Pelagic birding trips
Did you know?
Leach’s storm petrel, a very rare summer visitor, was found breeding on Dyer Island near Cape Town.
If you’re a birder, a pelagic birding trip off South Africa could boost your lifer list dramatically.
South Africa has no less than 3 000 km of coastline, varying from warm tropical waters off KwaZulu-Natal to the icy, nutrient-rich currents washing against the Western Cape.
The country has over 100 pelagic species, so your sea birding will almost certainly be productive, depending on weather and season. Perversely, the rougher the weather, the better the sea birding, so don’t forget seasick tablets.
Some birders say that sea birding off the Western Cape, specifically Cape Town, is some of the best in the world.
But let’s start at Durban, a popular departure point for tropical birding trips, with a chance to see frigatebirds, tropicbirds and boobies. Generally, though, depending on the season, you’re likely to see albatrosses (shy, black-browed and Indian yellow-nosed), petrels (white-chinned and pintado), flesh-footed shearwater and Antarctic terns.
If you’re here in mid-winter (June or July), you may encounter the annual 'Sardine Run', a massive migration of these fish northwards. If you're lucky, you’ll see hundreds of Cape gannets plummeting into the seas to catch them.
Midway points like East London also have their attractions, especially in May and June, with birds frequently flying so close that you’ll hardly need your binoculars.
Take a pelagic birding trip out of Cape Town, and you’ll hardly know where to look first, especially if there’s a fresh wind blowing. You’ll see a bewildering array of terns, cormorants and gulls.
Further out, you’ll start encountering southern ocean seabirds. First prize is finding a fishing trawler and watching to see the bird extravaganza this brings. Winter is the best season – there are four species of albatrosses on offer, plus terns, treats like giant petrels, storm-bellied petrels, Antaractic prions and Antarctic fulmars.
Summer brings phalaropes, shearwaters, skuas and more.
You could also keep an eye out for whales, strange sunfish, Cape fur seals on the hunt, sharks and leaping dolphins.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Birdlife South Africa
Tel: +27 (0) 11 789 1122
How to get here
Pelagic birding trips mostly depart from Cape Town, East London and Durban - but check with individual operators.
Best time to visit
Winter (May to September) is the time when you'll see those elusive sub-Antarctic species, but the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn also yield good sightings.
Length of stay
Usually operators book a boat for a weekend, so that if the weather is unsuitable on one day, they can go out on the next. Set aside half a day, as a rule.
What to pack
Be prepared for anything. The best birding is to be had on windy, choppy days, so first take seasick tablets if in doubt. Dress in layers (even on a sunny day), ideally with a waterproof parka and leggings if you have them.
Don't forget your binoculars or your bird book, sunburn cream (even in winter), a hat and sunglasses.
What to eat
On most trips, there will be something to eat - sandwiches and the like. But being out at sea makes you hungry, so bring along some snacks of your own if in doubt.