ N Harbor Dr.,
800-272-6232, 619-225-9461,,, is recommended for its convenient location across the street from the dock. Hotel prices of around $70 for two people are considered budget in San Diego. It’s possible to book ahead and then find a coupon for additional savings, or walk in and get a room for an even better deal. This time I preferred to have a confirmed reservation.

On board Searcher, there are 14 2- and 3-passenger cabins with a/c, bunks, a sink and storage shelves. Bedding is included. There are four bathrooms on the main deck, two with showers. When booking, consider asking for thwartship bunks, beds that go across the boat rather than parallel it; these don’t throw you around as much in rougher seas while you’re sleeping. And Searcher rocks and rolls all day and all night, even in calm seas.

There is an excellent pizza restaurant near the harbor called Pizza Nova, as well as seafood places, and Ramada provides a continental breakfast.

All meals, drinks, fruit and snacks are provided and included while on board the Searcher. Prepared by Chefs Luis and Eddie from Central America, everything borders on gourmet. The crew believes in the "Fillet and Release Program" and we were treated to fresh yellowtail and albacore ceviche with cilantro, among other delicacies. One morning Luis and Eddie baked the best cinnamon rolls I’ve ever eaten. They were moist, cinnamony and warm and they had chocolate chips! Everyone ate at least two! Beer and wine were available, but most people preferred cokes, juice or water, probably to avoid getting seasick.

While any kind of weather could be possible at any time of year, from wind to rain to warm days ranging from 65° to 75°, we expected and got calm sunny conditions. Usually it was shorts and t-shirts weather, but covering up against sunburn was a good idea. I only needed my fleece jacket and rain shell in the evenings when I wanted to stay on the bridge and it was windy and cooler.

Rx and other advice
Calm seas are the best ingredient, but over-the-counter Meclizine seems to be the drug of choice for preventing seasickness on pelagic trips. It’s inexpensive and non-prescription, but I had to ask my pharmacist at Wal-Mart for some from behind the counter. Begin your regiment the night before going on board. It also helps to get a good night’s sleep the night before and to avoid alcohol and eating greasy foods before and during your adventure. Otherwise, it might become more adventurous than you want or need!

Local Tours: Searcher Natural History Tours
Searcher Natural History Tours, based in San Diego, CA, has been operating whalewatching excursions and sportfishing trips to Baja California since 1985. Owners Art Taylor and Celia Condit now also offer three guided pelagic birding tours per year. The first trips were 3- and 4-nights, but future trips will all be 4 nights, 5 days. For information check For a full Spring 2003 trip account see You can also contact Celia at, or 619-226-2403.

Searcher is a 95-foot long 1970 Ditmar-Donaldson Sportfisher style vessel, considered an SUV of boats. They don’t make this kind of boat anymore with wood, only fiberglass. It’s equipped with two 475-horsepower computerized Caterpillar diesel engines, two 60-kilowatt generators and state of the art electronics like GPS navigation, satellite phone service, radar, sonar and a depth sounder. Searcher is a US Coast Guard SOLAS (Safety of Life At Sea) and FCC inspected and certified sportfishing vessel. Searcher carries 1,500 gallons of fresh water and the ability to make fresh water during travel. There are two captains and an ample, friendly crew.

Searcher birding tours are excellent and highly recommended. You’re in very good hands on the Searcher: safety is #1, the boat is well-maintained (right down to the coffee pot in the galley), the crew is professional, courteous, and fun to be around, and it’s fun to be aboard. Not only do you see and learn about a variety of seabirds, there are also numerous fish and marine mammals to watch: seals, dolphins and whales, including Sperm, Baird’s Beaked and Blue Whales. You can even try your hand at sportfishing. The more common seabirds, mammals and fish occur on most tours.


My JanSport Roadrunner is a perfect daypack for pelagic birding and airport time trials. The Roadrunner was designed by birders for birding and is amphibious. Translation: it has its own rainfly onboard. I like the Roadrunner’s compact satchel design that allows me to wear it snugly on one shoulder as I run through airports carrying my Eagle Creek duffel bag. I didn’t need my Roadrunner on deck on the Searcher, but it would’ve been handy if I did, because I can wear it and not accidentally hit other people or hang it easily on the back of a nearby deck chair.,

Warm clothes and sunblock are essential on any sea trip, but you also need versatility. On this trip it was usually hot during the day, but cooled off in the evening. Some people wore Levis, but I don’t see how they did. You never know when you’ll get splashed or accidentally sit down in a puddle from the bait hold, so it’s more fun to wear quick-drying nylon clothing. Zip-off pants make it more convenient to switch leg length if it’s too hot or you start to burn. Be sure to keep covered from the sun and use sunblock liberally. I also wore cotton clothing when flying for extra safety in the event of a crash. Cabela’s has good cottons and Cabela’s and ExOfficio both offer great choices in "fishing" clothes:, I wore a windblock fleece jacket to take the evening chill off and also needed my rain jacket in the wind once, but not my rain pants,, Of course, I also brought a shirt and cap! The captain wanted to trade for my Surfbirds cap, so I ended up with a sturdy Searcher cap.

