'Pelagic' is the word used by birders to refer to seabirding trips. It actually means 'of, or relating to, open sea' but birders use it slightly differently.

"What are you doing this weekend?"

"Ah I'm heading down to the 'Gong for the pelagic on Saturday" (Wollongong, obviously).

Most pelagics around Australia follow a similar pattern. At 7 am a bunch of eager and excessively hopeful birders jump on a boat, often boats more frequently used for game fishing. The boat motors out to sea, heading for the continental shelf edge. Depending on the speed of the boat and the distance to the shelf edge, this can be reached in 2 to 4 hours. At the shelf edge, the motors are cut and burley (scraps of fish and sometimes meat) is thrown overboard to attract seabirds. After a couple of hours of burleying, the skipper calls time and the boat heads back to shore, usually arriving back at dry land around 3 or 4 pm.

In the following article I illustrate (with plenty of photos) a typical day on the sea: the types of birds and mammals we often see, the different sea conditions and how that affects what we see, and some of the rarer birds that twitchers get excited about. At the end I will describe some of the common seabirds in a little more depth.

 Photo: http://www.visitnsw.com/things-to-do/tours/freedom-charters

Photo: http://www.visitnsw.com/things-to-do/tours/freedom-charters

The boat

Most boats chartered for birdwatching pelagic trips are game fishing boats that are able to go out as far as the continental shelf edge. Some boats, such as the Connemara (above) run by Freedom Charters and based in Eden, have an upper deck which is great for birdwatchers hoping to spot a rare bird on the horizon. For those photographing birds (and those feeling seasick) the bottom deck near the back of the boat is the best place to be.

 

The trip out

As the boat motors out of the harbor, most experienced seabirders will relax and have a good chinwag with their friends and the skipper. They know that the birds won't get good until further out to sea. Newcomers to seabirding will be looking around eagerly for the first albatross of the day.

Many seabirds are most common further out to sea, but some like the Fluttering Shearwater (below) are more common within a few kilometers of the coast. Often the first albatrosses of the day are also spotted within the first few kilometers of the coast, but are more common further out to sea.

 A flock of Fluttering Shearwaters take off. This species is often found in medium to large flocks.

A flock of Fluttering Shearwaters take off. This species is often found in medium to large flocks.

 Immature Black-browed Albatross against an industrial Port Kembla backdrop.

Immature Black-browed Albatross against an industrial Port Kembla backdrop.

Dolphins are often spotted close to shore, and if you're lucky, you will get a pod of dolphins bow riding on the wave created by the front of the boat. Dolphins seemingly do this for pleasure, as they will often go out of their way to approach the boat and bow ride before leaving and swimming back to where they came from. Most dolphins around eastern Australian waters are either Common Dolphins or Bottlenose Dolphins, although occasionally one may encounter Pantropical Spotted or Spinner's Dolphins. 

 Common Dolphin are probably the most commonly seen dolphin on pelagic trips around eastern Australia.

Common Dolphin are probably the most commonly seen dolphin on pelagic trips around eastern Australia.

At the right time of the year, Humpback Whales can be quite common along the east coast of Australia as they migrate between the warm Queensland waters in winter and the rich sub-Antarctic feeding grounds in summer. Peak whale season in south-eastern Australia is around September to November, as the whales head south, and a pelagic trip around this time usually picks up at least several groups of Humpback Whale. 

 Humpback Whale breaching near Eden, NSW in October.

Humpback Whale breaching near Eden, NSW in October.