Nature Notes

November 18, 2008

Guide to Pelagic Birding: 1. The Basics

Filed under: — Harold Stiver @ 9:42 am

1. The Basics

What to wear:

You need to keep warm and you need to keep dry. Dress in layers for the coldest weather you expect, and you can remove various layers as the temperatures rise. Please bear in mind that it can be very cold at sea, when it is a warm day on land.Waterproof shoes or boots and a two piece rain suit are a must. Make sure your footwear offers good

Don’t forget your sunglasses and sunscreen.

Eat and Drink:

Often there is no food or drink available on board, so remember to bring your own snacks and drinks. If you think you may suffer from seasickness (see below) the traditional fare is saltine crackers. A good breakfast is recommended but avoid greasy or fatty food.

Dealing with Seasickness:

For many years I had no ill effects in the roughest of weather, perhaps feeling a bit superior to some of my less fortunate companions. However, a couple of years ago, I experienced a case of seasickness and, since then, I have taken preventative measures.

I use the patch (Scopolamine) applied the night before and good for a couple of days. It can be bought without a prescription in Canada but not so in the U.S. Alternatives are over the counter medications like Dramamine or alternative remedies like wrist bands.

You can help yourself by getting plenty of sleep the night before you go, have a good breakfast and light snacks throughout the trip. If you experience symptoms, it is best to keep out of the cabin and on deck, and keep your eyes on the horizon.

Photography Basics:

A lens in the range of about 300mm is ideal for photographing seabirds, light enough to handhold and enough reach for a reasonable size image. Canon users often find the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 zoom ideal, while for Nikon users, the Nikkor 200-400mm f/4 is excellent.

For sharp images, a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second or more should be aimed at along with good panning technique.

You need to consider protection of your equipment from spray, salt water can be very corrosive to the metal portions of lenses and camera bodies. I carry some plastic bags and duct tape, and if the need arises, it’s a simple matter to tape the bags around the body and barrel of the lens in a manner which allows you to operate the camera.


Binoculars are a must. Arguments over the best magnification abound, but your favorite pair on land will probably be best at sea.

Scopes are generally not useful although I have seen them used rarely on a gunstock. Many operators will not allow them.

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