I also liked my crushable Outdoor Research sun cap and hat with SPF 50 materials, but found a shorter brim is more useful in a hat on a windy boat, The OR hats have chin straps, but for my caps I love my Chums Hat Clip, essentially a cord leash with small alligator clips on either end that attach to your hat and your shirt or jacket. I’ve rescued my hats countless times with it, and anytime I suspect there could be big winds, like on board a fast moving boat, it goes into action.

Scopes and tripods are useless for pelagic birding, so I left them home. Although I usually prefer 10x binocs, 8x s offer a wider field of view and are easier to use on a moving boat, so I bumped down and used Bausch & Lomb Elite 8 x 42 Rainguard binoculars. I switched the scratchy standard strap for a much more comfortable Bushnell Accessory Pack Stretch Neckstrap. Night vision was also a thought for looking at any sea animals and birds that might approach our boat in the dark. Bushnell makes some interesting, if not B&L Elite caliber, night vision equipment, built in Russia,

Although they’re fully waterproof and fogproof, ocean spray can still gum them up, so to keep my binocs clean, I brought a small spray bottle with distilled water and frequently washed them off. When not in use, but still needed at hand I covered them and my digital camera with Op/Tech Bino and Digital Soft Pouches for extra padding and protection. These thick neoprene pouches fit rather securely and are a good addition to my luggage,

Wherever I go, I take a flashlight or three. Since my space was limited, I brought my tiny Black Diamond Ion Headlamp with two LEDs on board the boat. LED lights, while not very good for hiking, work well "around camp". The Ion runs on a 6V Lithium battery that lasts about 15 hours, or Never shine your headlamp in anyone’s eyes, including your dog’s.

I likewise never go anywhere without my Chums eyewear retainers for both my regular eyeglasses and sunglasses. They provide an extra measure of safety for these prized possessions, which I would not do well to lose or break. Now they come in stretchy and quick-drying materials, and Chums isn’t just for glasses any more. Besides Hat Clips, another great Chums product is their handy Lens Cleaning Kit, a compact bottle of good solution and a microfiber cloth, useful on board a seafaring boat,

Rite in the Rain notebooks and All-Weather Pens are standard items for all my birding trips, but are perfect for pelagics. Even when it doesn’t rain or spray much, they’re durable, convenient and fun to use. The notebooks come in many varieties, formats and sizes, from the small Shirt Pockets and Mini, my favorite, to Field Notebooks and large Sketch Books. The pens write upside down, through water and over dirt, whether it’s cold or hot. And they now come in Red, Blue and Black. Never leave home without them!


Because I wasn’t going to tour San Diego, I didn’t need or pursue much logistical information. I had an old Rockwell map of San Diego and Vicinity and I checked for exact locations of the hotel and dock. I also looked at my AAA California/Nevada TourBook (2001) and California map ( for a few details. In case I had a chance to bird nearby I checked Brad Schram’s ABA/Lane Birdfinding Guide: A Birder’s Guide to Southern California (1998). It points out some interesting routes and migrant traps that would be fun to try.

For information about pelagic birding in SoCal I checked this Trip Report on the Surfbirds website "Searching for Southern California’s Seabird Specialties", by Mitch Heindel, found under North America Region, California, Southern California Pelagics.

To identify marine mammals I referred to the "Whale and Dolphin Dive Sequence" pages and species accounts in my new copy of Mammals of North America by Roland W. Kays and Don E. Wilson (2002). There are also good "Bow-riding Dolphins and Whales" pages.

To find seabirds I just had to stay on deck and keep a constant watch, then try to see where everyone else was looking if it wasn’t immediately apparent. To identify birds and for reference on board, I brought my new National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 4th Edition (2002) because it has better seabird pages than Sibley West (The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 2003). I used a standard-sized Fieldfare Field Guide Cover (#2000S) to protect it—it survives in mint condition,

Walter also made his copy of Peter Harrison’s Seabirds: An Identification Guide (1983) available in the galley for everyone, and there were other reference books. Searcher’s video collection and VCR were accessible too. Among the titles: Perfect Storm (no surprise there) and, for whatever reason on every boat I’ve ever traveled on: Top Gun.


