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Enchanting Oregon seascape offers a hidden look at an abundance of life
Oregon Coast Notes - News

Oregonian PhotoIf you open a field guide to birds, however, you may notice that dozens of Oregon's birds live miles offshore. Many of these species rarely come within view of the coast at all.

Today, I found a side of Oregon I had never expected -- one known only to fishing trawlers and a handful of others.



I stand on a boat's deck, in a simple seascape of blue sky and silky aquamarine water. I have joined a group of birders who charter a boat to the Perpetua Sea Bank, 30 miles off the coast of Newport.

This Oregon -- the Oregon from which you cannot see land -- is a surprising, even enchanting place.

Where I expected emptiness, I find life. Where I expected an absence of landscape, I find a seascape of bright sun, brilliant clouds and water bejeweled with purple and amber jellyfish. Where I expected a day of solitude looking through binoculars, I found new friends...

Someone on the deck shouts out "Albatross, 10 o'clock!" And 20 binoculars move across the bow of the charter boat. A magnificent bird -- wingspan seven feet -- curves into the wind above a distant wave. The tip of his wing glides an inch above the water.

I have heard that seeing an albatross for the first time has an intense effect on people, leaving them breathless or inspiring them in profound ways. Today I saw my first black-footed albatross, and instantly I understood the special place sailors and poets have for these birds...

Some say the last great frontier for Oregon birding is far out at sea, in these waters, or "pelagic" zones. Greg Gillson's pelagic birding tours, which leave from Newport harbor six to eight times a year, have been the main event in Oregon pelagic birding since he started them in 1994.

While we are headed toward the Perpetua Sea Bank, I ask Gillson about the significance of our destination.

"The Perpetua Bank breaks up the otherwise gradually descending seafloor, disrupting currents that flow on the shelf," he says. "These underwater mountains sit right at the interface between the shallow shelf waters and deeper ocean abyss, about 30 miles offshore."

Oregon's sea banks push undercurrents near the surface. This brings a high concentration of fish, attracting seabirds. Their numbers increase during migration, when seabirds move en masse across great distances.

Gillson explains the attraction of pelagic birding.

"Seabirds are so interesting and unique that only a very few people would view them as just a checkmark on their list," he said. "How do these birds survive the stormy weather? How can they live for months, sometimes years, without ever returning to land? What do they eat? Where do they nest?

"Most are fascinated to learn that the birds they see on one trip nest in a variety of places: ... parasitic jaegers on Alaska's arctic tundra, northern fulmars on Aleutian sea cliffs, tufted puffins in burrows on Oregon's offshore islands, black-footed albatrosses on Midway Island and other coral atolls, Buller's shearwaters in New Zealand and Australia, pink-footed shearwaters on islands off Chile, South Polar skuas on Antarctica."

There is something almost esoteric about sea birding; ...

Within a few hours, I have no problem distinguishing a Cassin's auklet ("looks like a potato being chucked through the air") versus a rhinoceros auklet ("looks kinda like a flying football").

We also see dozens of blue sharks moving just beneath the surface. We see other sharks, too, and are even surprised by a humpback whale that surfaces 50 yards from the boat.

Almost at the same time, one of the birding guides, Tim Shelmerdine, notices a giant animal surface. A whale so large that the guide announces he just saw a probable juvenile blue whale, the largest animal on Earth.

We see different species of dolphin, elephant seals -- even the gigantic ocean sunfish, which resembles the head of a fish with a tail, and thousands of jellyfish, in different colors and shapes. The awe of my first albatross extends to the entire sea.

The surface of the ocean is not just an empty canvas of blue on blue. It's alive...

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