On 7 June 2014 Birdlife Overberg, championed by Chris Cheetham, arranged a pelagic outing with Zest for Birds. A special mention and thanks to Chris for arranging the trip and then selflessly sacrificing his spot (along with Jane McMorran, last to book) when, unavoidably the boat had to be changed and the new vessel could only accommodate 10 passengers.
This is the third time I and a business colleague from Johannesburg, Neil Reinecke, have booked for a pelagic outing. The previous two attempts had both been cancelled due to inclement weather. The prospects for this trip looked bleak as Cape frontal systems with stormy weather had moved in during the week. It was as though a birding higher power was at work and when one looked at the Windguru forecasts there was a small window which synchronised exactly with the hours of our trip when there were no towering Manhattan sky-lines for the wind and swell forecasts – 2 knot wind and 2 metre swells picking up again from early afternoon. The trip was on.
We met at 6:45 at Hout Bay Harbour and after a briefing from our skipper, Shawn, we boarded his 32 foot boat Extravagance with two 250 HP motors and set out for the open sea. It was pretty dark when we left. These guys seem to know exactly what they are doing, and though they built up some tension about the difficulty of finding trawlers, there was little deviation as they located 2 trawlers working in tandem, 35 nautical miles off-shore. The hour and a half ride out was reasonably comfortable with most of us able to shelter inside the cabin of the boat.
As it got lighter and with a beautiful sunrise emerging from the scattered clouds and mountains behind us, we began to pick up our first birds – White-chinned Petrel, Antarctic Prion and Shy Albatrosses. Trevor Hardaker’s enthusiasm is infectious and his depth of knowledge deeper than any mine on the Witwatersrand. He did not need to tell us where the birds had breakfast, lunch and dinner because that was what we were about to witness, but he told us where they came from, where they bred, how long it took to reach maturity, how many miles they flew a year and more and more and more. A lot of the information was lost but by the end of the trip I was able to distinguish between the Shy and Black-browed Albatrosses, Sooty Shearwaters and Subantarctic Skuas and the other petrels, prions and storm-petrels became second nature. Not too bad for someone who had only ever seen one of these birds before, plus, of course, the Cape Gannets, which were numerous.
As we reached the fishing waters the numbers of birds swelled with many of them resting on the water between the two trawlers. Early on Trevor picked up an Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross but the other rarer albatrosses were not present, not that it made any difference to a novice like me. The albatrosses and skuas flew so close to the boat that even with my 100-400 lens completely closed down, you could not fit the whole bird in the frame.
The beautiful Pintado (painted) Petrels showed well close to the boat. Interestingly, there were few Antarctic Prions which had been common as we motored out. Trevor explained that they did not like to compete with the other bigger birds at the scrums which developed at the fishing sites and were able to feed adequately out in the open sea. The Wilson’s Storm Petrels are tiny birds for so far out to sea and difficult to photograph.
Shawn, our skipper, had established that the vessel, Harvest Kirstina, was going to retrieve her fishing nets at 11:00 am. I believe it is called loiter time and we spent the two hours motoring slowly between the two trawlers sorting out our identifications for the various birds. When travelling into the waves (wind) we had to all congregate at the back of the boat to escape the spray but on the return legs, Charles and I sat at the front of the boat where conditions and lighting were as good as it can probably get for photography on a rocking boat.
I would have been satisfied with what we were already experiencing and little could prepare you for what we were about to witness. Shawn had timed it perfectly (of course) to be at the stern of Harvest Kirstina as she began drawing in the nets.
What a spectacle. It was pandemonium. There was a melee of hundreds of birds right alongside us feverishly scrapping over the fish. The Cape Gannets plummeted into the water as only they can. They were invariably robbed of their catch by the albatrosses who then proceeded to fight one another for the prize. The noise of squawking birds was incredible. The other skuas and petrels on the outskirts of the scrum picked up the crumbs.
I do not know how long it lasted, maybe 5 minutes, and things quietened as the trawler moved off. I know I felt drained, finding it difficult to assimilate what we had just witnessed. The only thing I can think of to describe the experience is to recount the story of a friend who was a professional English footballer and had played in some final or other at Wembley Stadium. We had been on Kariba in Zimbabwe when we got into one of those tiger fish feeding frenzies and for 10 minutes there had been pandemonium. I cannot recall how few fish we caught but I do remember his comment when it was over – “this was more exciting than running out onto Wembley”. Well, I had just experienced my Wembley moment. Unforgettable.
Shawn offered to continue and follow the vessel as she would be disgorging the offal. I think the others were equally drained and could not imagine that anything could top what we had just seen. The wind was picking up with some white horses on the crests of the waves and we agreed to return to Hout Bay.
I did not keep a record of birds seen and hopefully one of the others will provide the list. It was quite a day and I will certainly be booking for another summer time trip when apparently a whole new set of birds can be located.
For more beautiful images by Richard see