For Debi Shearwater, Every Year is a “Big Year”
by Beth Slatkin on October 13, 2011
photo by John Sorensen
Debi Love Shearwater, the charismatic owner of Monterey-based Shearwater Journeys, has been leading boat tours to view seabirds in Monterey Bay, Half Moon Bay, and the Farallon Islands since 1975. Renowned throughout the birding world for her expertise on pelagic birds, Debi will be portrayed by Anjelica Huston in The Big Year, an upcoming film about competitive birding, which opens nationally this Friday.
BN: How did birding, and in particular, observing seabirds, become your life’s passion?
DS: I got started in birding by raising a baby house sparrow when I was a young girl. She fell out of a nest inside a street lamp and I nursed her. She was with me for five years. I raised four more birds after that one. As an adult, I was married to an army officer and moved around the country a lot. In Texas I got started birdwatching, and met my first actual “birdwatchers”.
BN: When was your first pelagic (ocean) trip?
DS: I went on my first pelagic trip in 1972, on the East Coast. When we moved out to Monterey a few years later, I got divorced and stayed here, so I’ve been here for 36 years. I started out just doing boat trips for my friends. After the trips, everyone would be invited back to my house for dessert and coffee. On one of those trips, we found a streaked shearwater, a very rare bird, that normally occurs in Japan. Word got out and birders began asking me to offer more trips. So I started offering trips to more and more people, and Shearwater Journeys was born.
BN: How many times do you go out, and where do you go?
DS: In California I lead 40 trips a year, usually between mid-July and late November, which is the best weather, and also the best time to see the biggest variety of birds and marine mammals.
Last month, I led pelagic tours to Monterey Bay, Half Moon Bay, Bodega Bay and one trip to the Farallon Islands. We had over 550 people on those trips. I also do trips outside California. For instance, in 2010, I chartered a ship to go to Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. It was an extremely successful expedition, and now I’ve been to Antarctica a dozen times – three times in the past year alone.
BN: Tell us about your next big trip.
DS: Next year we’ll be going to the High Arctic to see wildlife. My first charter trip to Spitsbergen (a remote archipelago above Norway) in 2012 is already sold out. Now I’m taking signups for two more trips to Svalbard (Spitsbergen’s Norwegian name) in 2013. We’ll be on a small Swedish vessel that only takes 12 people. When we go ashore, we’ll have to stay together because of the presence of polar bears. In fact, the expedition leader is required to carry a gun to protect us. The small group will allow for a very high quality voyage.
BN: What is your favorite pelagic excursion?
DS: My favorite trip is Half Moon Bay – I love the captain, and the harbor alone could be a trip! For birders and photographers, having a nice close view of surfbirds and marbled murrelets is fabulous. Offshore, you can see albatrosses and shearwaters … On my most recent trip, we had flat, calm seas and I saw five species of shearwaters, seven species of pinnipeds, and nine species of tubenoses (a family of seabirds that includes albatrosses and storm petrels). And last year in September, we ran into a traffic jam with 75 humpback whales!
BN: I hear Anjelica Huston will be portraying a character based on you in an upcoming Hollywood movie (The Big Year). She leads an outfit called Auklet Tours. Have you seen the film, and do you think it portrays birders and birding accurately?
DS: I haven’t seen the movie yet – I won’t be able to see it until next week. They sent a film crew out from 20th Century Fox and filmed a trip with me. My biggest hope was that an albatross would appear in a Hollywood movie; unfortunately that doesn’t happen. But what this does mean is that the general public will become aware that there are some birds that people have to go out on the ocean to see. Most of the world is covered with ocean. Very few people, including birders, go out to see them. And they’re not aware of the issues facing these albatrosses and other seabirds, which are huge. So I’m very happy Anjelica’s in the movie. It will pique people’s interest to see seabirds. That’s what I’m happiest about.
And for the record, I have never pulled a knife on anyone.
Shearwater Journeys is currently accepting registration for two November trips: November 22 from HMB and 27 from Monterey Bay. Please visit ShearwaterJourneys.com or contact Debi at email@example.com.