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From a seabird expert and an eBird project leader, three illustrated guides to offshore wonders and ocean butterflies

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Offshore Sea Life East_220x335Observed from the deck of a boat, or from on land, the ocean may look featureless, but veteran sea watchers know that it comprises different habitats. The wildlife found inshore differs dramatically from that lurking offshore.

The inshore zone, described so well by Ken Behrens and Cameron Cox in their Peterson Reference Guide to Seawatching: Eastern Waterbirds in Flight (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), is where you will find most gulls, along with terns, cormorants, sea ducks, loons, grebes, and pelicans, as well as sea otters, harbor seals, and other familiar marine mammals.

In Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: East Coast and Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: West Coast, seabird expert Steve N. G. Howell and eBird project leader Brian L. Sullivan use short accounts and Crossley-style composite photos to introduce us to the mammals, seabirds, fish, turtles, and other sea life found farther out, a mile or two from shore, in the pelagic zone. These “offshore wonders,” they write, can’t be seen from land; to experience them, you need to go on a boat trip.

Howell and Sullivan describe 43 birds and 22 mammals in 56 pages in the West Coast guide, which covers the waters off Washington, Oregon, and California, and 39 birds and 21 mammals in 64 pages in the East Coast guide, reaching from Maine to central Florida. Rare species are included in both books — sperm whale and Short-tailed Albatross in the west, giant manta ray and Trindade Petrel in the east — but the very rare, species you might not see even if you took 100 boat trips, are omitted. In each instance, the result is a handy, useful ID guide that will help you do at sea what every birder wants to do on land — put names to fascinating creatures without making your backpack heavy.

Flyingfish_220x165The same could certainly be said of Howell’s beautiful, informative volume on flyingfish, if only marine biologists knew enough about the fish to be able to name them all. In fact, scientists are uncertain how many different species are out there, and new species surely remain to be discovered. Consequently, Howell writes, “the common names used here were created by field observers and in most cases can’t be matched to formal scientific names.”


In eight brief, entertaining chapters illustrated with photos taken by the author, we’re introduced to fish that act like birds. Howell explains what flyingfish are, where they live, how many kinds there are, how big they are, how they fly, why they fly, what colors they are, and how you can identify them.

Along the way, he communicates the joy of discovery. “In coming years,” he writes, “I hope a greater awareness of flyingfish will develop, and more at-sea identification keys will be compiled for different parts of the oceans. One day, presumably, we’ll be able to link the informal names we created to the scientific names, but for now the hobby of flyingfish-watching is in its infancy — and it sure is fun to be a kid again!”

Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: East Coast, by Steve N. G. Howell and Brian L. Sullivan, Princeton University Press (2015), 64 pages, paperback, $14.95, £10.95


Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: West Coast, by Steve N. G. Howell and Brian L. Sullivan, Princeton University Press (2015), 56 pages, paperback, $14.95, £10.95

The Amazing World of Flyingfish, by Steve N. G. Howell, Princeton University Press (2014), 64 pages, hardcover, $12.95, £8.95

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Originally Published

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