Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Peru Pelagic Part 2

Holding on as the boat plowed onward. Note the angle of the horizon!

When I left off the story yesterday, we were in rough waters offshore, about 30 km south of Pucusana, motoring toward Isla Asia, one of Peru's famous guano islands. Along the way we were seeing a lot of interesting things, including large groups of southern sea lions.

Southern sea lion.

Females and young southern sea lions.

We'd already been out for several hours but the trips was not even half over. We were getting cold and wet and various parts of our bodies were aching from the boat pounding the surf and from holding on tightly to the rails. I was standing next to the captain when one of our group asked how much farther we had to go to see the guano islands where the Humboldt's penguin colonies were. It was less than an hour, but several of the group immediately began asking about shortening the trip.

The captain, Stefan, came up with a solution. He would let four of us off at a fishing village, if he could call his partner on the radio phone to make the arrangements with a local fisherman. There was nowhere to dock our boat and no harbor, but he felt confident that a local boatman could be hired to come out beyond the surf line to fetch some of our party. But only four could go. The rest, Stefan pointed out, would be needed to help keep the boat weighted and balanced for the long trip home.

First, however, we needed to get to Isla Asia, where the guano-producing seabird colonies were. We were closer now, and could catch smelly whiffs of the island on the sea air. Birds in the air were coming and going in a beeline to the colony. Just then, a dark cloud caught my eye. Though binocs I could see it was a huge gathering of birds in a feeding frenzy. I shouted and pointed and we set off after it.

What we found there was amazing. Guaney and red-legged cormorants, Peruvian boobies, Peruvian brown pelicans, and Inca terns all swooping and diving after school of fish. Thousands of birds wheeled in the dull-gray sky, above a roiling sea only slightly darker. Squadrons of boobies dove headlong into the surf hitting the water like a cluster of missiles. We watched awestruck until the birds began moving off, the fish that were not eaten having dispersed.

A fine frenzy of feeding.

Soon we reached the Isla Asia. Stefan maneuvered the boat close to shore so we could attempt to take photos and video. I did not get anything much better than documentary images because the light was poor and the boat's motion caused much blurring. So I tried simply to watch with my eyes as much as I could. To take in the spectacle. The stench here was overpowering. Fish and ammonia. I was surprised there was no retching given all the stimuli in that direction.

Humboldt penguins were among the first birds we saw. They looked like stranded cruise ship passengers still in their formal dinner attire.

Humboldt penguins.

Huge numbers of Peruvian brown pelicans were on Isla Asia, doing their part to keep the island covered in white guano.

Peruvian brown pelicans.

Humboldt penguins (front) and Inca terns (back).

Everywhere we looked on the island there were birds, though sometimes we had to look closely to see just how many there were.
Thousands of guanay cormorants on Isla Asia.

Parts of the island were black with birds. Stefan explained that these birds represented just a fraction--only 15%--of the population that was here in the 1920s. Back then there were millions of birds, but then advances in anchovy fishing allowed the local fishermen to over harvest, and the birds' populations crashed and have never recovered. He explained that it has been nearly impossible to get complete protection for the birds and the islands, mostly for political reasons. Stefan and others working for bird conservation, are slowly changing things in Peru for the better. But it's a race against time.

Guanay cormorant pattering to a take off.

In my previous post I mislabeled this species as a guanay cormorant. It's a red-legged cormorant (note red legs).

Isla Asia. The dots are all birds.

Peru's guano islands are uniquely situated to create huge amounts of natural fertilizer. The islands have no vegetation. The climate is dry. And the ocean is rich in oily fish, which makes for LOTS of bird poop. The poop or guano dries on the rocky islands and the nutrients in it are locked inside. It is harvested and used on crops all over the world.

Guano harvesters erected walls to help capture the guano.

As we left Isla Asia, all white-washed rocks and screaming, pooping birds, I thought to myself "What a sh*tty view!"

We motored eastward to the village on the rocky coastline. It was now time to decide who would leave the boat. Just four could leave, and four had to stay. Some polite verbal dancing ensued and four souls prepared to leave the boat. I had already decided to tough it out. I was feeling fine, and, after all, these were my final hours in Peru. May as well live large.

Moments later, a Peruvian fisherman rowed out over the smashing surf to our boat. He took two passengers at a time back to shore. I thought I saw one or two of the guys kiss the sand when they reached terra firma.

The rescuer of our comrades at sea.

Chris Harbard and Chris Knights head to shore.

As Steve Gantlett departed, he snapped a shot of those of us left on the boat. Thinking, perhaps, this shot could be used later on to identify the bodies. Steve, who is the editor of Birding World magazine in the U.K., is an excellent bird photographer. After we both got home, he sent me this image (below) and I have to admit I was shocked at how small the boat looks.

That's me, BOTB, in the orange jacket still aboard the Little Outboard That Could. Photo by Steve Gantlett.

The boat trip home had following seas and winds, so it was a little shorter in duration. It did have quite as much slamming over waves and the trip outward, but for some reason we got a lot wetter. We did not stop for many birds, though we did see a few more Peruvian diving petrels (much too small, shy, and fast to photograph), and a load of bottle-nosed dolphins.
Soon enough the calm waters of the harbor at Pucusana hove into view. It was a happy sight.

Pucusana harbor at long last.

This fisherman had an Inca tern as a live bow ornament.

