Out on the ocean wave

I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would ever get onto a small boat and head out to sea beyond sight of land just to see some birds. I also am not a bucket-lister, nor planner of things far in advance, and spur-of-the-moment is more my thing. (Some years ago, a friend and I were having coffee and the conversation turned to travel. Two weeks later we were sipping coffee on the Champs-Élysées!) Nor did I think I would become an avid birder, due to poor eyesight and the vagaries of multifocals. Yet Saturday saw me out of bed long before the crack of dawn, boarding a vessel with 10 other birders for my first, and probably not last, pelagic trip. Being a natural early bird (sorry) this was no hardship, and as these trips are very much weather dependent, we set off in ideal conditions of no wind and a 1.5 – 2m swell. My modus operandi to ward off any hint of seasickness on small boats has always been to face the wind and never look down and this worked like a charm. The harbour lights twinkled in the reflection of the crimson sunrise creeping across the clouds as we sped away from the harbour and out into the open sea.

There is something indescribable about standing on the deck of a ski-boat with 500hp roaring behind you, cresting and falling over the swells with a rhythmic ‘thump’ causing you to brace your knees as you lean back against the gunwale, or grip the handrail and watch the white trails of spume as the hull cuts neatly through the swells. The powerful thrust of the propellers throws up a wake that tracks the skipper’s course and as you leave land behind, the life that survives at sea slowly appears. Suddenly birds are gliding up a swell, swooping centimetres from the surface as they dance across the waves in harmony with the patterns of the sea. Seals wallow, flippers aloft in a lazy wave to this noisy visitor to their realm.

A rusting ship crosses before us, bound for parts unknown, and we slow down to negotiate its wake with the least disturbance, then race off into the deep as it disappears surprisingly quickly from view. A pale dot appears on the horizon 12nm away and we change course and head for our destination – a working trawler where thousands of birds will be gathering to await the pulling of the net. Flocks of pintado petrels, shy albatross, sooty shearwaters and storm petrels bob in the water. A swift tern flies past, far from its shoreline habitat.

A harsh metallic clang signals the start of the net being dragged up from the ocean floor and one has to try and overlook the sight of the net bulging with fish of all descriptions being hauled aboard to be turned into frozen fillets within hours to satisfy the gigantic appetite of Man. The birds swirl in their thousands, seals weaving in and out of the water as they snatch at any morsel to spare, and it’s a screeching, squawking, squabble all around. It’s incredible to watch these birds in action, so close you can almost touch them, yet so difficult to photograph as the boat rocks to and fro with the motion of the sea. Shouts ensue as a new bird species is spotted and lenses are pointed in the direction indicated by our bird guides. A thousand frames are shot, to be sorted through later to find that bird in the flock. Sometimes I am lucky and can capture a single close-up, although many were scenic photos of sky or sea with nary a bird in sight! Many hours passed unnoticed as we revelled in the discovery of lifers (birds not yet seen) and rarities (shouldn’t be there) and just generally lapping up the joy of being out there in the wide blue yonder!

The return to harbour saw some dozing in a corner, the adrenalin sapping and birds disappearing in the wake of the trawler, and a bank of fog obscured all vision for the last 12nm before reaching Hout Bay. A long but exciting time at sea, to be repeated. I saw 12 new birds, missed two, the Atlantic and Indian yellow-nosed albatrosses – it would be cheating to say I had positively identified them among the thousands of beating wings. The photos are for the record of a wonderful day out.

Antarctic prion – a tiny speck in a very large ocean!

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