Wellington Pelagic

When Michael Szabo made an open invitation in our Facebook group for anyone interested in a pelagic trip out of Wellington, a list of birds seen on a previous trip was included in the post and that was enough to motivate me and I inquired immediately.

I have only been on one pelagic trip before and really wanted to go again.
For those of us not in the know, pelagic means any water in a sea, or lake, that is neither close to the bottom, nor near the shore, can be said to be in the pelagic zone according to  WIKI
The trip I had been on previous was out of Kaikoura in the South Island, I live in the North Island, It was an amazing experience, you simply cant appreciate just how big a Southern Royal Albatross really is till one lands meters away from you  and that trip was one of my highlights of my photography career, but  living in Wellington the cost and time factors involved makes it a bit prohibitive to repeat.
A trip to Kaikoura means three days away from home, accommodation, 2 trips on the cook straight ferry, gas, food, you get the picture.
So here was a chance to see roughly the same birds and be home again that very same day with most of my spending money intact.
Steve had been with me on that first trip and a quick ring confirmed what I had already pretty much knew, he was keen, so we signed our lives away and were added to the team of 15 other keen birders.
The weather was not looking too flash leading up to the trip out to the Cook Straight and I’m the kind of person that gets sea sick in a mai mai (Maori word for duck shooting blind, built manly on terra firma on the waters edge of lakes and ponds)

Worry mingled with the excitement and demanded that my thoughts never strayed far from the upcoming trip and the night before sleep did not come easy, it was a nervous Tony that turned up at the marina in Seaview just on daybreak Sunday morning  to meet the rest of the team.
With the customary greetings over, we boarded the vessel Seafarer II and were introduced to the skipper Jonathan Delich of Cook Straight Fishing Charters and his deckhand Hamish.
We were given the mandatory safety talk, the rundown on what to do in the very unlikely event of the water on the inside of the boat equalling the water on the outside and off out to sea we went.
With the wind up our backsides it was pretty smooth on the way out of the harbour to the open sea of the Cook straight but I could see the lumps of water outside the sheltered harbour fast approaching.
As the light improved the birds started to loom out of the darkness and any thoughts of sea sickness were put aside.

One Bird I had always wanted to photograph since seeing them on TV was the Westland Petrel.
It seems that the entire population of these birds nest just north of Greymouth at Punakaiki on the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand in heavy cover beneath the trees in an area not open to the public (for good reason).No chance of me seeing them there……….. BUT, the list of birds seen last time out included Westland Petrels , so I was hopeful of seeing at least one of these birds out on the open sea.

On the way  we saw a few various species of bird and then out of the gloom a western petrel appeared, clikerty click click went my camera as I desperately tried to centre the bird in my viewfinder, this was no easy feat as the bird was going one way and the boat the other way with me going a third all at the same time.

Checking the preview on the camera confirmed to me the obvious, I was nothing more than a beginner at this game and the images of my prized petrel were nothing more than a smudge of dark rich brown across the preview screen.

I was thinking to myself I hope I get a better chance when the light improves when another flew past, then another and another.

One such various seabird, a young Black back Gull
Please click on the pics for a bigger image and image details.

Black back gull-

Clickerty click, click went the 1D and as we slowly made our way out into the open sea, the petrels followed us and the light improved. I was a happy boy indeed as I wrestled against the conditions trying to capture my precious.

Looking over at Steve I saw he was happily banging away at the birds while simultaneously being tossed around in the back of the boat so I choose to sit on one of the bait boxes on the open deck so I could partially coordinate myself with the motion of the vessel eliminating at least one set of calculations needed to get a steady shot off once and a while.
At last I had some Westland Petrel shots on the scoreboard.

Westland Petrel

Soon we had Bullers, Whitecap and Blackbrow Albatrosses coming up to the boat and the skipper stopped and offered them a squid breakfast and thus a frenzy ensued, this attracted even more birds.
The Bullers Albatross is perhaps the most stunning of the small to medium sized mollymawk family. I had never seen one in real life before. I was mesmerized by their stunning colors and contrast and now my focus was firmly on them.

A Bullers Mollymawk approaches the boat

Bullers Albatorss

The skipper started the boat moving slowly forward while still throwing out the odd squid and fish frame for the birds to gobble, this bought the birds gliding right to the back of the boat flying mere feet from our heads  and this offered up a chance of really close up shots of the birds.

Bullers up close and personal

Bullers Albatorss

A Whitecap mollymawk

White-capped mollymawk -2
Black Brow

Black-browed mollymawk-9387-Edit


Westland Petrel

Westland Petrel


I was in heaven, there were birds everywhere and my memory cards were filling up quickly.

I had NO time to think about being sea sick, my focus was on separating out a single bird out of the melee and tracking it.
Jonathan the skipper had picked up a large fishing vessel out east on the radar and knew it would produce many more birds so we steamed out to it with the other birds in tow.
As we approached this monster ship I could see the larger species of Albatross gliding around waiting for the nets to come aboard, Wandering Albatross and Royal Albatross were wheeling around like they were in some kind of aerial ballet, it was a dream come true.

