Saturday morning dawned warm and windless, the way you hope it will when you are off on a 2-hour boat trip just to get into the correct area for the birds. The boat we would be based on was called ‘The Obsession’ and there were 8 of us on board, excluding our skipper Dave Christie, and our bird guide Cliff Dorse. The trip is run through a non-profit organization called Cape Town Pelagics. Profits are in aid of the Save the Albatross Fund.
Atlantic Yellow Nosed Albatross
We were graced with a beautiful sunrise, just as we were pulling out of the Hout Bay Harbor. It gave us a very unique view of Table Mountain. At first, the boat seemed very cozy, and as we began to see birds, the excitement mounted. One of the first we saw was a Shy Albatross, which was gliding peacefully on its huge wingspan over the waves. It was my first albatross sighting ever, and the excitement mounted! It was good timing too, as shortly after the albatross we hit the rolling swells. The boat took them at quite a speed, as we had 30 nautical miles to go before we hit the trawling grounds. This however caused a lot of huge bumps as we crested one wave only to be dumped onto the next. Very glad the forecast was for a ‘flat’ day!!
12 or so miles out, the sea temperature changes from around 13 degrees Celsius to 20 degrees! This is a huge change caused by the currents meeting one another resulting in an area of choppier water. Once in warmer water however the waves did calm down considerably, and the ride became quite a bit more comfortable.
On a Pelagic Birding tour, it is best to find a trawler as the birds are attracted to these, and hang around all day as they make their periodic hauls and throw fish heads and other off cuts overboard. Someone had alerted us to the presence of 3 of these trawlers, so we had a good heading.
Trawler 'ringing the dinner bell' - as the 2 metal slabs crash against the boat, the birds begin to gather as this means the net is about to be hauled.
White Chinned Petrel
My aim for the trip was to see a Yellow Nosed Albatross (endangered on IUCN Red List) and a Sub-Antarctic Skua. I was successful on both counts, and more! Unfortunately Dan did spend the best part of the morning sea sick, despite the tablets we had taken. I however felt fine all day, and Dan did eventually rally after a good sea spraying on the move between trawlers.
Juvenile Black Browed Albatross
The bird life is incredibly plentiful off shore; we were surrounded by birds at all three trawlers, and saw over 300 individual Albatross. The Species we checked were Shy Albatross, Indian and Atlantic Yellow Nosed Albatross, and Black browed Albatross. These are all listed on the IUCN red list as endangered or vulnerable. The problem facing many sea birds is that they are caught in nets while fishing. With Albatross, there is an added problem. When boats are line fishing, and they pull the lines up, often a few fish fall off. These can be swallowed whole by many of the Albatross species, and often the hooks are still caught in the fish’s gullet. Overfishing is also a major contributor in the decline of pelagic species, in particular Gannets, which have only 6 breeding colonies remaining in the world.
Adult Black Browed Albatross with Fish
As far as species go, I will update a species list when I receive one from the guide. We did however see the following:
Indian and Atlantic Yellow Nosed, Shy and Black browed Albatross
Sub-Antarctic Skua, Arctic Skua/ Jager
Common and Swift Terns
Manx, Cory, Flesh-footed, Sooty and Great Shearwater
Wilsons Storm Petral, Northern Giant Petral, White Chinned Petral.
Sabines, Kelp and Cape Gulls
It was incredible to watch the agility with which the birds maneuver over the waves and each other, seemingly skimming centimeters above the ocean, yet never touching it. The wingspan of the Albatross was also something special to see, stretching on for well over 2 meters.
We left the trawlers at around 1 and began the trip back on a far flatter and more comfortable sea! We even saw a Humpback Whale on the way back.
All in all, it was a very successful day, and I feel I learnt a lot and saw far more than I expected! I highly recommend the trip, especially if you have any interest in birds. It is also good to know that money is being pushed back into seabird conservation, so your trip can make a difference. It is expensive though, at around R1600 per person, with a discount for SA Residents. Contact Amanda at Cape Town Pelagics to book (www. capetownpelagics.com). Winter is the best season to go, quantity and species speaking, but do try and go whenever you have the opportunity to.
Photographically speaking, it is rather challenging to photograph birds when the swells are making the birds and the boat move continuously, and I had a very low keeper rate. Practice makes perfect though, and I will definitely be doing another trip with CT Pelagics. A 200-400 focal length would be ideal for most birds.
As an aside, last night I slept very well, the salt from the sea and the ocean breeze on your face all day makes for a tired body. As does hand holding a 300mm lens and trying to keep yourself steady despite the rolling waves, as I found out when I woke up on Sunday. The arm and upper back muscles had rediscovered themselves and were complaining loudly!
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