Take Your Passion Cruising

Diana Doyle enjoys “birding aboard” as she writes cruising guides

On watch

When my husband Mark and I started writing cruising guides,

we called them “enriched” guides because we wanted to include more than just the “mileposts and signposts” of transiting from one port to another.

When we cruised, we most enjoyed the learning experiences along the way. Although we were busy piloting, we were curious about the stories behind the island’s names, the birds and plants we were seeing, and the local history. But the existing guides didn’t fill in enough details. And I couldn’t tote along enough field guides, nature books, and regional history reading to cover the miles!

Interpretive vignette from “Managing the Waterway” (Mule Key to Loggerhead Key)

So when we started our series, although they are first and foremost navigation books, we decided to include what we called “interpretive vignettes”: short but detailed background reading on the sights, sounds, and stories along the way.

  • What marine animal makes that crackling noise under the hull at night?
  • What causes bioluminescence?
  • How can a large pelican hit the water at such high speeds?
  • How far can a flying fish fly?

Our cruising guides were a perfect business outlet for our mutual passions: Mark’s passions for computers, photography, design, and boats; and my passions for the outdoors, nature, writing, and research.

Cruising is like living an eco-tour.

When you cruise, nature is all around you. Although I try to balance the vignettes to include history, geography, geology, archaeology, and so on, my favorite vignettes to write are nature-based. I’m an avid (Mark says obsessive) bird-watcher (now called a “birder”), but I’m particularly interested in birds in their larger ecological context, which means plants, insects, climate, etc.

To help me write the vignettes, sometimes I think of myself as a guide on an eco-tour, interpreting all the amazing natural sights along a particular waterway or in an anchorage.

Atlantic Puffin
Atlantic Puffin

When you live aboard a boat, natural phenomena that other people pay to experience with a nature tour are regular daily sightings. Destinations that folks go on birding trips become your home for days or weeks!

In the Dry Tortugas, we anchored for days surrounded by the racket of thousands of sooty terns and brown noddies. They were our all-day companions. Most birders have to take a ferry out to the island and only spend a few hours before being herded back aboard for the return trip.

When we sailed the coast of Maine, we charted our course along Eastern Egg Rock to experience the successful reintroduction of an Atlantic Puffin colony. We had front row seats as puffins commuted back and forth with beak-fulls of tiny fish.

I was reminded of the unique vantage point of the cruising lifestyle when I read Return of the Osprey, by David Gessner. The author fervently wished to see an osprey haul a fish out of the water in its talons. I can’t even count how many times I’ve witnessed this event from our boat at anchor. Wildlife, doing their daily chores, are your neighbors when you live aboard.

But I want to do more than just “watch birds.”

On land, I love participating in projects that aid bird conservation. There are countless opportunities for this: Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs), Important Bird Area (IBA) surveys, or the Breeding Bird Atlas.

But what about when I’m birding aboard? Although I love watching birds, and searching for new birds, it’s not enough. Writing our cruising guides helps scratch that itch by letting me share my knowledge about common bird species. I also write articles on more advanced birding for nature magazines.

Now I’m ready to start my next project: a “CBC at Sea.”

As I brainstormed how I could bring my passion for bird conservation onto a moving vessel, I came up with the idea of a “CBC at Sea.

CBC at Sea:

A call to those who spend time at sea to establish a worldwide annual bird count and contribute their ocean sightings to a citizen-science database for the study and conservation of pelagic species.

The cruising community is a huge untapped resource for citizen science. We are tuned in with our environment, educated, and interested in the marine world. We explore the less-traveled areas. And there are literally thousands of us out there!

Bridled Tern
Bridled Tern

Remember all the amazing bird sightings you’ve experienced at sea? The tropic bird colony along a rocky cliff? A seabird that followed your stern wake? The tired songbird that landed on your gunwale? The birds seen as you dinghied to a little island off your anchorage?

If you’re on the water and interested in nature, then you can really help.

Your sightings matter since there aren’t too many scientists who have the time and money to be where you are! Citizen science is the new thing in this massively-connected digital world. Research and conservation databases need reports from those of us who live unconventional lifestyles in unconventional places (admit it, live-aboard cruising is highly unconventional!)

