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Hornblower: June 10 & 17: Red-billed tropicbird; fulmar; Sabine’s gulls

7:04 pm

Blue whale season has started up, and I have gone out twice on the Hornblower in the past 10 days.
These were my 384th and 385th whale-watching or pelagic trips in San Diego waters.
I’m trying to make to to 400 by the end of July.

On June 10, we headed out and found whales everywhere within 4 miles of shore. 11–14 blues, a fin, 3 humpbacks. A mixed pod of common, offshore bottlenose and Risso’s dolphins.
As always, as soon as one of the whale-watching boats comes upon a whale, it stops and sits for an inordinate amount of time.
[I’ve been on trips where we found a whale 1/4 mile offshore, and stayed with it for the entire trip.]Luckily, these whales were in an area where there lots of dolphins, pelicans, gulls and terns working a very large bait ball.
During the hour we were sitting there, the bait ball attracted about 2 dozen black-vented shearwaters, 3 sooty shearwaters, 2 Sabine’s gulls and a single red-billed tropicbird that came in and left within 30 seconds. 1 brown booby. No storm-petrels or alcids.
Otherwise there were vast stretches of birdless ocean.

Vast stretches of birdless ocean continued on the 17th. Scattered black-venteds—dozens, not the hundreds and thousands reported from La Jolla Cove; a single pink-footed shearwater. 1 black storm-petrel. Water surface both days was very choppy; no alcids either day.
A single heavily molted intermediate-morph Northern fulmar was so feeble that as the ship came up to it, it just rode the bow wave away from the bow, didn’t even attempt to fly.
2 brown boobies.
Again, blue whales everywhere [including a humongous mother followed by her humongous calf], and 1000+ common dolphins. We basically sat in one place for most of 2 hours, about 7 miles offshore, off of La Jolla.

The other surprising birds were a first-summer herring or herring/Western hybrid and a third-cycle California gull in the bay near the bait docks. 3 adult Heermann’s gulls were the first I’ve seen this summer. [There may have been more around, but see comment on the bait docks, below.]

I get asked a lot of questions about whale-watching boats, Let me summarize.
For me, a year-long pass to the Hornblower coupled with the fact that I have a handicapped placard and can park for free, means I can go out several times a week during blue and gray whale seasons. That makes a 3-hours on the ocean trip cost me maybe $7 each time.
BUT, if you are going out just once, it is around $75 and parking on the nearby dock has gone up from $5 to $25 per car. Yikes!!!
You cannot use street parking because there is a 3-hour time limit.
Nor does the Hornblower still motor slowly close to the bait docks, which both days were covered with birds; instead they go right up and down the central channel, too far from the docks to pick out anything.
There is no naturalist about the Hornblower, but the SD Natural History museum volunteer group, The Whalers, who know their cetaceans well are always around.

San Diego Whale Watch, out of Quivira Basin, with a Groupon coupon, costs about $30-35. Parking is free.
Their boat is not as comfortable or as steady as the Hornblower, but it is okay. Very crowded at the bow.
You get the same approximately 3 hours out on the open ocean.

Hornblower and SDWW communicate with one another and chase the same whales; on both days, we were within a half-mile of one another.
SDWW does a little more cruising around looking for things and does pay some minimal attention to birds, but you’re pretty much on your own.
Neither boat permits chumming or throwing popcorn off the stern.

Your best bet is always going to be going on a real pelagic trip, such as those sponsored by Buena Vista Audubon. Excellent leaders, long periods out on the ocean, chumming, no sitting for an hour watching asingle whale, etc.

Stan Walens, San Diego
June 20, 2023; 6:35 pm