Photographing the Ocean’s Winged Wanderers: Pelagic Bird Photography

by Abe Borker | March 27, 2012

© Abe BorkerSeabirds are an oddball group of extremes, and photographing this enigmatic tribe of birds can challenge the best photographers. Collectively defined as birds that depend on marine environments for a part of their life cycle, seabirds are a varied group spanning over 15 families with over 300 species. Within this group are the deepest divers, longest fliers and most invested parents in the breadth of avian diversity. Perhaps because many of these dramatic stories play out at sea or on remote islands, they are largely forgotten or overlooked by the public and wildlife photographers.

The impressive natural history of seabirds is also challenging to capture in still photographs. Pelagic bird photography at its worst can be mind-numbingly static. I attribute this in part to their predominately mono-chromatic plumages, an often unchanging ocean backdrop, and relatively few photographers who take the time to specialize in this environment. As with any other subject, anticipating and creating powerful images comes from a deep understanding of our subjects, and these cryptic birds of offshore environments can be challenging to observe and understand. This article hopes to reduce the learning curve behind photographing pelagic birds and share some tips based on hundreds of hours of photography from ocean going vessels.

Black-footed albatross in flight © Abe Borker

Black Footed Albatross are the most common albatross of the Monterey Submarine Canyon and California coast. Raising a single chick in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands takes over four months. During this period both parents make incredible commuting trips to forage in our coastal upwelling marine environment and return with nutrient rich food for their chick. Canon 7D, 400mm f5.6

The first big obstacle to observing these birds in their native element cruising the high seas is to get there, for most photographers this means pelagic birding trips, whale-watching trips or private charters. As varied as seabirds are, no advice fits all situations.

Most pelagic bird photography is handheld with fast moving subjects. Even when birds are stationary, the boat is moving, and the best (and safest) support on board is usually your own two legs. Rather than recommending any particular shooting gear I’d recommend whatever lightweight hand-held birds in flight kit that works best for you on land. Things happen on the boat so fast that operating your camera needs to be second nature. After a couple trips, being comfortable with a lighter rig is a good time to start experimenting with wielding larger lenses.

White-capped albatross in New Zealand © Abe Borker

A portrait of an inquisitive New Zealand White-Capped Albatross offshore Stewart Island, New Zealand. This bird is brightening its fleshy gape stripe, aggressively ready to lunge for some fish. These albatross quickly approach boats looking for handouts. This proclivity for boats has a tragic downside; an estimated 8,000 are killed in fishing bycatch each year. Canon 7D, 70-200 f2.8IS

Salt is deadly on camera gear, and depending on conditions you and your equipment could get covered in it. Preparation can only go so far, and I would shy from taking out anything on a boat you’re not comfortable replacing. One disposable, inexpensive method of protecting your camera is with copious amounts of saran or cling wrap. When not applied too thick, buttons are easily operable and the plastic provides at least salt spray protection. If you go this route, bring an extra roll for switching batteries and cards. The downside is of course a lack of flexibility for changing lenses, flashes, cards etc. At the very least, a handkerchief to wipe off salt spray or a larger protective sheet of fabric or plastic is a good idea.

Wandering albatross in water © Abe Borker

Wandering Albatross have the largest wingspan of all extant birds, with individuals measured over twelve feet! Only a few places such as the Kaikoura Canyon, off the South Island of New Zealand can guarantee seeing these birds from small boats very close to shore. Leaning over boat the rails with a wide angle lens was the only way to capture this unique perspective. Canon 7D, 17-40mm f/4

More important than photo accessories are some of the creature comforts you may appreciate on a windy wet boat. It’s important to have form fitting foul weather gear (no ponchos!), sturdy waterproof footwear and plenty of warm layers as conditions can be highly variable, but extreme weather can bring great birds and great shooting opportunities.

I’ll touch on seasickness only briefly as the internet is ripe with various forms of advice. If you’re prone to motion sea sickness, take your preparations seriously as it can ruin your day at sea. Take drugs (skip ginger, herbal remedies etc), find one that works for you, talk to your doctor (some are only by prescription such as Scopolimine), and avoid anything that makes you dangerously drowsy. Get plenty of sleep and stay hydrated leading up to the boat trip (no booze, no coffee). Eat a non-greasy, filling breakfast the morning of. Bring lots of your favorite snacks (I like saltines), and force yourself to munch on them if you feel the least bit queasy. If using your camera is contributing to nausea I’d always recommend stopping until your stomach settles and then shooting again. It’s a lot easier to stay in the right when you begin feeling ill than to bring yourself back from the depths of nausea. For one reason or another using Live View on rough days is my own personal kryptonite. If you’re really off the deep end, contribute to the chum, and force yourself to eat a bunch of snacks and water to put something back in your stomach!

Great shearwater © Abe Borker

Each year Great Shearwaters make trans-equatorial migrations around the southern and northern Atlantic. During the summer they can be seen off the eastern seaboard in warm Gulf Stream waters after leaving breeding islands in the southern hemisphere. They find fish and squid amongst floating patches of Sargosso weed (pictured), diving up to 60 feet in search of prey. This bird was photographed around 70mi from Cape May, NJ in the early morning sun above Wilmington Canyon. Canon 40D, 100-400mm

If it’s your first time on the particular boat, pay close attention to any safety orientation, scope out the decks, and note potential hazards and shooting areas. The vessel’s crew likely knows a lot more about your shooting platform, so keep your eyes and ears open. You won’t have time to remember where each step or hatch is when surrounded by photo opportunities, but a fall on a hard deck with all your gear will certainly end your (and perhaps everybody’s) day at sea.

