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Seabird Viewing off Simon's Town and Cape Point
by Patrick Cardwell

Simon's Town has long been internationally acclaimed for its unique African Penguin colony and its 'fynbos' bird specials such as the charismatic Cape Sugarbird and the striking Orange-breasted Sunbird. Now it enjoys worldwide recognition as a base for international birdwatchers in search of seabirds or 'pelagic' species as they are known in birding circles.

Throughout the year 'birders' set off to sea from the old quay on a variety of offshore craft of which Harry Dilley's converted motor torpedo boat 'Zest' is the best known. A typical outing for a group of some 12 highly enthusiastic birders starts with a safety briefing and cast off at around 07:00 am.

At this time of day the run to Cape Point offers spectacular views of the sunrise over the magnificent Hottentots Holland Mountains to the east.

The full geological detail of the stratified sandstone cliffs of Cape Point is deeply etched in finite detail by the rays of the rising sun. The air is crisp and clean and the atmosphere is laden with anticipation.

The first seabirds encountered before even casting off are invariably the ubiquitous Kelp and Silver Gulls, along with a line up of cormorants and terns roosting on the pipeline beyond the False Bay Yacht Club. Soon thereafter the group sees the first flotillas of African Penguins making their way out to sea for a day's fishing.

Fast moving Swift Terns with their dipping flight and skeins of Cape Cormorants living up to their Dutch name of 'Trek Duikers', stream off Ark Rock for the offshore fishing grounds. Striking white Cape Gannets put on spectacular aerial displays as they plunge-dive for baitfish in the wake of the boat. It is a marvelous spectacle of feeding activity. And there is the very real possibility of catching sight of a pod of Southern Right Whales loafing in the bay during the months of May to November.

Past Cape Point the vessel bears South West, careful to bypass the surge-active granite dome, infamous Bellows Rock, responsible for more than a few shipwrecks over time, including the luxury liner 'Lusitania' in 1911. From this point on the first true pelagic seabirds are encountered. White-chinned Petrels careen across white-tipped wave crests and Sooty Shearwaters streak low across the bows in widely scattered groups.

As the sight of land recedes into the distance, the last of the scavenging Kelp Gulls heads back to the shore. Excitement mounts amongst the birders on board, all now on full alert and scanning the horizon for the ultimate prize - their first sighting of an albatross off the Cape of Good Hope.

And they are not to be disappointed as a loud 'Albatross!' is soon shouted by one of the vigilant bird guides accompanying the group. Usually a Shy or White-capped Albatross as it is also known, it comes sweeping in barely above wave height on fixed wings, two metres from wingtip to wingtip, half circles the boat in idle curiosity and then disappears into the blue beyond. This stunning introduction is usually followed by good views of Indian and Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross. With each nautical mile south into the Agulhas current, both temperature and depth of the water increase and seabird numbers build up in quality and quantity. There are now sightings to delight in every direction.

Diminutive Storm Petrels dance daintily across the wake and then disappear from sight beyond the next wave. Great Shearwaters are common in winter and Cory and Manx Shearwaters are seen regularly in summer. In windy conditions and a dash of luck you could see Great-winged and Soft-plumaged Petrels, and if exceptionally lucky, an Atlantic Petrel…

Yet it is the sight of the deep sea fishing trawler ahead that triggers the adrenalin rush amongst the onboard birders. In a seemingly endless orbit around the trawler are hundreds if not thousands of wheeling seabirds, and in its wake even more seabirds squabble with Cape Fur Seals over whatever is lost to the net in the final retrieve.
Photo opportunities at near point blank range abound and the group is treated to scintillating views of several species of albatross, petrels, including Pintado (or Cape Pigeon), both Northern and Southern Giant Petrels, shearwaters, skuas, and gannets along with a chance of an extremely rare sighting of a vagrant species such as Antarctic Fulmar or a 'stonking' great Royal Albatross.

Finally after the frenetic excitement dies down, the boat leaves the company of the trawler and heads back to Simon's Town, its complement of birders and crew weary but elated. Out come the refreshments and welcome trays of sandwiches to round off a memorable experience. And it's not all over yet. There is still the chance of a sunfish or whale or graceful school of dolphins on the long run home. Tally for the day could be in excess of 20 new pelagic sightings for some and for most the trip will include a sought after 'special' of rarity worth, that could be a Wandering Albatross or even a new species for the South African bird list.

A final round of thanks goes out to skipper and crew for a day to remember before disembarking at the Simon's Town quay at around 15h00. What better now than to retire to a nearby 'refreshment station' to regain one's land legs and enjoy the very special ambience that Simon's Town has to offer the visitor to the Fairest Cape in all the World.

To book a Pelagic trip, contact Patrick or Marie-Louise at Avian Leisure
Ph/fax: +27 21 7861414 mobile: 083 272 2455 or 083 560 5510. View our Self-Catering Accommodation webpage with links to other birding resources.
Email: avianleisure@netpoint.co.za


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