It’s fine if you’re not a bird-whiz. We need to start somewhere and, just like land birding over the decades, knowledge will come in time. But we need to start getting the data and spreading awareness sooner than later! For example, when the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred, so little was known about seabirds on the Gulf of Mexico that the early spill data basically had to function as baseline information.

The initial idea is to have boaters from around the world record their local bird observations on a one-day count. Observations would be submitted to a central database, such as Cornell University’s eBird.

If you’re home-schooling, this is a perfect project to teach children about ornithology, marine biology, data-gathering and recording, citizen science, and seabird conservation. There remain so many unanswered questions about ocean birds, such as where some species breed or winter. Your child can help answer these puzzles!
Bahama Bank

If you’re interested in participating or staying updated about the CBC at Sea, send me an email at diana@managingthewaterway.com. I’ll send information as the project develops.

Get Involved in Seabird Citizen Science!

Even if you don’t consider yourself a birder, here are some tips to help you or your home-schooled child identify what you see.

  1. Purchase a field guide for your area. Women and Cruising’s website includes many excellent regional suggestions.
  2. Take notes or draw sketches of what you see. First look and record; identification can come later.
  3. Ask locals. Their knowledge of nature usually far surpasses what’s available in field guides or even web searches.
  4. Jot down what locals call a bird. Do they call it a “dry land booby” or a “diablotin”? That’s a black-capped petrel. Many regional field guides include local names.
  5. Submit your sightings to Cornell’s eBird database so it can be used to help bird conservation and study trends (www.ebird.com). This is a great activity for home-schoolers.

About Diana Doyle

The Doyles in TortugasDiana Doyle and her husband Mark write the cruising guide and electronic charting series, Managing the Waterway. They wrote their first two guides, covering the Intracoastal Waterway and Florida Keys, while cruising on a PDQ catamaran and home-schooling their son.

Diana began birding at age seven, when her third grade visiting teacher, a “twitcher” (compulsive bird-lister) from the U.K., ignored the state-mandated curriculum and took his students birding all day—resulting in an entire class in remedial summer school. She recovered from that early academic setback to earn a Ph.D. from Yale and is still birding forty years later. A former political science professor with a lifelong interest in environmental conservation, she also holds a 50-ton USCG Master’s License.

An Illustrated Cruising Guide to the Great Loop Inland Waterway: Chicago to MobileMark and Diana’s latest guide is An Illustrated Cruising Guide to the Great Loop Inland Waterway: Chicago to Mobile. You can see details on all their titles, see Mark’s photos, download additional cruising guide resources, and get the latest guide updates at their website: www.managingthewaterway.com.

Read also on this website
More information (external links)

Has cruising given you a unique opportunity to explore YOUR passions?

Do you have stories to share about how cruising has brought you up close to nature?

Do you want to get involved with the Christmas Bird Count at Sea?

Let us know.

Email kathy@forcruisers.com or leave a comment below.

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4 comments to Diana Doyle enjoys “birding aboard” as she writes cruising guides

  • It was ESPECIALLY fun to publish Diana’s post this week since I just returned from the Dry Tortugas where we used her Managing the Waterway Florida Keys guide. I really enjoyed her “vignettes” on the birds, history, etc, and even threw little tidbits into conversation: Do you know what is inside the Portuguese Man-o’war’s float? (answer: carbon monoxide). And I saw many of the birds she talked about including the Black Skimmer which I was proud to identify without asking anyone (a big accomplishment for me). Her guide and my Audubon Florida app for my iPad helped….! Thanks, Diane, keep sharing your love of nature with us!

  • Ruth Allen

    When cruising last year I enjoyed using a field guide to identiy and observe many birds that I would never see at home. No we have not swallowed the anchor but are living aboard and working in our home port.
    The bird watching greatly enriched our cruising time providing conversation with my father in law via letter and in person when we arrived home.
    These guides sound wonderful and we will seek them out when we next head to warmer climates.

  • What a great job Diana has! I’ve got my first cruise coming up in the fall and I will be checking out the guides. thanks!


  • We now have an active facebook page (www.facebook.com/Birding.Aboard) where you can connect and share bird sightings and questions with other birders aboard long-distance boats. You don’t have to log in to facebook to view the posts (but you have to log in and “like” the page to post your questions, comments and photos).
    This is also where we’ll be posting information and updates about this December’s “SeaBC” Sea Bird Count!

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