It’s usually worth asking the crew for advice and letting them know what sorts of images you’re looking for. They have a good idea of what you’ll encounter at sea and how. If you’re on a specialized birding or photography trip, be clear about what you’re trying to capture for the best advice. Watch the behavior of different guilds of seabirds to anticipate images. Shearwaters, albatross and other surface feeders or shallow divers come close to the boat for handouts. Deeper divers like alcids and penguins have no interest in vessels so are often just trying to stay out of the way. Food robbers like Jaegers and Skuas are generally attracted by other seabirds, and some species like speedy petrels are usually one pass wonders.

Most life on the ocean can be described as patchy rather than uniform, you may encounter hours of empty horizons and then come upon wildlife and biomass concentrations that dwarf anything you’ve seen on land. When we look out at the blue horizon we see a largely “featureless” landscape, but seabirds see a complex arrangement of prey and oceanographic features. Different seabirds occupy distinct habitats at sea, so pay attention to shifting bird and wildlife communities along subtle oceanographic features. Even the boat you’re on becomes a visual cue for foraging birds. Many boats will “chum” for birds, providing a direct attractant for birds and bringing the action right to the boat. Usually the closest approaching and most photographable birds will come into the chum (usually off the stern). When shooting off the stern, watch out for the wash of the wake as an unsightly background, on the other hand the waves created on the edge of the wake can create some nice backgrounds with breaking waves.

Cook's petrel in flight © Abe Borker

The Cook’s Petrel is a gadfly petrel (genus Pterodroma meaning “winged runner”), the fastest and most exciting fliers on the ocean. These small petrels weigh about half a pound and have an aerodynamic two foot wingspan for optimal soaring and speed. Cook’s petrels seldom follow boats, and are largely nocturnal foragers. Species like these are easily photographed near their home breeding islands where they occur in the thousands like this one near Little Barrier Island in New Zealand. A few can be seen off California on their trans-equatorial non-breeding season migrations. Canon 7D, 400mmf5.6

On medium size vessels (25-100′), the stern is my favorite place to shoot from, you ride lower than up front (getting you better angles on low flying or sitting birds), it’s usually close to the chum, and many birds like to tail boats for miles. Posted at either corner of the stern usually affords some well lit shooting angles. If the stern is directly into the sun I move up to mid-ship to shoot at an angle off the bow without going “up” and losing the lower perspective. If you’re queasy or it’s a very bumpy ride, mid-ship can be the most comfortable and generally keeps you farther from diesel fumes.

On smaller vessels you get a more intimate shooting experience, and can express to the captain exactly how they can ideally position the boat. In these cases, you might be limited as to where you can shoot from, but have much more flexibility on positioning the boat. Also many seabirds are relatively oblivious of small boats and dinghies while staying far away from larger vessels. Very large boats come with significant challenges, but shooting from a fly bridge a hundred feet over the action can also provide unique perspective on large groups of birds. In general, low and small boats are better for photography as seabirds stay relatively close to the surface (except in conditions you’d hardly want to shoot in anyway).

Black-footed albatross © Abe Borker

A Black-footed Albatross glides past a setting sun inside the Farallones Marine Sanctuary about 25 miles from San Francisco. Even less obvious anchors on the horizon can add interest such as mountains, islands, or other vessels. Canon 7D, 400mmf5.6

Many seabirds such as albatross, shearwaters and petrels are masters of dynamic soaring, using ocean currents to fly thousands of miles without a wing beat. Watch this behavior closely, identify the apex of their “barrel rolls” in high wind, and try to capture their poses at these extremes rather than level flight. For active fliers like Jaegers, Gulls and Alcids, the old tips about capturing wings at their full extension holds true and can create more powerful flight photographs.

A big challenge in photographing seabirds is finding powerful compositional elements aside from the bird. Breaking waves, other birds, the horizon or other elements can add depth to what’s often a very static flight photograph. Alternatively, getting in close, cropping the wings and focusing on details also creates a less standard flight shot. Wider angle lenses and short telephotos can alternatively change the perspective and add a sense of depth. My own goal in seabird photography is to get out of the standard flying bird, into a bit of negative space with a blue ocean or sky background.

Sooty sherwater in flight © Abe Borker

Sooty Shearwaters are champions trans-equatorial of migrations. When the timing is right, they descend by the millions on the California Coastal Current. They are incredible dynamic fliers, and in high winds perform beautiful arcing barrel rolls. Photographing one at full tilt does much more to convey their natural history and impressiveness at sea. Canon 7D, 400mmf5.6

Like most photographic pursuits, getting great photos of birds on the ocean requires spending large amounts of time doing it, but hopefully some preparation will help you get the most out of your days at sea. Unfortunately seabirds are one of the most threatened groups of birds, with 28% facing extinctions, including 17 of the world’s 22 species of albatross! Creating powerful imagery of these ocean wanderers is a crucial step in ensuring their conservation for generations to come.

About the Author

Abe Borker is a seabird biologist and enthusiast from Santa Cruz, California. Abe had been photographing birds for 15 years before he began researching seabirds at the University of California Santa Cruz. His first boat trip in 2009 onto Monterey Bay with Shearwater Journeys opened his eyes to the joy of watching and photographing pelagic birds. Abe's graduate research on the monitoring of rare and elusive seabirds has led him around the world to remote islands and waters. Despite this, his favorites are those in central California, and the incredible diversity of seabirds in Monterey Bay. Abe is continually amazed by the extreme life histories of seabirds, their ecological significance, and their dire conservation status. In the fall he can be found balancing research and leading pelagic birding trips with Shearwater Journeys from central California.

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