Pack your sea legs & pretzels and spend 12 hours wildlife watching in the Gulfof Mexico
Out of the black and into the blue. The still waters in the harbor were deceptive as the ship, the Osprey, motored past jetties toward the open Gulf.
The morning was a typical Texas summer, humid and already too warm for pre-sunrise temperatures. We were headed for the shadeless and bouncy expanses of the Gulf of Mexico.
Gearing up for the Gulf
Plenty of sleep, non-greasy food and no alcohol are the best recipes to prevent seasickness. I had gotten about four fitful hours, as a family with kids worked out their differences next door until 2 a.m. I'd eaten store-bought sushi, too. But at least I had managed to stay away from the booze.
To compensate for my lack of sleep, I bought a French vanilla coffee at a gas station along the way. So sweet and hot, it rattled my fillings. Now, it sloshed in my stomach, as we hit the first swells rolling steady from the east.
I knew I had ginger ale and pretzels in my pack, the stalwarts to keep queasy stomachs at bay. But would it be enough for 12 hours of churning ocean?
It's a big ocean out there
Let’s do some quick math. Texas has a coastline of about 370 miles, give or take. The state’s territorial sea extends for 12 nautical miles (that’s 14 regular miles for landlubbers) from the low water line into the Gulf of Mexico. The exclusive economic zone extends to 200 nautical miles (about 230 miles) into the Gulf.
That offers between 4,440 to 8,500 square miles — depending on which border is used — of Texas open ocean.
Either way, that’s a lot of Texas rarely glimpsed by the casual traveler.
The captain of the Osprey promised to show us a small chunk of it, including the deep waters beyond the continental shelf.
It’s a long way from anything
In order to reach deep water, which may hold whales and dolphins, we had to endure several hours of the ship tilting over rising waves.
The continental shelf, an area with bottom depths less than 600 feet, extends far off the Texas coast. Off Galveston, boats have to travel at least 100 miles to reach the shelf edge. Further south, the distance is not quite as far.
That is why a group of 30 photographers and naturalists collected at the dock on South Padre Island at 6 a.m. We had to tackle just 50 to 60 miles before we would glimpse the shimmering blues of oceanic waters.
Sea legs, activate!
Huddled around cups of coffee outside the Hooker’s Bar, hushed conversation preceded the boarding and quick introductions. “Life jackets are located here. We will be going out for 12 hours. We don’t know what we are going to see. And please barf off the stern."
OK, so I paraphrased a little.
We lined up along the port and starboard sides. A few brave souls ventured to the bow, and others crowded the cabin. I stayed outside, eagerly breathing fresh air, avoiding the fumes from the engine.
If we wanted seafood, we'd go to Red Lobster
But why go? What’s out there? No one really knows — the Gulf is relatively unexplored, and that is the appeal.
Deep sea fishing is extremely popular along the Texas coasts, with charters leaving nearly year-round. Popular fish include snapper, kingfish, shark, marlin and mahi-mahi.
Casino cruises formerly plowed the inshore waters, allowing patrons to legally risk their dollars.
Otherwise, there are dozens of shrimp boats harvesting crustaceans.
But this trip wasn’t after fish, winnings or edible shellfish — it was purely for the sake of landscape and wildlife. There are amazing vistas out on the open ocean and plenty of creatures not seen by unable-bodied sailors.
What’s out there?
Over the past decades, scientists and fanatical students of Texas fauna have discovered that the Gulf of Mexico is anything but empty. Several species of cetaceans, whales and dolphins thrive beyond the shelf edge.
A lucky few have seen large Bryde’s whales and sperm whales, or smaller pilot and melon-headed whales. More commonly, dolphins are spotted.
Before we even left the harbor, we observed our first marine mammals — a small group of the common bottle-nosed dolphins followed the wake. These inshore dolphins can often be seen from breakwaters.
Within the hour, the sun rose dramatically, followed by waves and barren ocean.
It’s hard on the system
By mid-morning, a handful of people had abandoned their posts and vegetated in various stages of nausea and torpor. I didn’t feel on top of the world either and nursed my ginger ale.
I edged towards the bow, wanting to avoid any free-flying chunder at the stern. Fortunately, the boat was loaded with seasoned seafarers and after some indulgence in pretzels, everyone stood their ground.
The color of the water changed suddenly, from the coffee-colored beach brew to a deep blue. Flying fish of all sizes broke the surface and sailed in low arcs for 20 to 30 feet. A group of large mahi-mahi hovered just below the surface near a large floating tree.
Closer to shore, we had seen shrimp boats at anchor, some of them processing their catch. But 60 miles from land, there was nothing but empty blue ocean.
Seven hours into the trip, my determination waned, any curative effects of the ginger ale had dissipated and I was out of pretzels. I relented and took a nap in the cabin, looking forward to a homebound course.
Welcome wildlife distractions
Passing a shrimp boat on the return, we came across a large group of spotted dolphins, feeding on scraps thrown overboard. We watched the playful animals ride in the wake of our boat and saw a family group just below our bow.
Overhead, magnificent frigatebirds, also known as Man O’War birds, soared on massive wings. These are the pirates of the sea, using their superior flight skills to steal food from other seabirds.
At the end of the day, my body was wracked by the unrelenting waves, and I was glad to see land. We hadn’t seen as much as we had hoped for. The Gulf has more to offer, but I swore to take a break from the sea for awhile.
The boat docked quickly and all participants disembarked, happily feeling solid ground beneath their feet. After five minutes on dry land, my otolithic organs had adjusted and I already made plans for another trip.
It’s the unknown waiting out there that keeps me coming back — I'll just pack more ginger ale and pretzels next time.