Seabird Viewing off Simon's Town and Cape
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.
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.
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
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 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
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
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.
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.