Durban Pelagic – Trip Report by Jon Cilliers

The day had arrived mercifully quickly.  A few weeks prior to this, I had been updating my bird list for the KZN 450 listing club on the Zest for birds website when I noticed something – I was only a few birds (in relative terms!) behind Trevor Hardaker.  This was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up, not least of all because it is my home province and Trevor lives in Cape Town!  If there was an opportunity to get more birds than someone else, especially in my home province, I had to go for it.  Having limited time as I do for trips that are going to yield lifers, the one avenue that I had been ignoring became my only avenue of attack:  a Pelagic.   Stories that I had read, and pictures that I had seen led me to vastly overestimate my potential haul of lifers at around 16!  I got carried away with myself and spiralled out of control.

When you are like me, blessed with a stomach that sulks when I run too quickly over a bumpy road, the thought of a 8 hour boat trip fills you with equal parts excitement and loathing.  I had managed to avoid it thus far and quietly built up an ok list in my home province.  But this opportunity was one that I could not sneeze at.  So with little to no aforethought, I mailed Niall Perrins who runs trips out of Durban.  They had space on one departing in 3 weeks.  The decision was made easier by the fact that I had torn my MCL in my knee – the wilderness trail that I was planning for later in the year was not going to happen, and I now had “bush budget” to spend!

I had gone to my friendly neighbourhood chemist the night before we were due to depart, and told her my tale of woe as far as seasickness goes, and requested that she give me something that was at the upper echelons of her scope of recommendation.  I didn’t even mind if it exceeded her prescribing powers a little.  This proved to be one of the best decisions I have made this year.

We arrived at the dock, and I must state from the outset that Niall runs a very professional operation.  Not once during the pre-trip briefing was I the least bit concerned about things such as scurvy, dysentery or the ever lurking danger of someone releasing a Kraken.  He had also procured a pretty sweet Catamaran for us to bid Durban bon voyage on.  Whilst still in the bay, we searched all the sandbanks in vain for the Lesser Black-backed gull and the Franklins gull that had been around.  We did pick up plenty of Kelp gulls, white  breasted cormorants and common terns.

I was amazed at the amount of guys fishing.  Sitting on the beach, you don’t really realise how many small boats are out there, and it was cool to see just how utilised this natural resource in our beautiful city is.  We pushed on past the fishermen, and on until we could barely see the coastline anymore.

 

“Tern!” came the call from David Allan at the port stern (that’s right, I’m a full salty sea dog now).  Turned out to be an Arctic Tern in breeding plumage.  A good looking bird, and my first lifer for the trip.  It was around this time that the old witch of the sea began to tickle Warrens tummy.  And she kept tickling all the way back to Durban!  A lesson in medicinal preparedness that he shan’t soon forget.

Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross

The White chinned Petrels then began making their appearance, along with the Indian Yellow-nosed Albatrosses.  Although these are 2 of the more common birds on a Durban pelagic, it was amazing to be up close with them, and times spent with these regal birds was as good as any time spent with any land bird.  There was then a loud call of “struth” from the stern as David let slip his ancestry.  No fewer than 6 Long Tailed Jaegers, also in breeding plumage.  This is a good bird for Durban.  The trip was rounded off nicely with good sightings of both Sooty and Flesh footed Shearwaters, also a good KZN bird.  Wilsons Storm Petrels were whizzing all around, and were really tricky to pick up in your binoculars as they were moving quite quickly, and the boat was a little less steady that the usual terra firma that my eyes were accustomed to!  Niall assured me that there was no technique to it, but as he was picking through the Storm Petrels looking for a European or perhaps even a White-bellied, I couldn’t help but notice that he was doing it one handed, whilst chugging down an ice cold quart with the other.  No technique apparently.

Long-tailed Jaeger
Long-tailed Jaeger
WIlson's Storm Petrel
WIlson’s Storm Petrel

The beauty of the Indian Ocean is something that everyone needs to see at least once in their lives.  Not the cute coastal waters, but the vast expanse of the ocean.  Being surrounded by nothing but a blue expanse as far as you can see, that shimmers in the light like the moustache of an old man with a cold.  Where we had stopped, you couldn’t see land from, and there wasn’t another ship in sight.  It was literally us and the deep blue sea.  I remarked that the sea had flattened out nicely, being concerned as I was for things like squalls.  It turns out that the best birding is actually when the sea is a little rougher, and the wind is blowing more.  Then the birds don’t settle on the sea, but fly around more with the chum.  Oh ja, the chum!  Almost forgot.  Having grown up surfing the North Coast a little, I was familiar with the sight of 1, 2 lanies throwing chum off the back of their dinghy, causing us in the water to feel uneasy.  Let me tell you, it is far more uneasy on the boat.  I had been through my quota of shark dissections at the Sharks board with kids excursions, but this was next level.  An interesting fact that David was explaining is that the birds are actually attracted to the smell of the chum, and not to the sight of it.  That’s why you need the wind. And that’s why it needs to be so ripe. So it wasn’t all just fun and games, I also learnt something.

As the last chum slick began to dissipate, and the birds were settling on to the water where you can’t see them because of the swells, a fin appeared off the starboard bow.  I had been anticipating a little more shark activity, what with the amount of unholy slop that we had been ladling into the ocean.  This animal was behaving weirdly though.  The fin was just flopping around.  “Manta ray” came the call from above as the crew were also looking at it.  No, no it’s a shark, I can see its head.  No!  It’s a whale shark, I can see the shape of its head!  Came another.  It’s a turtle.  After 6 minutes with this creature, we hadn’t narrowed it down to a family, let alone a species!  As it got closer, we saw that it was a Sunfish.  Well I didn’t, my knowledge of fish is about as impressive as the amount of times Warren was able to shout “Ralph” in a single morning.  A strange creature that is not often spotted in KZN waters and we spent a good 15 mins with it right next to the boat.  I also left with something to google when I got home.

Ocean Sunfish
Ocean Sunfish

The trip back into Durban was trophy-room material.  The sight of the KZN coastline from that far away, the sun slowly on its way to setting behind the beautiful city, the harbour entrance with all its frantic activity, the yacht regatta that looked from where we were like confetti littering the ocean, the buildings rising in places and the open green spaces in between, the smog hanging over certain places, and the air of regret hanging over the Bluff.  Well you couldn’t see it, but you can imagine.  I ended the trip with my life list as well as my KZN list having swelled to the tune of 7 birds.  Greatly less than  had anticipated, however the experience was far better than I could have foreseen.  We picked up 3 Cape Cormorants in the bay on the way in, and a Ruddy Turnstone moulting into breeding plumage right outside Wilsons Wharf.

Sooty Shearwater
Sooty Shearwater
Flesh-footed Shearwater
Flesh-footed Shearwater

A Pelagic is an absolute must for any birder, and even for someone who for some reason, perhaps a childhood trauma or recent brain haemorrhage, doesn’t like birding, it is still a very worthwhile experience to see a different part of your country that most people don’t get to see.

 

Niall Perrins and David Allan semi-regularly run tours out of Durban.  You can find out more at either http://www.niall.co.za/pelagic/KZNpelagictrips.htm or http://bustardsbirding.co.za or you can contact Niall or David directly through Facebook.

*Thanks to Niall and Ed Harris for the use of their photos

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