Pelagic birding is one of the most difficult categories of the sport you will ever encounter. It takes practice and many of us don’t get to go to sea that often. Visibility can be very poor on overcast days. If it’s sunny, white birds on foam and black birds against waves just blend in. Zinging views of dots far out on a bouncing ocean swell may not give you an ideal view of that next lifer, if you see it at all. There’s also the possibility of getting seasick. You need to study your birds ahead of time. If you know some bird features, habits and characteristic movements, you’ll be ahead in the game

Another point is that although a trip list may be impressive, probably not everybody on the trip actually sees every rarity, or even common birds, and there’s no guarantee that you will either. Sometimes only one person spots something interesting and try as you all might, it can’t be refound or reseen with any satisfaction. Looking for that needle in the haystack is definitely not easy and can be completely frustrating, even when everyone else around you is looking right at it, or says they are! Don’t feel bad if you were below deck hunting for your sunblock when the Bulwer’s Petrel zinged by once or the Blue Whale fluked. The Pacific is the largest ocean on earth and you might just have to come back and try another day.

But, learning a few simple seabirding techniques can enhance your birdfinding and viewing pleasure. To find parked birds sitting on the water, scan the water slowly to check behind the waves. Scanning slowly is the key. Clock directions are used when someone is telling you where they see a bird. The bow of the boat (front) is 12:00, the stern is 6:00, starboard (right) is 3:00 and port (left) is 9:00. How far above the horizon the bird is flying is also used, say, one binocular view above the horizon.

Except in Monterey Bay, with its uncharacteristic abundance of species and individual seabirds close to shore, seabirds are usually few and far between and you need to go out to sea to find them. So, pelagic birding can often mean a mix of long periods of empty ocean watching—or card playing—interspersed with occasional bouts of intense excitement when A BIRD is sighted. Some people call it a crapshoot, since if there are choices, you never know which trip to which destination you should take on a given day to max your chances of seeing the most birds you’re looking for. And it really is like looking for needles in haystacks.

But I like to see it as another Forrest Gump Box of Birding Chocolates: you also never know what you’ll find until you’re out there looking and you’re always bound to see something good—marine mammals, birds, wildlife doing something you never saw them do before, rarities, the Green Flash. That may be one reason why when I looked around on board from time to time, everyone seemed to be laying, sitting or standing around smiling.


At noon on September 4 we boarded Searcher at Fisherman’s Landing, left San Diego Bay and arrived at Cortez Bank around midnight.

Right away I met and talked with Todd about how to tell some of the birds apart. He mentioned that Craveri’s Murrelet has a black chin, longer thinner bill, dusky underwings, and a flatter, more pointed, V-shaped tail. The black on its back also Vs into its white breast as a partial collar. Vs for Craveri’s. Xantus’s have rounder, puffed tails, white chins and white wing linings. Cook’s Petrels have an arcing flight showing white axillary hash marks and can be found near Blue Whales. Stejneger’s Petrels have dark caps. Least Storm-Petrels are bat-like with "no" tails, but their tails are wedge-shaped. They’re tiny, not small, and have a direct flight pattern. Black and Leach’s Storm-Petrels have erratic flight patterns. Got all that?

Todd studies Leach’s Storm-Petrels too. They indicate deeper water, foot-patter when feeding, have an erratic flight and usually a white rump, although dark-rumped ones aren’t necessarily a different species. There are three subspecies, two of which are smaller, generally darker, with shorter, rounder wings (they don’t migrate very far) and live around Guadelupe Island in Mexico. All the rest are the same subspecies, with a slight clinal change from north to south. Todd is writing an identification article for Birding Magazine.

Also at first, Walter showed me around Searcher and took me up to the bridge to meet Captain Kevin and some of the crew. I’d have sworn I saw a pirate among them. He had a big black fish hook earring, but I guess he removed it, because I couldn’t find him again for a photo.

We found California Sea Lions on rocks and plenty of birds flying in the harbor, including Western and Heermann’s Gulls, Brown Pelicans and Elegant Terns. On the way we found Royal, Common and Arctic Terns, Parasitic, Long-tailed and Pomarine Jaegers, Black Storm-Petrels, Pink-footed Shearwaters, Red-necked Phalaropes, a fluking Sperm Whale, an arching Blue Whale—yes, it was blue-green!—and a pod of some 150 Short-nosed Common Dolphins jumping and swimming alongside Searcher. You can usually see about 20% of the dolphins in a pod. Towards the end of the day the leaders called out a Bulwer’s Petrel, a second state record.

Next day when we woke up at Cortez Bank we were virtually Birdless in San Diego. So we headed southwest for warmer waters and the Albacore Grounds, searching for a temperature break. We found tons of Western Gulls, a few beautiful adult Sabine’s Gulls with huge white wing wedges, a right-over-the-boat Red-billed Tropicbird (right at the RBTR X), Red and Red-necked Phalaropes and Leach’s Storm-Petrels. Towards the end of the day was another highlight: a pod of about 20 spouting Baird’s Beaked Whales. I saw one breach. It looked to me like a brown gingerbread animal with part of its face eaten off, but the mammal book shows something entirely different.