We spent an hour or so thawing out over a seafood lunch at a cafe on the waterfront. What a pleasure to sit and watch the comings and going of the town and its harbor. The people of Pucusana were very friendly and very interested that we were there to see their birds.

Our lunch spot in Pucusana. ¡Comimos pescado muy rico!

I had Chris Harbard take a snapshot of me at the harbor in Pucusana. I was thinking how odd it felt to be back on dry land. Then I realized I was farther south in the New World than I'd ever been. I was pondering that, in a few hours, I'd be getting on a huge plane and flying back northward, across the equator, through the night, passing over thousands of miles of jungle and ocean and all the people and creatures and wonders they held.

The nasal calls of the Inca terns would soon be replaced in my ears by the sweet whistled songs of northern cardinals. I was leaving Peru with a world of memories inside of me.

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At 11:26 PM, Blogger Sara said...

This post is awesome and riveting !All of your pictures and writing about Peru have been wonderful and I've often felt like I was there too. Sincere thanks for sharing this trip with us, motion sickness and all.
The picture of the Boston Whaler was a real shock ! OHMYGOSH, you were out in the OCEAN with NINE PEOPLE in an 18' Whaler !!!! Dedicated birder's adventure of a lifetime, you are a brave fellow.

At 5:18 AM, Blogger Chris Harbard said...

What a wonderful saga... so well told! Bill, you had me on the edge of my seat, even though I was in the seat next to you for most of the trip! When people ask me how the trip went I simply refer them to your marvellously entertaining blog. Thanks for the memories (and for your company!).

At 6:29 AM, Blogger KatDoc said...

[Ooops! Bonine not working, pass the seasick bag!]

Seriously, Bill, this has been a terrific series, and the pelagic trip really capped it off, but dude - are you CRAZY?!?!?! I thought you were merely brave in Pelagic part 1, but looking at that last photo of your tiny boat, which looks full with 4 guys & Stefan, I truly belive you are certifiable. There is nothing on earth that could induce me to make that trip.

Glad you had fun, but really glad you came back alive. How many Lifers did you see on this trip? And, did you teach the Peruvians your Lifer Waggle dance?

~Kathi, hoping for some nice meatpile photos to settle her stomach

At 6:38 AM, Blogger Jayne said...

What a simply magnificent trip Bill. Thank you so very much for taking us along and writing so eloquently about it all. For those of us who will never see Peru, let alone experience it like you did, it was a pure treat indeed. BRAVO!!

At 8:44 AM, Blogger Julie Zickefoose said...

I'm here on shore with Katdoc, waving our hankies at you in your eensy-weensy boat on rough cold seas. Nooooo thanks. But thanks so much for taking us along, and taking your good camera. This has been extraordinary, and powerful. I feel almost like I've been to Peru.

I found a quote for Bill of the Birds that fits him well:

Boats in the harbor are safe
But that's not what boats are for.

I'm glad you're back in safe harbor, at least for now.

At 8:49 AM, Blogger BT3 said...

Thanks everyone!

It was fun to tell these stories because it gave me a chance to relive the experiences all over again.

Chris: It was a real treat to have a kindred spirit along for the whole Peru trip. Hope we get to go birding together again.

At 10:11 AM, Blogger littleorangeguy said...

"Squadrons of boobies dove headlong into the surf hitting the water like a cluster of missiles."

How do you keep a straight face when you write this stuff? Do you?

All kidding aside, these two posts were the best part of your series for me.

At 11:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the Peruvians really want to encourage eco-tourism and birdo-tourism especially, they will really need to invest in some larger boats, I think. Then I would consider going...So cool to see penguins!!

Thanks for sharing the travel tales - really enjoyed it.


At 3:07 PM, Blogger Mary said...

This is probably my favorite chapter. In this post, I truly felt like Peru is in another world.

The birds are odd and beautiful and I sometimes wondered if you knew their names, or did all of you sit and leaf through field guides :o)

Sea lions and penguins are so sweet looking...and I loved the shi--y photo! Wow. What a ride. Thanks, Bill of The Birds!

At 12:00 AM, Blogger Mundo Azul said...


I just ran into this storry and I feel I have to correct a few things here: The Boston Whaler used for this trip was redesigned and improved for tourism purposes. It can perfectly hold 8 guests plus the driver, even though thats the limit of capacity - we do prefer to go out with six people max but had been urged by Promperu to take out as many as possible. However there was at no time any risk involved. I understand that driving against the wind southwards is little less comfortable than the way back was , but in Peru we do not have storms nor rain and even though the day was not realy calm, it was not a bad weather day either. We have strict self-imposed rules when to leave port and when not to enter. We are making this tour many many times a year for research purposes and know every island rock and wave. I would like to clarify that there is no danger involved at all in this trip. Meanwhile we do have a second and bigger boat in service and are constructing an even bigger one for end of the year. Our tour to the island of Asia is the best marine birdwatching tour in Peru with over 30 species registered and our security measures are the best of all marine operators in terms of life vest quality, engine maintainence, and our own rescue chain. It is not correct either that I would have said survival time in the water is a minute - I am swimming every weekend about an hour or so in the sea for sport. This report gives the impresion we would work like operators in Paracas stucking 40 people like sardines in a tin can into their boat. I dont think thats all fair.

Sorry for having to correct this

Stefan Austerm├╝hle
Nature Expeditions


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