The new year ticked over while I was in Kaikoura, New Zealand, a southern hemisphere version of Monterey. That is to say, a deep submarine canyon veers close to shore and pumps nutrients into the surface waters. Seabirds and whales gather for a year-round feast. Seals lounge on flat mudstone reefs; kelp fronds drape the rocks and anemones tremble in the tidepools. California quail sit on fenceposts, and someone’s even planted Monterey cypress in the park entrance.
I spent new year’s eve (the daylit portion of it, anyway) in a 25-foot boat with Gary Melville, an old fisherman with hair the color of sea spray and hands like cured ham. A deckhand on a tractor backed us down the boat ramp while we were aboard, and Gary gunned the engine as soon as we were floating. The raw windswell was running about 5 feet at 4 seconds, which is to say burly. Gary approached it like a tailback, gunning sideways for openings or slowing to take the unavoidable hit head-on. For 20 minutes, it was all red-billed and black-backed gulls.
At a sudden stop, Gary ran to the stern and I figured Oh Great, engine trouble. But he just opened a metal bucket and flung over a hunk of fish liver in a metal cage. In a few minutes we had Buller’s shearwaters all over us, two-toned gray-and-brown upperwings, clean white below. Then came the others, escalating the armaments: Hutton’s shearwater (endemic to right here); northern giant petrel, shy albatross (two subspecies), and the big kahuna, wandering albatross. By the end, we had a half-dozen of them, the big Antipodean subspecies and the massive Gibson’s subspecies.
They flew in from upwind, carved a clean bottom turn in our wake, wings stretching out past both sides of view in my binoculars, and coasted in through a pile of petrels and shearwaters to take possession. Bigger than a turkey, with massive chest, they were deceptively light on their wings. The biggest one arrived in one swoop past the bait, then calmly hung out its left foot in the water and made a neat pivot like a kayaker catching an eddy.
Not feeling the proper respect from all present, the bird went after its neighbor, a slightly smaller wanderer, by rearing up on its wings and chest-thumping its opponent, then diving in with a beak to the neck. Its point was made, and everyone calmed down. Minor skirmishes distracted the albatrosses’ attention, and in those few moments a little red-billed gull or mottled, chocolatey cape pigeon nipped in to grab a string of fat. Back at the dock, 14 gannets made a late appearance, heading north in formation. Happy new year to you, too.
(Photo via flickr)