Sea Birding Pelagic Trips South Africa, Cape Town Pelagics


  Destination - SubAntarctic Islands: Prince Edward and the Pack Ice


These British islands are home to six endemic landbirds, including the world's smallest flightless bird, and 22 species of breeding seabirds. Four seabird species breed nowhere else. Inaccessible Rail, Gough Moorhen, Tristan Thrush, Gough Bunting, Tristan Bunting and Wilkins' Bunting are endemic to the islands.

Tristan Albatross, Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross, Atlantic Petrel and Spectacled Petrel only breed at these islands, but range more widely through the South Atlantic Ocean. This is the easiest place in the region to see Northern Rockhopper Penguin and White-faced and White-bellied Storm Petrels.

  The Ship

The 6000 tonne SA Agulhas is South Africa's Antarctic supply and research vessel. It is a 'no frills' research ship, not a luxury cruise vessel, but is designed to withstand the rigours of the 'roaring forties' and 'furious fifties'. It is 22 years old, and although not an icebreaker, she is ice-strengthened and can pass through pack-ice up to 1 m thick. She heads south to Antarctica twice each summer, usually fighting her way through the pack to reach the continent for the first time in December each year.

The ship carries up to 90 passengers in addition to 10 officers and more than 30 crew. There will be a top doctor on board in case of emergencies. Passengers are housed in cabins on either the main deck or heli-deck levels (well above the water-line). All cabins have en suite bathrooms, with a toilet, basin and shower. Baths are not an option in the roaring 40s! There are five cabin options.

SA Agulhas
SA Agulhas
SA Agulhas
  Main Deck

There is a newly refurbished lounge/bar area with an upper deck lounge for smokers, and a small library. The very large helicopter hanger is where meetings and lectures will be held. Ample sheltered deck space for sea watching is available, with the monkey island and main bridge also accessible for observation.

Daily schedule
7h30-8h30 Breakfast
12h00-13h00 Lunch
18h30-20h00 Dinner
20h15 Feedback session on the day's birding (heli-hanger)

Meals will be served in the saloon, with full table service. On some key days (e.g. in the pack-ice), snack lunch may be served in the heli-hanger, to maximise the amount of time on deck. Barbeques may be held on the helideck on some evenings if the weather permits.

SA Agulhas
SA Agulhas
SA Agulhas
  Birding Aboard the ship

There are several good vantage points aboard the Agulhas. Most people will probably prefer to bird from the heli-deck at the stern of the ship, one level above the main deck. This area, and the adjacent walkways running forward from the heli-deck, provide reasonably sheltered viewing options of birds passing alongside the ship as well as great views of birds following the ship. The area is large enough to accommodate all the passengers, and its wide open expanse allows you to move rapidly from one side of the ship to the other, should you be on the wrong side for a good bird.

The main deck offers similar views to the heli-deck, but is lower down and is less easy to move around on. It is best used for photographing ship-followers and is good in the rain (covered). Some birds avoid the ship, and are best observed from a forward-looking vantage. There are two options: in calm weather you can bird from the bow, but this is very exposed, usually subject to strong winds and often takes spray. The other forward vantage is the 'monkey island' on top of the bridge. This is more sheltered, but is distant from the birds (you're about 10 m above the sea and well back from the bow).

The guides in different areas of the ship will have two-way radios to keep in touch about good birds, and we'll use the ship's PA system for extreme rarities. There will be a loud-hailer to make announcements on the heli-deck, where most birders are likely to congregate. The guides will give general directions ("Soft-plumaged Petrel 100 m out, above the horizon, going down…"), but the onus remains with you to actually spot the birds! Scanning with binoculars is essential for small birds like storm petrels. Doing some homework on what the various species look like will also help you find the right bird more quickly.