To identify all the air-breathing offshore wildlife potentially encountered on birding, whale-watching, or sport fishing trips at sea, you could take along a stack of field guides—or this one comprehensive guide to all the birds, whales, dolphins, seals, and sea turtles of the Northern Atlantic. Written by a recognized authority on seabirds and whales and illustrated with his finely detailed color paintings, it provides both previously unknown and common field marks to help you identify and enjoy all the offshore wildlife in the Atlantic Ocean north of the Tropic of Cancer, as well as in the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea, and the Bay of Biscay.
Michael Tove offers a general introduction to each group of animals, followed by concise accounts of every species found in the Northern Atlantic. He particularly highlights previously undescribed field marks and behavioral patterns that make identification at sea much easier than before. He also includes range/abundance graphs for twelve locations in North America and six in Britain and Europe to help you plan where and when to view particular species. To enhance your day(s) at sea, Tove includes tips on how to dress properly and avoid seasickness and sunburn.
The first time I went to sea, I was eight years old. My father took me on a deep-sea fishing trip. I watched him catch a couple of King Mackerel and, with his help, caught a Spanish Mackerel. That experience was the start of my fascination with the sea and its wildlife. Like most boys, I was particularly enamored with the large and spectacular sea creatures, especially sharks and whales. When I was about fourteen, my family and I were taking our annual week-long vacation at the beach. There were a lot of small sharks being caught in the surf and one fisherman I was chatting with said to me, "If you think that's something, you ought to see the shark they caught off the pier last night. It took eight hours to land and it weighed 1,300 pounds." Naturally, I was interested and persuaded my parents to drive me to the pier. Expecting something ten feet long lying on the pier, I was disappointed that no shark was in evidence. Finally, I looked over the side and saw it suspended on block and tackle by its tail. It was nearly as long as the pier was high and three times the girth of the man cutting it down. Although I cannot be sure, I've always felt it was a Great White.
I started bird-watching in college--in fact, on a marine biology field excursion to the Tampa Bay area where I was introduced to the concept of using a field identification guide. I found it fascinating that one could identify a bird by matching what one saw through binoculars with a series of stylized paintings in a book. My interest grew rapidly from there. A few years later, I took my first pelagic trip into the Gulf of Maine where I saw shearwaters, petrels, and jaegers for the first time. I also saw my first whales. Over the next twelve years, I did a lot of traveling in search of birds. In the early 1980s, I attended graduate school in Utah. Landlocked, I found myself increasingly drawn to the ocean. I made several trips to Monterey Bay, California, where a "back-burner" interest in whales began to flourish.
In 1986 I returned home to North Carolina and soon started to organize pelagic bird-watching trips out of the Cape Hatteras area. At first, these trips were organized solely to give me and my birding friends an opportunity to get offshore, but it soon grew into much more. From the early days of those efforts, two dates stand out in my mind as pivotal. The first was May 25, 1991. It was a flat calm day with a magical early-morning sunrise. We struck gold very early with a South Polar Skua and a Brown Noddy (very rare for North Carolina) before we reached the Gulf Stream. The highlight came later that day when a Fea's Petrel, the first documented from North America, came winging by. The bird became a signature species for my trips and set into motion events that would culminate with the second pivotal date. On Saturday, May 29, 1993, I was leading a group offshore specifically to search for Fea's Petrel. About 11:00 o'clock that morning, we found a large dark bird sitting on the water. The bird permitted us to approach to within point-blank range. It was a juvenile Brown Skua, a species not previously documented from North America. Two hours later, there was a shout that beaked whales had been seen. Expecting Cuvier's, which are regular, I was surprised to see a dolphin-like gray head rise out of the water, followed by another. Immediately I realized that these were mesoplodonts, but the question was, which ones? I knew that these animals represented the rarest group of whales in the world and the most difficult to identify, including some that had never been identified alive in the wild. I also knew they had a reputation for being very shy of boats, so I expected them to dive deep and eliminate any possibility of identifying them. Fortunately I was wrong. Moments later, the captain shouted that they were ahead of the bow and I scrambled forward to see. For ten minutes we stayed with them and were eventually able to identify them as True's Beaked Whales, a species previously known only from some two dozen beach-washed dead animals worldwide. Of the twenty-six other birders on board, few knew much about whales, but my excitement became infectious and soon everyone was as interested as they would have been over a rare bird. Unfortunately, the only whale references on board were a couple of coffee-table books I had brought. They provided some help but left a lot to be desired as field identification aids. It was at that moment that the idea for this guide was conceived. In the intervening years, I have been reminded many times that the sea brings different interests together. Bird-watchers who otherwise have little interest in mammals become fascinated when a whale is sighted, and whale watchers will divert their focus to gaze at a sea turtle or a seal or a bird. There is a commonality among all these marine creatures that is shared with its venturesome observers: they are all at sea together.