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As a part of the overall Peru itinerary, those of us attending were given the option of taking a pelagic trip at the end of the week-long adventure. A few days before the scheduled trip we got the word that the company that was scheduled to take us out on the Pacific Ocean to look for albatrosses and other wonders had been closed down. One of their party boats had capsized and the government closed the company down for safety inspections.
We had mixed feelings about this. I am not a worried traveler, but the seas off Peru are famously rough and unpredictable. I did not want to go out in a dinghy. But nor did I want to miss out on all of the birds I'd hoped to see: especially Inca terns and Humboldt's penguins. Our group began lobbying for an alternative boat, or even a land-based trip to somewhere birdy along the coast.
Eventually, thanks to the tireless resourcefulness of our hosts, two different trips were planned. One all-day trip close to shore and one that would go farther out. Alas I could only take the closer-to-shore trip because of the timing of my return flight to the U.S. that night and the time-eating vagaries of packing and security.
So at 5 am, outside our Lima hotel, we met our guide for the day, Stefan from Nature Expeditions Peru. Stefan is an expatriate German who is a dedicated marine life conservationist. He and his wife are the founders of Mundo Azul, a non-governmental organization working to protect marine mammals in Peru's waters. He talked about his work and what we could expect to see during the day's boat trip.
Stefan drove us 30 or so kilometers south to his company's office in the coastal fishing village of Pucusana. There we were outfitted with rain suits (and I was reminded that a Latin American XL size garment is approximately equivalent to a U.S. large). As we walked down the hill to the picturesque harbor, we stared seeing birds. It was a foggy, overcast day, but the cameras still came out and we did out best to get some good bird photos.
Along the way we stopped by a small store to buy some water and snacks for the trip. Three of us went in looking for something to eat--something bland in case of rough seas and food that did not want to stay eaten. My friend Steve Rooke from Sunbird Tours in the UK wanted some chocolate, so he asked in his pigeon-Spanglish for some.
It often amazes me how products in other countries are named. What means yummy and delicious in one country might mean something completely different in another. The woman behind the counted pointed to a chocolate-covered cookie product called, of all things, Choco-Bum. Steve nearly collapsed with laughter.
This sounded like a physical malady for which one might want some Imodium. We immediately bought six Choco-Bums.
Back outside, we waddled down to the boat, sweating now inside our rubberized pants and jackets. Turnstones and sanderlings poked around the harbor mudflats.
As I was sorting through the gulls, feeling certain I was seeing both gray gull and band-tailed gull, the shout was heard: INCA TERN!
And there it was, in all its dark-bodied, white-whiskered beauty. Such a stunning bird. But no time to bliss out. Stefan was shouting for us to get on the boat. "We'll see hundreds more Inca terns!" And he was right. But the looks were not quite as nice from a bobbing boat as they were from solid, unmoving land.
As the final guy (and we were an all-male trip) stepped onto the boat, which was a medium-sized outboard--something you might ski behind on a lake) the stern dropped down to even with the water's surface. This made a whole lot of sea water slosh into the boat when Stefan gunned the engine. We all got soakers. Stefan then began to rearrange us according to our weight and just about the time we got into the first of the rough water outside the harbor, we realized that we'd need to hold on at all times with at least one hand. This made using binocs or holding a camera a it more challenging.
We motored to some rocky islands just outside the mouth of the harbor and Stefan maneuvered the boat close enough for us to see birds but far enough out to keep from getting smashed on the rocks. He did a fine job of it, too. Birds were everywhere. We chummed in some Inca terns. Band-tailed gulls followed.
On the islands we spotted blackish oystercatchers (related to our black oystercatchers), several red-legged cormorants (possibly the most beautiful cormorant ever--and that's an oxymoron I guess). [Thanks to Chris H. for the corm ID tips.]
Also present were Peruvian brown pelicans (seemingly more colorful than ours), and a very weird bird called a cinclodes--sort of part sparrow, part bunting, part creeper. It lives like a purple sandpiper on the barnacle-covered rocks near the water line but it looks like some kind of weird songbird.
There were many southern sea lions, too, in various shades of brown and gray. Looking at us impassively as they basked on the rocks. Huge males were surrounded by smaller females and we could hear their grunts and barks mixed in with the bird sounds, the ocean crashing on the rocks, and our outboard motors.
I had taken a spot in the bow so I could take some photos. This was a great spot to be until we broke out into the open ocean, headed south along the coast for some larger islands where our other quest birds lived. We were heading into the prevailing wind and sea and I felt like the guy on the Morton's Salt cannister getting blasted by the salty spray. Strangely I began talking like a pirate and making cracks about wearing Old Spice cologne. This seemed to help lessen the chill of the water running right down my face, onto my throat, and down my chest. Brrrr...
Pervian boobies! Once away from the harbor, these massive creatures were everywhere. Flying alongside the boat effortlessly. Diving gannetlike into the ocean. My first-ever boobie species. [Insert your own joke about boobies here].
We were now far enough out into the ocean that we were riding swells--huge swells! Stefan had to be completely watchful so we did not get caught by one broadside. We had one memorable close call when everyone shouted out their favorite expletive. I think it was at that moment that I realized that it was completely possible that we could capsize.
It was raining slightly and the mist was trying to hide the mainland from our eyes. I began to wonder about the number of large men we had on a rather small boat. Of course we all had life jackets on, but the boat was really bucking and rolling. So far no one was sick.
I asked Stefan a few questions--questions that were probably on everyone else's minds, too.
BOTB: Hey Stefan! How long could someone survive in the water if they fell in?
Stefan: Only a minute or so--it's cold. You would die fast.
BOTB: And what's the load limit for this boat?
Stefan: It can safely hold 8 passengers.
BOTB (counting): OK. There are 8 of us plus you. That's 9, right?
Stefan: Yes but I don't think they count the captain in those numbers...
BOTB: STEVE! PASS ME ANOTHER CHOCO-BUM!
Stefan asked for another volunteer to stand up next to him, on the windy/splashy side of the boat to help keep things balanced. I volunteered, thinking I wonder what Davy Jones actually keeps in his locker? Stuff from his time with The Monkees?
For the next two hours I stood as we motored south. My hands gripping two different cold metal railings, my knees aching from the pounding of the boat. My optics were tucked away. It was far too hard just holding on for dear life to pretend that we could do any birding.
We were heading to the "guano" islands where Peruvians have, for centuries, harvested the poop from nesting colonies of seabirds. This is used for fertilizer to increase crop yields.
Stefan shouted to us "We will be at the guano islands in about an hour! We will have 30 minutes there, then we must start home again! In the meantime watch for the Peruvian diving petrel!"
One by one we nodded blankly. And wondered if we'd make all the way and back again. The sea showed no sign of helping us. Over the thrum of the laboring outboard, I began to hear murmurings of a mutiny....