Alone at sea with my Gannets

Large inspiring birds are the Australian Gannets. Gannets are arguably the finest fishers of all of the sea birds. Their diving ability is unrivalled by any other living thing on this planet and is just so exhilarating to observe. Depending on the depth of the target baitfish Gannets may vary their diving techniques and configure their wings into a W pattern, a square U pattern or for higher speeds and for entering the water Gannets can tuck their wings behind their tails to attain an absolute streamlined body.

Diving for baitfish down really deep Gannets adopt their renowned high altitude almost death defying, ultra high speed vertical diving technique, dropping out of the sky from at least a hundred feet Gannets are able to do something really amazing, Gannets can actually dislocate their wings to configure themselves into an ultra streamline inverted coke bottle shape to reach speeds reportedly as high as 145 kilometres an hour. Striking the water at this literally breakneck speed Gannets have yet another amazing aptitude, the totally focused diving Gannets inflate airbags around their necks and shoulders to cushion the impact with the water before plunging into the sea and allowing their momentum to take them down deep to catch unsuspecting baitfish. 

One day while working off Noosa I was enjoying watching the nearby excitement as a large number of Gannets were wheeling down in formation and diving into a school of baitfish which a pod of small stripe dolphins had herded together. Unexpectedly the baitfish decided that my boat may offer them protection from the aerial attack and took shelter under my boat. So I found myself in the centre of this attack from above; it was literally raining Gannets all around me. Like these are big birds and when configured for diving they are as long as a man and were actually whistling past at arm’s length like little jet powered dive bombers and striking the water like ballistic missiles as they dropped from the sky onto the baitfish under and around my boat. The adrenalin rush was just huge and it was like you never wanted it to end, I’ll never forget the incredible ‘swish’ sound of Gannets actually whistling past at breakneck speed and then the sound of them striking the water it was truly an unbelievable experience.

Another day I watched as hundreds of Gannets flew round and around creating a big whirlpool in the sky extending from the sea up hundreds of feet into the sky probably riding an invisible thermal circulating from the sea and giving the Gannets a free altitude gaining ride. I have wondered if this was some kind of signal for the very next afternoon while motoring the 28 nautical miles back to port the sky both sides of the boat was full of Gannets all flying south. I presume the Gannets were migrating back to their southern breeding grounds. It was like everyone was in a hurry and the race was on, no soaring and riding the air currents here, just pure wing flapping power flying. I watched as they formed into small groups one behind the other and like break aways in a bike race the leader would power away by a few lengths drawing his group on in his slipstream at a faster rate before tiring and peeling high and slipping behind his group creating a little ‘wave’ in the formation. The next Gannet now rested but now out of the slipstream and exposed to the wind at the front, would then take over the lead, there are no lazy bones here, one could feel the eagerness to show he had what it takes to be the new leader of the peloton and would immediately power out to a few lengths clear while again drawing his flock on to gain some ground on the opposition.

 

 

Our Gannets here are always shy of fishing boats, they are such good fishers that they are more than capable of catching their own fresh fish and will always paddle away and take flight if a boat comes close. One day off Caloundra I was idling towards my next line to pick up when I noticed a Gannet at rest only about 10 metres from my boat. I stopped the boat and took my camera out of its waterproof case hoping for a few quick shots of a Gannet at rest. Then an amazing thing happened, this Gannet paddled towards me, like Gannets don’t do this they always move away. Never the less I was thrilled for the chance to obtain a few close ups after which I put the camera away and started the motors and turned the boat away in the direction of my next line. I turned my head around for one last look at this bird when a little glint of light from the birds back caught my attention. I had moved even further away when suddenly ‘the penny dropped’...fishing line, was that glint of light from fishing line? I turned the boat around back to the Gannet and it again paddled over to me which now made sense, this wonderful bird was paddling to me seeking my help . There was several wraps of fine fishing line around its wings, one can see a loop of this line on this image (left). I leant over the side and lifted this beautiful creature out of the water. With a two metre wing span which is more than I am tall I was startled just how large this bird really was, wow, what an absolutely mighty bird, and I had it in my hands, the emotion was huge. I very carefully unwound the fishing line which led to two fish hooks embedded in its feet. With more care I removed the two fish hooks and gently returned the Gannet to the sea.  About an hour later I was once more in this area and I was alarmed that this bird was still on the water. I knew to survive this gannet must get back in the air. Gannets need long take offs into the wind to become air born and the brisk morning land breeze was dying away so it was now or never. I aggressively approached from downwind to startle the bird into flight. The Gannet finally gained 5 metres of altitude but then began to lose height, chasing the Gannet with my boat I yelled with all the gusto I could muster “Fly Gannet Fly” the Gannet immediately gained at least another three metres and continued to gain height until it was just a speck in the sky. This was a feel good moment as I now knew this Gannet was going to make it and I even managed to take this last (right) image as a memento, it was a wonderful day which I will remember. 

Richard Freeman.


 

Framed Prints of Australian Gannets.

 

 

Alone at Sea with Humpback Whales.

Alone at sea with Sharks.

Alone at Sea with my Dolphins.

The Wreck of the ‘’SS Dickey”.

Alone at Sea with my Gannets.

Alone at Sea with my Fairy Prions.

Alone at Sea with my Albatross.

Alone at Sea with Jellies and Stingers.

Alone at Sea with my Giant Petrels.

Alone at Sea with my Storm Petrels.

Alone at Sea with my Terns.

Alone at Sea with Jaegers and Skuas.

Alone at Sea with the Shearwaters.

My 5.6 metre Shark Cat.

Weather at Sea.