The sky became filled with birds and it was hard to take it all in.
The skipper knew his stuff, we were told once the net was in the ship and the feast over, he would start feeding feed the birds again and this would attract them all to come to the boat, which it did.
Massive birds almost within arm’s reach glided gracefully past the boat, my arms were aching from holding up the 300 F2.8, sweat dripped down my neck and the salt and sea spray covered my glasses.
I could no longer see clearly through them and the viewfinder was mostly a smudge, it was time to use the force.
I know my camera pretty well now, I know how it operates and I know how it feels when it acquires focus, so I now adapted to feeling the camera and running on instinct rather than seeing the focus sharply through the view finder.
It became that as soon as I felt the camera tighten up and stop searching, bang down went the shutter button, no time to think too much, bang, bang, bang, make it happen.
I was amazed later to find 95% of my shots were perfectly focused.
Ive always been one to track the bird for a period in flight to ensure the camera acquires focus and locks on, but it became clear to me I could not track consistently with the birds going one way, me going another and the boat bobbing up and down and side to side.
Snap shooting was the answer on the day, no mucking around, point, feel, shoot.
With many years as a professional hunter I learnt to know my rifles by touch. I taught myself  to load, unload, fix jams any normal operation of my firearms in the dark with my eyes closed, with photography and my camera the principal is the same, get to know your camera by touch, learn where the buttons are without having to look for them.
Watching TV is a great time to learn.
Get to know the noises it makes when focus is acquired, how it feels in your hands the vibration of the image stabilizer when it locks on.
Soon I was in the zone, even though Im sure a few expletives may have escaped my mouth when I ran out of time to get a shot, missed a chance  or made a mistake.
Steve tapped me on the shoulder and asked, how’s your sea sickness?
I replied, I Had not thought about it since I saw the first Westland Petrel.
I have no idea where those first 3-4 hours out of the 6 we spent out there went.
I am indebted to Michael Szabo for pointing out birds of special interest for me, such as the Short Tailed Sharewater and the Salvins Albatross, yet another first timer for me.

The Salvins mollymark, perhaps not as colorful as the Bullers but pretty cool anyway.

Salvin’s mollymawk-0169-Edit
Black brows and Whitecaps whirled around us, the much bigger Royals and Wandering Albatrosses did wide circles around us and sometimes made strafeing runs right up the middle of our wake to land right behind the boat too close to focus the 300 mil lens.
The action was non stop.
Eventually just before before exhaustion finished me off, we called it quits and started the trip home, stopping along the way to fish and a few good fish came aboard to taken home and eaten by the lucky fisher people.

Black brows whirled around us

Black-browed mollymawk-9354-Edit-Edit

White-capped mollymawk -9511-Edit
A southern Royal Albatross the largest flighted bird in the world following our wake

Southern royal albatross-5285-Edit
Northern Royal Albatross circling us

Northern royal albatross-9915-Edit

Gibsons Albatross , part of the wandering Albatross family

Northern royal albatross--3

A late lunch was served, whole Chicken’s had been cooking on the barbie since we had left the marina and they were ripped apart as it was the humans turn to feast.
The Skipper and the crew did themselves proud; the whole journey was enjoyable, informative and if you weren’t desperate to get heaps of bird shots like I was, relaxed.
We were back home by 130pm
What would have taken 3 days and a heap of hundred dollar bills had we gone to Kaikoura  had taken us less than one day, less than one, one hundred dollar bill and I was back home for a nap in the arvo as the computer down loaded my 2,000 plus images.
It was simply amazing to be able to experience this so close to home, the boat was roomy with enough things to hang onto for support in the chop and the crew were very friendly and helpful.
I just simply cant wait to have another go later on in winter.
How did this trip compare to the Kaikoura trip? It was much better, more bird action hands down and better selection of species.
If your interested and you live in the Wellington area contact me or the crew themselves.
I am hoping to run a couple of workshops with this crew in the future if I get enough interest.

The size of the Southern Royal Albatross can only be appreciated when you are up close, they are massive birds

Southern royal albatross-5231-Edit
the last say  goes to the westlander Im very happy with this shot



7 thoughts on “Wellington Pelagic

  1. Interested in this…possibly 2 of us

    Please send more information

    Would also like advice on a good camera for a beginner. ..not TOO sophisticated for me


    • I will put you on the reserve list as we have a boat load now but I’m sure someone will pull out.

      We are booked for the 30th of July.
      my recommendation would be any mid to upper range digital slr and a 200 mil lens .

      • Thanks Boney

        I am happy to wait

        Later in the year would actually be better for me…. September, October onwards… we are busy renovating the house here at the moment

        I am a keen photographer of the beach and ocean and sea birds, and an awful lot of sunrises over the sea, but all of this is from my phone. I am interested in getting a decent camera capable of catching my photos in much better quality. I am also interested, as a separate topic, in learning about photographing the stars and the moon, the aurora down Dunedin way, etc. and having maybe, a separate appropriate camera for that too….but, essentially I am bogged down here with renovations this year and so far anyway, I haven’t had the time to get into exploring either of these styles of photography

        We live in Auckland but love Wellington, mostly around Seatoun way

        I am very keen on New Zealand birdlife and nature. I am thinking that my brother might be interested in coming on this too… he is very keen on NZ native birdlife and walking and tramping and all of that sort of thing

        Thanks On 26/05/2017 10:45 PM, “Boney Whitefoot Photography” wrote:

        > Tony Fluerty commented: “I will put you on the reserve list as we have a > boat load now but I’m sure someone will pull out.” >

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