Sea Birding Pelagic Trips South Africa, Cape Town Pelagics


  Destination - Durban


Durban is an excellent launching point for pelagic trips. Although it lacks the variety and numbers of seabirds present in Cape seas, good numbers of many Southern Ocean species reach the KwaZulu-Natal coast. In addition, Durban is very accessible for birders from Gauteng and the other northern parts of the country.

The winter and spring periods (May-September) are best, when these birds congregate off our shores to escape the hostile winter conditions further south around their breeding islands in the Southern Ocean. There are even a few seabirds that are more common off Durban than further south, for example Flesh-footed Shearwater.


Indeed, Durban pelagic trips have boasted several mega-rarities that have never been recorded in Cape seas, for example Streaked Shearwater, Audubon's Shearwater, the new Mascarene Shearwater, Matsudaira's Storm Petrel and Brown Booby. Weather conditions in KwaZulu-Natal waters are also milder than further south and it is a rare event when a pelagic trip is cancelled at the last minute in the face of relentless gales and mountainous seas. This also means that you are less likely to be crippled by seasickness.

The first pelagic seabird encountered leaving Durban Bay in the winter is the Subantarctic Skua, a dozen or so of which lie in ambush just offshore waiting for incoming gulls and terns that they harass and rob of their food. The most abundant seabird is the Cape Gannet, which follows the sardine runs north from the Cape. Thousands to tens of thousands of gannets can be encountered, often spiraling in white clouds over the ocean offering breath-taking close-ups of their suicidal plunge-dives.

The Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross is the common albatross in KwaZulu-Natal waters, both at and away from trawlers. The larger Shy and Black-browed albatrosses are present in lower numbers and have to be carefully searched for amongst the hundreds of Yellow-noseds present at trawlers. This situation is quite reversed from Cape waters, where the last two species are common and the Yellow-nosed is the one to search for. The albatross-sized Southern Giant Petrel is rather rare with only singletons being irregularly recorded. Like elsewhere in South African waters, the White-chinned Petrel is the most abundant of the procellariform seabirds, present in many hundreds at trawlers and ubiquitous in the open ocean. The distinctively patterned Pintado Petrel is fairly common and the Sooty Shearwater is usually seen. The diminutive Wilson's Storm Petrel, a bird essentially identical in size, shape and plumage pattern to the Little Swift, is best chanced upon when rough seas get them moving around. One of the best pelagic ticks available is the Flesh-footed Shearwater, singletons of which can be found at trawlers and sometimes in the open ocean. This species is fairly regularly recorded off KwaZulu-Natal but is a decided rarity further south. Almost as exciting is the Great-winged Petrel, easily overlooked for a White-chinned Petrel, which often remains late into the summer when most of the other pelagic seabirds have already departed southwards. Another two uncommon species that offer a fair chance are Soft-plumaged Petrel and Antarctic Prion.

All in all, about half of the regularly recorded pelagic seabirds present in South African waters are routinely seen off Durban. A mixture of bait fish, fish oil and popcorn ('chum') is usually taken along on the trips and thrown overboard to attract most of these species to the boat under the right conditions. This can give mind blowing arms-length views of these ocean wanderers and birds such as Subantarctic Skuas, Indian Yellow-nosed Albatrosses, White-chinned Petrels and Sooty Shearwaters will even take food directly from your outstretched hand.


Text kindly provided by David Allan.