The off-shore waters of the south western Cape have some of the best seabird watching in the world. The cold Benguela Current, which originates in Antarctica, brings nutrient-rich waters from the south, the strong south-easterly winds create upwelling, bringing the nutrients to the surface for phytoplankton, the basis of the marine food chain, to feed on. As a result of this, an amazing diversity of sea creatures and seabirds can be found.
Major demersal and pelagic fisheries also ply these waters, and the discards from the trawlers and long-liners provide much food for seabirds.
Under the right conditions, true pelagic seabirds, such as albatrosses, shearwaters and petrels can be seen from the shore (see the page on Cape Point Nature Reserve and Kommetjie), but the best birding is out at sea along the Continental Shelf which lies between 20 and 50 nautical miles offshore. Several specialist pelagic sea birding operators offer one day trips year round (see below), all with knowledgeable bird guides on board.
For a birder, one of these trips, especially in winter, when thousands of seabirds can be seen, is a spectacle and birding highlight not to be missed.
Numbers and diversity of species is highly seasonal. Monthly historic tables of sightings can be obtained from any of the recommended operators.
Winter (May – September), should produce at least 4 species of albatross, Shy, Black-browed, Atlantic and Indian Yellow-nosed, plus a good chance of a Wandering and perhaps a Southern or Northern Royal Albatross. White-chinned Petrel, Sooty Shearwater, Cape Gannet and Subantarctic Skua are common, along with huge numbers of Pintado Petrel. Both Southern and Northern Giant Petrel are usually present with Antarctic Prion, Soft-plumaged and Great-winged Petrel and Wilson’s Storm Petrel. Antarctic Fulmar and Spectacled Petrel are occasionally seen, the latter more regularly of late. Antarctic Tern are often seen close inshore.
Summer (October – April), many of the winter species might still be around but Pintado Petrel in far lower numbers. Summer down south is when we have the North Atlantic migrant seabirds arriving. These include Cory’s, Great, Manx and Flesh-footed Shearwater, European and Leach’s Storm Petrel, Parasitic, Long-tailed and Pomarine Jaeger, along with Sabine’s Gull.
Operators leave from either Hout Bay (Atlantic side) or Simon’s Town (False Bay, Indian Ocean side) of the Cape Peninsula and head for the ‘Canyon’, the closest point of the Continental Shelf also using local ‘gen’ on where fishing vessels are operating on the trawling grounds to home in on.
List of recommended pelagic seabirding operators: