Cape Town to Marion Island

  • Dewi Edwards
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8 years 6 months ago #12684 by Dewi Edwards
Dewi Edwards created the topic: Cape Town to Marion Island
Cape Town To Marion Island.

In August 2006 I won the equivalent of the lottery for birders, the chance of a working trip to Marion Island in the Southern Indian Ocean. At just under 2200km Southeast of Cape Town, Marion is the Largest of the two islands forming the Prince Edward Islands.
Departing from Cape Town aboard the SA Agulhas, the re-supply vessel for the base on Marion, we would spend 5 days at sea, 5 days ashore and a further 5 days on the return leg.

Table Mountain & Cape Town

We boarded the ship at 1130hrs on the 10th and settled into our cabins before waving goodbye to the crowds gathered on the quayside. The ship was full of personnel who would be spending up to 18 months on the island working, either on scientific studies of the wildlife there, or on constructing the new base which was being built. I was on a fact finding mission as the company I worked for was engaged to build a new research station in Antarctica and they were interested in the construction methods and materials used here. We sailed at 1500 to the amazing backdrop of Table Mountain (this was my first visit to South Africa). Birds seen in the harbour were Cape, Kelp and Hartlaub’s Gulls, (Cape being a subspecies of Kelp Gull which may or may not be separated in the future?) along with Cape and White-breasted Cormorants and a single Black-headed Heron.

Hartlaub’s Gull

Leaving the harbour behind us, Cape Gannets became a common sight and an Antarctic Skua flew over to inspect the ship. These were followed by the first Albatrosses of the trip, three or four Shy albatross and a single Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross.

Cape Gannet

Shy Albatross

As we sailed along the Southern coast towards Cape Agulhas, White Chinned Petrels became commonplace, many Sooty Shearwaters were seen and a single Caspian Tern flew close to the Ship.

Sooty Shearwater

Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross

Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross

The following morning found both Indian and Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross loosely following the Ship along with increasing numbers of Shy albatross. The first Northern Giant Petrel was noted and an Antarctic Tern was the first of several seen.

Within a short time, Salvin’s Prions started to appear and the first of many Cape Petrels were noted. A single Flesh Footed Shearwater put in a brief appearance, with Great-winged Petrel and Antarctic Fulmar added to the day’s list. Black-browed Albatross took the species list to four for the day with White-chinned Petrel also making up the numbers.

Black-browed Albatross

Great-winged Petrel

Our third day onboard bought six species of Albatross, with Wandering and Sooty joining the four other species which were following in the wake of the ship. Both Northern and Southern Giant Petrel were present along with Atlantic, Grey and Soft-plumaged Petrels.

Wandering Albatross

Sooty Albatross

Three species of Prion were noted, mostly Salvin’s, with smaller numbers of Antarctic and a single Fairy Prion. Most of the Prions seen went unidentified as these birds are notoriously difficult unless good views are obtained of birds close to the ship, and even then they are a nightmare to tell apart!

Salvin’s Prion

Cape Petrels and Sunset

Day four dawned clear and bright with a flat calm sea. I was up on deck to watch the sunrise and the birds started to appear as the light became stronger. Even more Albatrosses today, but the two Yellow-nosed species and Black-browed failed to make an appearance. Instead we were treated to Grey Headed and Light Mantled Sooty Albatross, more Shy, Sooty and Wandering Albatross and to make the day even more perfect, a stunning Salvin’s Albatross – a rare vagrant to these waters.

Grey Headed Albatross

Salvin’s Albatross

Broad-billed Prion was also unexpected. A South African Scientist on board, Ross Wanless, was with me at the rear of the ship taking photographs when we both zoomed in on an approaching Prion. As the bird came closer, we both shouted “Broad Billed” at the same time and hurriedly checked the images we had taken to confirm the sighting.

Broad-billed Prion

Grey Petrels were now constantly present as were Cape and Northern Giant Petrels. Two more Great-winged Petrels were seen along with Antarctic and Salvin’s Prion’s and a Soft-plumaged Petrel.

Grey Petrel

Soft-plumaged Petrel

The next days sailing only produced one new bird for the trip, a Blue Petrel, whilst other birds were as previously described.

We arrived off Marion Island on the evening of the 15th in a gale force storm which was quite spectacular. As we sat offshore and the ship’s crew and aircraft personnel readied the helicopter to send us ashore, the sun crept out low over the horizon below dark, menacing skies.

Southern Giant Petrel in Storm

As the evening wore on, we were treated to what can only be described as one of nature’s most spectacular displays. Vast numbers of Salvin’s Prions were gathering offshore before flying in to their nesting grounds. It was impossible to estimate their numbers accurately, but more than 100,000 and possibly as many as 500,000 birds were wheeling around or sitting on the water in all directions. The sight itself would have been enough, but in the late evening light, with dark storm clouds above, the view was breathtaking. Even non-birders were out in force on deck to watch and all agreed that it was one of the most amazing experiences we had ever witnessed.

Salvin’s Prions gathering offshore

As if this wasn’t enough, I also saw three lifers together in one binocular view!! Namely Crozet Shag, Black-faced Sheathbill and Kerguelen Tern. These birds were also seen well during our stay ashore.

Crozet Shag

Black-faced Sheathbill

We were helicoptered ashore the following morning and spent most of our time at the base working, but did manage to get out for two walks during our stay. One evening we went along to Tripot Beach, where Gentoo Penguins were coming ashore after being out at sea feeding. Elephant seals were lazing about on the beach, along with some Bull Antarctic Fur Seals. Sub-Antarctic Fur Seals were also present, they were at the end of their breeding season and several almost weaned pups were found along the way.

Marion Island

The Ship SA Agulhas

Sub-Antarctic Fur Seal Pup

Antarctic Fur Seal Bull

The voyage back to Cape Town was just as good as on the way South. New birds for the trip included White-headed Petrel, Common Diving Petrel, Southern Royal Albatross and Kerguelen Petrel.

Common Diving Petrel

Kerguelen Petrel

As we approached the South African Coast, we saw Long finned Pilot Whales and a couple of Southern Right Whales and closer to Cape Town, several Cape Fur Seals were noted.

Southern Right Whale

Albatross & Sunset

An excellent trip which was followed by a few days birding in the West Coast National Park and other areas of the Cape and started my passion with African wildlife.



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  • waldens@faerieglen
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8 years 6 months ago #12685 by waldens@faerieglen
waldens@faerieglen replied the topic: Re: Cape Town to Marion Island
Thanks for sharing your remarkable experience, Dewi. Your photo's are excellent. You managed to photograph birds that we can only dream about. (I get seasick just sitting inside a yacht while at anchor <!-- s:hypnodisk: --><img src="{SMILIES_PATH}/hypnodisk.gif" alt=":hypnodisk:" title="Hypnotised" /><!-- s:hypnodisk: --> so there'll be no pelagic trips for me anytime soon) I see on the SABAP2 website that there is a position for a Field Assistant on Marion for a year. If only.......

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  • Doug
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8 years 6 months ago #12687 by Doug
Doug replied the topic: Re: Cape Town to Marion Island
The stuff dreams are made of!!!! NIce trip report and stunning photos.

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  • JGB
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8 years 6 months ago #12689 by JGB
JGB replied the topic: Re: Cape Town to Marion Island
Wow, what an amazing oppotunity and with Ross on board one of our most experienced pelagic birders!!!

You do realise that we are all green with envy!!!!

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  • Peregrinedive
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8 years 6 months ago #12695 by Peregrinedive
Peregrinedive replied the topic: Re: Cape Town to Marion Island
That was quite an amazing trip Dewi!

Thank you for sharing with us!! <!-- s:yes: --><img src="{SMILIES_PATH}/yes.gif" alt=":yes:" title="Yes" /><!-- s:yes: -->

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