Saturday, July 2, 2016

Britannia Seamount

Some trips don't go quite as smoothly as one would want. For example pelagic seabird trips are notorious for getting cancelled at the last moment by bad weather. There is no point in getting upset, bad weather can make a proposed trip anything from just too uncomfortable to see the birds to downright dangerous. It was bad weather that took sea conditions off Coolangatta from being dangerous, to downright suicidal that caused the postponement of our February 2016 pelagic trip. Cyclone Tatiana was heading right toward where we wanted to go.
Phoenix One at her dock

The Britannia Seamounts are some 200 kms east of Coolangatta in Queensland and the organisers had planned a three night trip starting on the 12th of Feb and getting back into port on the 15th. We watched the weather maps all week and at first it looked promising with storms out over New Caledonian promising steady winds from the east. Sadly, as the week went on the storms grew into two cyclonic centres and moved toward Australia with winds exceeding 65 kph off Coolangatta and stronger toward their centres. Right up to Friday morning there was a chance we would go out but by Friday afternoon, after I had flown up from Melbourne, the trip was called off. We spent Friday night on the boat and then caught the plane back to Melbourne.
Bureau weather map

The twin centres of cyclone Tatiana marked up by Rob Morris. We wanted
to go out to where the right hand corner of the mouth is.

After negotiations with the boat's owners a second booking was made for the weekend starting on the 8th of April. This time the weather goddesses smiled on us and we got out. We boarded the Phoenix One and were allocated our cabins and then went and had a very good meal at one of the dock-side restaurants. The boat left harbour late at night and by morning, when we got on deck before sunrise, we were over the south end of the seamount.
The cabin I shared

and our en suite bathroom

Course for the weekend

The main purpose of the trip was to do research on the unusual storm-petrel that has been found in the area. The organisers had the required permits and the hope was one could be captured and have blood and feather samples taken in the hope that an identification of the bird could be made. As it turned out the birds did not co-operate and none were captured but some were seen on the berley slick behind the boat.
Tahiti Petrel

Arctic Jaeger

Bridled Tern

The trip was still a major success though with more than 20 species of seabirds being seen. Included in that total was the first confirmed sighting for Australia of a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel.
Ventral view of storm-petrel

Dorsal view of storm-petrel

Our track as we tried to catch one of the storm-petrels

Wedge-tailed Shearwater

Gould's Petrel

And besides the birds we also had the excitement of a rare mammal. We had lowered the tender and were attempting to canon-net a storm petrel when whales started rise near the boat. They turned out to be a pod of the very rare Cuvier's Beaked Whale and we got good views and photos of both adult and juvenile whales.
Tender with Cuvier's whale in the background

Head of Cuvier's Whale

Markings on back of whale

Whale and young

The next morning we were further north, over the Brisbane Seamount, and the birding was fairly quiet. We had hoped for more of the undescribed storm-petrels but none were in sight. Any bird approaching the boat was carefully watched as other rare birds had been reported from this region on past trips but all was quiet until Rohan suddenly called the Band-rumped Storm-Petrel and the usual panic started to make sure all on board saw it and that confirming photos were taken. It is not every day that a new bird for Australia is seen.
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel

Providence Petrel

Flesh-footed Shearwater

 All images & text © Jenny Spry