Bird watching on board container vessels

People may think that life on board a cargo vessel can be boring if you do not work your way through the night. Staring at the sea and sky all day long and watching the birds and fish may seem very dull for most of the people, but not for nature lovers.

Since I started travelling on board container vessels I came to realize that bird watching can be a relaxing activity which brings a lot of fun. Until then, I had only watched birds coming to eat my fruits in the orchard from home or some other nice seagulls eating shells and small crabs on the beach.

In the last 4 years, since I became the owner of a very good photo camera, I started to take more interest in this activity and taking photos of birds flying continues to be one of my biggest challenges.

Birds always accompany the vessel while crossing the sea – from one port to another – and even on greater distances, when the closest piece of land is more than a thousand miles away. They may just pass by us, having a rest on one of the containers and then continuing the ride in a different direction or they can even stay with us for a few days before setting off again.

Bird having a rest on the vessel - under way to Singapore

Birds having a rest in the Mediterannean Sea

Sometimes, they come on board and make it their home for few days in a row (even for a week). They may look like clandestine passengers who travel from one point to another, enjoying the ride and having all the fun. They can feed themselves very easily, using the waves created in front or on the sides to hunt some dizzy fish and spend all day relaxing in the sun.

Most of the time, they like to find some hidden places where they can feel safe – away from human touch and curiosity – and they can even fight between them over the better places. Some want to have a panoramic view over the vast sea and take the highest available place on top of the mast and watch over the others members of the flock with pride. The best places are neither safe nor reserved, so every unguarded moment can bring along a change of occupants and a lot of noise and dispute after that.

Bird resting on the top of the mast

As some of the birds like to stay as far away as possible from human beings, others enjoy getting closer and even testing their courage. The bigger the bird, the more courageous it gets and closer to the people. It can let you approach in silence, but, in the end, it will prove the superiority by using its wings and moving away in less than a second.

Sea Hawk

I always enjoy watching birds while they hunt in the waves around the vessel. The most interesting of all is hunting in the wake of the ship and in the wake of some smaller fishing vessels when they always ‘fight’ with the fishermen making a lot of noise.



Most of the birds flying over the seas belong to the great family of seagulls. Even if they are most commonly seen close to shores, seagulls fly hundreds of miles away from land and spend a lot of time in the proximity of vessels because this is a very good opportunity for them to hunt and feed themselves. Others seabirds can be pelicans, sea hawks, petrels and albatrosses.





Pelican - approaching Charleston

Pelican approaching Houston

Pelicans in tye Gulf of Mexico

Last week, just after leaving Port Everglades for Mexico, our vessel became ‘home’, playing ground and means of transportation for three different species of birds. They came in pairs, taking their positions in different parts of the vessel and stayed with us for a week, until we arrived in Altamira, Mexico. It was the first time when I saw so many birds on the vessel at the same time and I am glad I had the time to study them from a close up.

The first ‘passengers’ were two petrels. They occupied both anchors, the better positions available – a position any bird would desire on a vessel – safe and far from the human reach, but close enough to the sea. It was very difficult even for me to notice them, but, as I enjoy watching the sea by leaning over the edge, I found their hidden place right a way. Staying on the anchors offered them a very nice view over the sea, but also protection against predators. From time to time, they were leaving their spot and taking rounds of the vessel – always coming from opposite directions – hunting a fish close to the surface of the water and then returning to the comfort of their secret shelter. I observed them very carefully during the whole week and noticed that they have never changed their position and never left the spot for more than a few minutes.



In a very different manner behaved the other clandestine flying passengers on board – the sea hawks. They came on board few days before arriving in Port Everglades and stayed with us until Altamira (almost 10 days).They were also in pair, but, being predators themselves, they didn’t bother finding a safe spot where to stay for the period of their voyage and they moved continuously, from one place to another, getting closer or farther to the accommodation area. They looked like being the masters of the vessel, keeping everything under control, noticing and scrutinizing the surroundings and even eliminating any rivals that came along the way. I saw one of them catching a smaller bird while flying close to the water and eating it on top of a container. They got closer and closer to the bridge, one of them arriving on the wing, only 2 meters away from the door where it stayed for few minutes before moving on the other side.


I think they had a lot of fun and a very safe voyage on board our vessel and they left us as soon we arrived in Altamira. They might have climbed on another vessel to make the returning trip back to Port Everglades and they may travel like this for months.

Approximate 50 miles before entering the port of Altamira (Mexico) we received other guests on board – three sparrows. Looking very tiny – compared with the big hawks – and not at all frightened, they let me approach them and admire them from only one meter distance. I know they are not seabirds, but as we were getting closer to shore, we must have gotten in their flying range and looked very interesting to explore. I took my time in studying them as well and I got a little afraid for their safety, knowing about the existence of some predators on board.


I hope nothing bad happened to them after I left the spot, but I was attracted by some other interesting bird walking around the deck. It was a big white bird, with long thin legs and long orange beak. It was walking on deck towards the forward station and it didn’t pay any attention to me while I started to follow from behind. When it stopped, I stopped, when it started again to walk, I started myself, both of us looking very funny – if anyone bothered to notice.


When it reached the end of the upper deck, it climbed up the edge and flew away but not too far from the vessel.  It came back after few minutes – when I was in a different spot – and it must have enjoyed the ride for the rest of the day.


Not every time I get so lucky to have many flying visitors on board, but I often get the chance of noticing at least one interesting bird around the vessel. During the crossing of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, birds are always part of the scenery and, even if they do not include us on their route, they always fly by us coming from different direction. In the Pacific Ocean, birds are very common for a few days after departure from ports and a few days before arriving, but, in the middle of the Ocean, even two weeks may pass without noticing a single bird.




Bird watching is a very excited activity that can offer you enough thrills to make your day wonderful and the trip worthwhile. For me, it is just another reason to wake up in the morning and enjoy the beauty of nature – under all aspects.


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