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Africa Geographic Travel

Ever grimaced while ticking an albatross from land as you realise that your field-guide illustration offers more detail than you can see on the speck dipping under the horizon?

If the answer is YES, Africa Geographic Travel offers you the opportunity of a lifetime – to get up close and personal with the ocean’s majestic wanderers gliding elegantly at arms’ length past your binoculars.

Experiencing the beauty of the Western Cape waters’ bountiful and exciting birdlife is now a simple and affordable affair. In fact, we would not be exaggerating if we said that leaving these shores without ticking off several species of albatrosses, petrels or shearwaters is virtually impossible.

Hop aboard one of our scheduled day trips from Simon’s Town harbour to the continental shelf. Affordably priced, this tours have been designed to make this experience as productive and memorable as possible. It’s the easiest decision you’ll ever make.

Join us at the shelf.

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Itinerary and expectations

The Western Cape, is regarded by many seafaring ornithologists as one of the best pelagic birding spots in the world, regularly supporting hundreds of thousands of seabirds, easy to encounter and enjoy for extended periods of time. Seabird abundance is particularly elevated due to the highly productive, nutrient-rich upwelling system of the Benguela current, derived from Antarctica’s icy waters. In addition, there is also an active hake-fishing flotilla all year round, and reaching both the continental shelf, the fishing grounds and trawlers or long-liners at work, is not difficult or far. Very few seabirding operations, and places in the world provide such a world-class product and experience – a plethora of exciting birds a mere few hours cruising away and the sheer spectacle of over 5 000 seabirds squabbling over scraps behind fishing boats, impervious to your presence.

Sailing from Simon’s Town, home of the charismatic African penguin, we’ll steam past the impressive crags of Cape Point and head out into the big blue. A few hours into our journey, the radar and sonar detectors will be activated and all eyes kept peeled to find an operating hake trawler or long-liner vessel. Once one is spotted, we will set course for it and follow its wake. Discards, an oil trail and the lure of fresh fish when the nets or long lines are hauled, keep as many as 5 000 birds in a holding pattern behind the trawler, and any birder in a state of “Pelagic Nirvana”.

The sight is nothing short of amazing, exhilarating and extremely exciting. Some 15 to 20 different species can be teased out from the seabird cloud and slowly but surely, with the help of your guide, you will soon become familiar with each species and their age.

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Once the initial adrenalin rush is under control and you have conquered the albatrosses (black-browed, shy, and both, Indian and Atlantic yellow-nosed), white-chinned and pintado petrel, Sooty and greater shearwater Cape gannet, Wilson’s or European storm-petrel, subantarctic skua, etc….we will sift through “the cloud” in search of less common species. The composition of the flocks differs according to the time of year, as do your chances of seeing other species.

In winter (May–August), there’s a good chance you’ll see the enigmatic wandering, southern and northern royal albatrosses, northern and southern giant-petrel, broad-billed and antarctic prion, pintado petrel, subantarctic skua and even spectacled petrel or southern fulmar.

Spring (September–October) brings passage migrants such as soft-plumaged petrel and great shearwater.

In summer (November–February), the Benguela waters host Palearctic migrants, including Cory’s and Manx shearwater, European storm-petrel, arctic, long-tailed and pomarine skua, arctic tern and sabine’s gull. Other summer visitors to look out for are flesh-footed shearwater, great shearwater (which breeds on the Tristan da Cunha island group), great-winged petrel (a winter breeder on the Prince Edward Islands) and Leach’s storm-petrel (which breeds on South Africa’s coastal islands).

A short while amidst this frenzy will have you noticing and locking your bins onto different flight actions, sizes and shapes. Before you know it you will be poised and ready to sift through squadrons of feeding seabirds, precious “nuggets” and rarer pickings. The Western Cape is the best place to look for a variety of vagrant and occasional pelagic species; and unlikely as they may be, the following are some of the more spectacular species that are always possible: northern and southern royal albatross, bulwer’s, or grey-headed albatross, the stunning darkmantled sooty albatross, south polar skua little shearwater, grey petrel, blue petrel, white-bellied storm petrel, and one of the best chances of seeing the extremely rare and endangered spectacled petrel  (which breeds on the Tristan Group).

In addition to this, we will often encounter the curious and ubiquitous Cape fur seal, with rare and spurious chances of of other seals such as elephant or subantarctic fur seal. In season, expect to come across several species of whales such as Southern Right and Humpback, whilst Bryde’s whale may be seen all year round. Rarer species sighted include long-finned pilot, sperm and a recurring pod of killer whales that have specialized on dolphins, when these are attracted annually to False Bays’ mini-sardine. During this period, and even more frequently in summer, common, bottle-nosed and dusky dolphins are often enjoyed.

Both birders and photographers will be spoilt for choice as they work the flocks and soak in the views. Expect to return with several full memory cards, and the prospect of several nights of photo processing added to your schedule, but more importantly a valuable set of indelible memories that will last a lifetime.

Other birding activities

Seabirds require strong winds to fly efficiently so you can expect Cape Town’s oceanic waters to be rough. When conditions prevent the boat from leaving harbour, we will advise clients of an alternative date. However, there are many birding destinations in and around Cape Town, and we can escape the weather by heading northwards to Langebaan, or inland to the Tankwa Karoo. Both destinations will yield a fruitful birding experience. Should the pelagic trip be cancelled due to bad weather, we will return all your monies.

Cape Town’s weather and oceanic waters can be rough, and we advise, for the comfort of our clients, that an alternative day be selected in case inclement weather prevents the boat from leaving harbour. A variety of other birding activities are possible in and around Cape Town, and escaping Cape Town’s winds or rains is not that difficult. Simply, heading north towards Langebaan, or inland to the Tankwa Karoo, will both yield a highly productive birding experience. And, should the bad weather persist, and the pelagic outing need to be cancelled, we will return all your monies.

For more details on any of the scheduled outings, how to dress, prepare for the trip, and what to bring or not on board….please contact travel@africageographic.com

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Additional Information

Meeting Point and Departures: Simon’s Town Harbour, 07h00 sharp.

*Please note you will need to book for an entire weekend as we will use the more suitable day of the two (weather wise) for the outing.

Difficulty: Pelagic birding is entirely dependent on weather conditions. Good weather can provide the most serene, flat seas and pleasant experience one could wish for, whilst a bit of wind and wave action can disarm even the most experienced. Those prone to seasickness are well advised to take precautionary measures to handle motion sickness. The constantly rocking boat demands good balance and a sturdy grip.

Price Includes: Professional bird guide, return passage to the continental shelf from Simonstown Harbour, sandwiches and drinks on board.

Booking and payment details: Once you have decided to join one of our departures, you will need to contact us for a booking form, which will include details relating to deposit and final payments etc. As our groups are small they fill up quickly.

Groups willing to book at any other time of the year can also be accommodated.

Client Testimonials

See this blog post for a detailed trip report written by the trip’s tour leader, Christian Boix. 

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