Watching Wildlife Is A Highlight Of Our First Weeks

Category: General Article

Back to Voyage of the Oceanus

Tuesday, March 1, 2016
Submitted by Brandon Ford

GPS Coordinates to Bedoga Bay, California: 38.324444, -123.038611

A hint of daylight outlined the hills of the coast to port when I saw the first dorsal fin out of the corner of my eye. In the pre-dawn light, it looked small and black. Then I saw it again, this time right where I was looking. The dorsal fin surfaced a third time with a companion. They easily kept pace with Oceanus as she sailed south at seven knots. Three more dorsal fins surfaced on the starboard side of the boat. As the sky grew lighter, more and larger dorsal fins surfaced at regular intervals. Soon there were several dolphins on each side of Oceanus, some leaping clear of the water, tails pumping, looking at me and the boat.

Just before dawn broke over the California coast, dozens of what I could now see were Pacific whitesided dolphins played in the bow wake and raced next to the boat. Every few seconds one of them leaped three or four feet into the air. I watched as five or six at a time would surface in unison next to each other and look at me.

Groups of six or eight dolphins leaped down the face of a wave to join the rest of the pod at play with my 22,000-pound boat. At its peak, I could see more than two dozen dolphins streaking alongside. Some were so close I could almost touch them if I stretched my arm out as far as I could reach. But I didn’t; I was afraid to break the spell of this magic moment. I hoped the dolphins would stay with us until Virginia woke up for her watch, but as the sun finally broke over the hills they disappeared.

Close encounters with marine wildlife was a highlight of our first two weeks sailing south from Oregon. Sea birds are our almost constant companions while at sea. Even 20 or 30 miles off the coast there is usually at least one in sight.

As we left Newport, Oregon, on February 7, we were surrounded by common murres, their sharp beaks, stubby wings and black and white markings make them look a lot like penguins. Gulls and auklets also fished in the big swells as we motored past hundreds of crab pot buoys leaving Newport.

The Journey South

We set a course southwest until we were 20 miles offshore in water deeper than 400 feet. We needed to be that far out to avoid the crab pots before night fell and we couldn’t see them. Wrapping a crab pot line around our propeller is a very real and dangerous hazard we wanted to completely avoid. Then we turned south.

The first night was clear and not as cold as we expected. Far from any artificial lights, the stars shown bright. During my four-hour watch, which started at 2 a.m., I saw six meteors. The next morning my wife said she saw several as well, one with a long tail like a comet.

Around noon the next day we sailed into California waters as we crossed latitude 42, which marks the border. Out this far in the ocean, where land is barely visible, the albatross is the most common seabird we encountered. Its long, narrow wings are made for near effortless soaring above the wave tops. When they saw the boat they would usually change course for a closer look.

I looked forward to more stars when I came on watch at 2 a.m. on the second night, but clouds obscured my view. The crescent moon and stars cast just enough light through the clouds that I could watch our bow wave streak by as Oceanus coursed down the face of the waves. Small green flashes twinkled as our passage disturbed bioluminescent creatures. When I looked astern I could see a faint blue-green trail of bioluminescence in our wake like a miniature Milky Way.

On our third day the wind died and the swell dropped to its smallest of the voyage. With the calm came fog. We motored through it with a bubble of visibility that extended only 50 feet around us. A fur seal watched us pass as it reclined in the water with its flippers and head extended above the surface to save body heat.

Paul, a friend who helped us sail to California, came on deck, grabbed the air horn from its pocket in the cockpit and headed to the foredeck to stand bow watch. He came back an hour or so later and asked if I saw another fur seal leaping out of the water. Sadly, I missed it.

The most common pinniped we saw while we lived in Oregon was the California sea lion. Now that we are in California we see fewer of them. Go figure. In Bodega Bay (the setting for "Alfred Hitchcock’s horror movie THE BIRDS) we only saw one. He (we know it was a male because he was barking) was making a nuisance of himself panhandling for fish as a local fishing boat unloaded its catch. Once the fishing boat left, so did the barking sea lion.