It wasn’t all seabirding and mammal watching. The Searcher is a sportfishing boat, so we also put out fishing lines and whenever something was caught the crew yelled "Fish on"! The captain would slow way down until someone could reel in the fish. The fun could all be viewed in the bridge via remote cam / surveillance cameras, more of the high-tech state-of-the-art equipment. And passengers were allowed to bring in the catch. Rumor had it that when you catch your first Albacore, you have to rip out the heart and eat it while it’s still beating. (Possibly a Mayan or Aztec idea, but more likely endemic to Searcher?) Hopefully when it’s your turn you won’t catch an Albacore, but if you do and you eat a little piece of its heart, your friends will think you’re tough. Once underway again, we were treated to fresh Albacore or Yellowtail Tuna ceviche, and if you haven’t tried it yet, it’s the best introduction to ceviche possible.

I also got Green Flash lessons from Walter and the crew. I had the impression that if there was a Green Flash on any given day, the whole horizon would light up and glow green for an instant, and you had to be quick or you’d miss it. As it turns out, you need to watch the setting sun on a flat horizon, like the ocean from aboard Searcher, it happens almost every day, but some displays are much better than others, and you do have to be quick or you’ll miss it. In the instant the sun sets on the horizon, and only at that point, depending on the sky and cloud conditions, there will be a moment when the very top of the setting sun is surrounded by green. It has to do with refraction of the sun’s rays at the horizon. After learning all this, I tried it the first night without success. The second night I tried binocs, but you can’t look directly at the sun with them. You have to keep watching until the sun is almost down to look. That worked best for me, though it took a few tries to get the hang of it.

Saturday morning I woke abruptly to "Red-billed Tropicbird!" on the loudspeaker. We were anchored 135 miles offshore and 20 miles south of Ensenada, but still in US waters and at the Tropicbird X. We found "Comic" Terns, a cross between un-IDed Commons and Arctics, and dark-rumped Leach’s Storm-Petrel. I practiced wave scanning as we began sailing and before Mary spotted a Red-tailed Tropicbird from the stern. It flew away, so we set a slick and made a box pattern to methodically chum and chase it. Red-taileds fly more deliberately than Red-billed Tropicbirds, but it was still a stretch to try to pick it out in the distance among the waves. We could never get very close, and finally abandoned the chase and turned east toward Baja.

After awhile a single Black-footed Albatross approached us quite closely, giving good views and prompting a nice discussion about dark feathers. Dark feathers have melanin so wear better and last longer than lighter-colored feathers. They’re in primary, important feathers because they’re stronger, but they do bleach out in the tropical sun. So, a BF Albatross’s more bleached, whiter appearance is not necessarily all due to age.

We sailed on, heading north, back towards San Diego, past 60-Mile Bank and the Butterfly, looking for the right combination of water temperature, topography and good luck for murrelets. We caught some great fish—Yellowtail and Albacore—and saw gliding flying fish. We found more Red-billed Tropicbirds, put out one last slick, just in case, and chummed Leach’s, Black and a Least Storm-Petrel dot. And at this final Searcher sunset everyone delighted in a fantastic Green Flash display.

The Searcher rocks!

Photos by Elise Faike: Searcher at dock. Surfbirds paraphernalia.

Bonus Tracks
* Other boats I’ve traveled on came nowhere near Searcher standards, a top of the line boat that does things the way they should be done. In fact, they were the total antithesis of Searcher, and it was a wonder they were even operating. (You don’t always know this until you’re on board, and if you book a boat indirectly, the tour company should have known it and chosen another ship.) Anyway, the Tiberon out of Key West, FL to the Dry Tortugas (April 2001 with Field Guides) comes to mind in particular, for a couple of reasons.

Tiberon was not maintained and unsafe—nothing worked or was jerry-rigged. When we boarded—not in the regular harbor, but somewhere else since rumor had it that Tiberon hadn’t paid its harbor fees—there was a jerry-rigged gangplank that was difficult to negotiate. An older lady in our group fell off into the harbor 20’ below and hurt her arm. This was entirely inexcusable and unacceptable, and we wondered what we were getting ourselves into. We kept tripping on the carpet in the galley. And in the Perfect Storm we sailed back to Key West in, the boat leaked big time, not just in our cabin and onto our bunks, but the entire "basement" was also full of water. Its video didn’t work either, but it did have Top Gun. And it had a rude, shady crew. Needless to say, Field Guides dropped this tour from their roster.

The other reason it came to mind is my roommate on Searcher also took one of the same Tiberon trips!