Pelagic Photography

September 22, 2013  •  1 Comment

The opportunity to photograph typically pelagic birds such as shearwaters, skuas and petrels comes around infrequently.  The reason being that it requires hiring a boat, getting a source of chum ready to induce vomiting by all on board and a hardy bunch of birdwatchers and/or photographers together to make it economically viable. This opportunity arose during August 2013 from Dingle in the form of the famous "Ed's Pelagic". Ed's trips out of Dingle in August generally score Wilson's Petrel (or your money back apparently!), skuas and large shearwaters. With a massive passage of Cory's and Great Shearwaters off the south-west Irish coast tand a trio of Fea's Petrel off Galley Head the previous week, hopes were high of scoring some good species. As kick-off was 8am at Dingle Harbour, I spent the previous day enjoying the good weather and the Dingle Peninsula/Slea Head area. Getting a good nights sleep was important before heading out on the boat the following day in what could be heavy seas.

Herring Gulls on Slea Head

The image above was taken using the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III and the Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens (1/800; f/8; 70mm; ISO 200; +2/3 eV). Slea Head itself is a fantastic place with incredible vistas and windy, narrow roads to test the driving skills. I was fortunate that the day was glorious with some scattered clouds and blue skies. The wind picked up later in the day and some rain came in that night, which was all forecast. I was hoping that the wind would die down the following day and some high cloud would settle in. I think that high cloud when photographing seabirds makes getting the exposure correct much easier. When in a seabird comes flying in at speed towards a small boat being thrown about by the North Atlantic swell, the last thing one needs to be fumbling around with is exposure compensation!

(Looking across at the Blaskets (An Fear Marbh) - taken with the iPhone 4)

The following day, the day of the pelagic, was calm, zero cloud cover...but lumpy. This was going to be challenging. The problems with working from a platform that moves about unpredictably, gets turned by the tide and waves into the glaring sun are many. Getting the settings on the camera correct, keeping the subject in-frame and in-focus, not getting the gear hit with spray and rogue waves(!), and not falling over when concentrating on taking an image - these are just a few things to think about. The biggest enemy on this day was the glaring sun...there was no cloud cover which made judging the exposure difficult against the water. The bounce of the light from the waves illuminated everything quite harshly. I was hoping for some cloud but alas, it never arrived. 

We did see some nice species such as Sabine's Gull, Great Skua, Sooty Shearwater, Great Shearwater, Manx Shearwater, Blue Fulmar, Storm Petrel and a single Wilson's Storm Petrel. The swell was lumpy, not too bad but enough to make locking on to a subject difficult. Another factor which didn't help matters was the amount of Great-blacked Gulls around the boat. This didn't encourage the shearwaters or petrels from staying around the chum for too long. If I get out next year again, I think going further out to avoid the large gulls will be important to hold the smaller seabirds around the boat. 

Some people ask me what lenses I would recommend bringing on such a trip. I would most certainly leave the 500mm in the bag because on a such a small boat, it will be impossible to handhold it. If I was on a larger boat, such as a passenger ferry or cruise liner, then I would use it on a monopod or tripod. I bring a lens with a focal length of 400mm and have the 70-200mm in the bag on a second body for cetacean action. Ideally, I'd have a 300mm f/2.8 or f/4 with a 1.4 extender. This combination works really well apparently, having spoken to fellow photogs who use it. On this trip, I used the 400mm f/5.6L Non-IS lens with the Mark IV body. The 70-200mm f/4 was on the Mark III (full frame). 

Below are a selection of images from the pelagic: 

Sabine's Gull

Great Skua or Bonxie (Stercorarius skua)Great Skua or Bonxie (Stercorarius skua)A Bonxie or Great Skua looking for an easy meal about 5 miles NW of Inistearacht Island off Co. Kerry. For the techies: 1/500, f/9, ISO 200, -0.33 eV, 400mm, back-button focus. Great Great Skua (aka Bonxie)

Great Shearwater (Puffinus gravis)Great Shearwater (Puffinus gravis)The Great Shearwater (Puffinus gravis) is a large shearwater in the seabird family Procellariidae. This species breeds on Nightingale Island, Inaccessible Island, Tristan da Cunha, and Gough Island. It is one of only a few bird species to migrate from breeding grounds in the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern Hemisphere, the normal pattern being the other way round. This shearwater nests in large colonies, laying one white egg in a small burrow or in the open grass. These nests are visited only at night to avoid predation by large gulls.
This shearwater, like the Sooty Shearwater, follows a circular route, moving up the eastern seaboard of first South and then North America, before crossing the Atlantic in August. It can be quite common off the south-western coasts of Great Britain and Ireland before heading back south again, this time down the eastern littoral of the Atlantic.

This bird has the typically "shearing" flight of the genus, dipping from side to side on stiff wings with few wingbeats, the wingtips almost touching the water. Its flight is powerful and direct, with wings held stiff and straight.

The Great Shearwater feeds on fish and squid, which it catches from the surface or by plunge-diving. It readily follows fishing boats, where it indulges in noisy squabbles. This is a gregarious species, which can be seen in large numbers from ships or appropriate headlands. They have a piercing eeyah cry usually given when resting in groups on the water.(wikipedia)

Taken from a boat on a pelagic out of Dingle in August 2013. We were approx. 5 miles NW of Inishtearacht. Always a pleasure to see this species. Incredible to think they breed in South America and spend part of their annual life feeding off the coast of Ireland.

Great Shearwater

Sooty Shearwater

Storm Petrels because petrels are magic....


Northern Fulmar

"Blue" phase Northern Fulmar (from the Northern latitudes)

The above bird images were taken using the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV and the Canon 400mm f/5.6L USM. The camera was set to Aperture Priority, f/8. The exposure compensation was dialled in generally at -0.33eV but this was changed plus/minus as the boat turned into the sun etc. I also was using back-button focus which resulted in me missing a lot of images. I ended up deleting about 98% of images due to camera shake and other factors. The lack of IS on the lens does not lend to the use of back-button focus on a moving platform! For the next trip on such an erratically moving platform, I will switch the camera shutter to focus/expose instead. This should increase the number of keepers on the next pelagic. 


Brian Carruthers(non-registered)
Excellent reading & fantastic photography
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