It’s not just your magic carpet to the Land of Cheaper Gasoline! If you’re a naturalist without a boat, a Steamship Authority ferry is also…well, a boat.
To be sure, there are limitations. With a fixed schedule and a fixed route, the Great White Fleet never visits the vast majority of our region’s waters. The boat will not slow down or circle to provide a better look at something interesting. And of course you can count on sharing the ferry with several hundred of your closest friends.
But a boat of any kind is better than no boat at all. Oceans are always interesting, and it’s a rare trip between Woods Hole and Vineyard Haven that doesn’t produce at least some viewable wildlife. Sometimes one even gets lucky and happens onto a rarity or a noteworthy spectacle.
It’s primarily bird life that naturalists look for from the ferry. Though herring gulls are dirt common on the Vineyard, they are imposing, graceful birds, and it is rare SSA run that doesn’t attract couple of gulls begging for handouts (or snatching an unattended snack from the weather deck). And for the photographically inclined, a ferry ride presents an unbeatable opportunity for capturing the nuances of a gull in flight.
Similarly, pigeons and house sparrows are common birds, but their habit of scavenging out the ferries sometimes offers an exceptional chance to view or even interact with these birds. (One of my own surprisingly intimate encounters with a pigeon was recorded in a previous Wild Side column, published Nov. 20, 2012, “A common pigeon asks for help on a Martha’s Vineyard ferry boat”). But less mundane avian life is also possible. Perhaps the best bird I’ve seen from a Steamship Authority ferry was a Manx shearwater, slicing the air near the red No. 2 buoy in the Vineyard Haven outer harbor on an unnaturally warm March day in 1998. True pelagic species such as shearwaters are always rare in the enclosed waters of Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds, but some other seabirds can be downright common.
From late fall through early spring, seeing a northern gannet is always possible, and sometimes, scores or even hundreds can be viewed. Goose-sized birds with long wings and pointed beaks, gannets typically feed by plunging into the water after fish or squid. Dropping as much as 100 feet in their dive, gannets hit the water like cannonballs, and the spectacle of a flock feeding close to the ferry is worth the price of admission — even if you’re paying off-Island car rates!
Almost as much fun to watch are common and roseate terns, which arrive in late April or early May, often forming huge feeding flocks near the ferry route before the birds disperse to their breeding colonies. Roseate terns in particular are a treat — graceful, snow-white birds and a relatively rare regional specialty. I know of many birders who have tallied their “life” roseate tern from the weather deck of a Vineyard ferry.
In winter, sea ducks and loons are a given on any ferry ride: scoters (we have three species, all hefty, dark seabirds), common eiders (massive ducks, with brown females and black-and-white males), or tiny buffleheads. Look for ducks especially at the Woods Hole end; loons, in contrast, can appear anywhere along the route, and often allow close views, since they often grow accustomed to the passing of the large ferry boats.
Less regularly seen birds sometimes reward on-deck vigilance. Green herons are sometimes visible shuttling between Naushon and the mainland; a pair of ospreys nests nearly every year right next to the Woods Hole ferry terminal; razorbills (small black-and-white auks) are fairly regular in winter; and if you get really lucky, you might spot a peregrine falcon, bald eagle, or other raptor crossing the water in search of fertile hunting grounds.
On the non-avian front, one wants to stay alert for insects during the warmer months. Once or twice, I’ve spotted a monarch butterfly from the ferry. And one day, a long dash skipper (a tiny butterfly) flew aboard just before an Oak Bluffs departure, perched in a sunny spot, and patiently rested and groomed until the approach to Woods Hole, when it took flight toward the mainland. The experience taught me that fare-evading insects sometimes use the ferry as a link to leave or travel to the Vineyard.
If there is one disappointment inherent in ferry naturalizing, it’s the relative paucity of marine life that’s visible. I’ve never seen any whale, dolphin, or porpoise from the boat; cetaceans rarely enter the shallow, restricted waters along the ferry route. However, harbor and occasionally gray seals are visible on the rocks at Woods Hole. Tremendous flotillas of jellyfish are sometimes visible. And when conditions are right, it’s sometimes possible to see massive blooms of plankton, rendering the ocean milky with a host of tiny plants and animals.
It’s not like having your own tuna boat ready for a “canyon run” whenever you feel the urge. But an SSA ferry provides a stable viewing platform, a warm interior if you get chilled, and — best of all — an easy way to get on the water.