LIFESTYLE – Boating & Birding – “Dark-mantled Sooty Albatross”
O ur family went on a birding excursion, with fellow birders from all over the world, organised by Birdlife South Africa out on the Atlantic Ocean in search of sea birds. This type of excursion is known as a pelagic birding trip. As many of you saw on Facebook I posted photos of our trip. Many people commented and said that they are jealous that we went on a cruise. Just to set the story straight; we didn’t go on a cruise per say, we went on a pelagic birding trip and used a cruise ship as our vehicle. It was by no means a cruise, in my opinion, and I am sure every other birder on board would concur. I saw it as the perfect opportunity to use a hotel on water to go south of South Africa to see the amazing birdlife the sea has to offer. No other country as far as I know has done this sort of thing, even though many a birder has gone on an actual cruise to see pelagic birds. Even the crew could not believe what they were experiencing. There were hardly people sitting in the drinks bars, coffee bars or even sitting for very long for breakfast or lunch in the dining areas save for the handful, like Rudi and Abbey, my non-birding daughter, who themselves found lots do to keep them entertained. The outer decks on the stern and both sides of the ship were crowded by all the birders and this is where you would find us from the minute the sun came up until it set again. In my photo, you can see just about a fifth of the people on the decks.
I jovially questioned one of the crew members about their work and said that I couldn’t understand why his fellow crew members bothered packing out the swimming pool deck area’s deck chairs each morning and packed it away each evening without a single person using them. He said they packed it out in the hope that a few would give in to the temptation of taking a load off, but this was not to be. The crew would beg us to please sit at the bar for a drink during the day as they were bored. It was just bizarre. Birdlife South Africa decided to use a cruise ship to house as many birders as possible and go out to waters that are not that easily accessible without it being either dangerous or unpleasant or just plainly, too expensive. A decent-sized cruise ship was perfect! The MSC Sinfonia did not even think twice when approached by the idea and rightfully so; the trip was a resounding success and not expensive at all. We were a total of about 1965 birders who braved the cold Atlantic Ocean’s waters and parts of the Indian Ocean to seek out otherwise rarely seen birdlife. We travelled as far as 300 to 400km south of Cape Agulhas and Cape Point to the continental shelf travelling at slow speeds as little as two knots. We were pleasantly rewarded with many rarities as well as common, but unseen birds, unless you could hitch a ride on a trawler, this is not a common experience! Words and photos cannot describe what beauty we saw and the feeling of being humbled by the vast expansion of water we have on Earth. Our oceans beam with life and I even got to see a Great White Shark for a very brief moment before it disappeared into the dark waters. We saw different large whales that I couldn’t identify as well as a huge pod of pilot whales. The Sooty Albatross, also known as the Dark-mantled Sooty Albatross, is a beautiful specimen of the sea. It is not a very commonly seen bird so high north of the Atlantic, but is however more commonly sighted than its fellow Lightmantled Albatross which is a near-threatened, rare vagrant to our region. The light-mantled however was seen by some on the ship, but sadly, I was not that lucky. Oh well, next time. The Sooty Albatross is however vulnerable and is also near-threatened but more commonly found sub-Antarctic