Cape gannets are consummate fishers. These coastal birds can dive deep under water, plummeting down from 30 metres above the sea. They are masters of the air, but on the ground, as you’ll see at Bird Island, they are comically clumsy, forever making up for ungainly crash landings.

Did you know?

Cape gannets have lost the use of their nostrils and breathe through their bills.

In flight, a Cape gannet is surely among the most graceful of birds. Also, when it turns on the wing to dive into the sea after a fish, how surpassingly lovely it is.

On land, not so much. This is where you can see how it acquired its Afrikaans name of 'malgas', which translates as ‘mad goose’.

Go to Bird Island just off Lambert Bay on the West Coast and you’ll see these coastal birds in the hundreds. Particularly comical are the take-offs. Gannets are accustomed to nesting very close together, but on a windless day, they need a long ‘runway’ to take off. A length of the island is designated as such. Once ready, the bird launches into an ungainly bounding gallop before taking to the air and becoming elegant once more.

Living so close together has required of them a kind of sign language they use to mollify others. Landing is a hazardous process if they do it in the wrong place. They are greeted with annoyed pecks which requires much sky-pointing and placating until harmony returns. Once they get to their mates, they will quickly bond again by fencing their sharp bills, bowing and preening one another’s feathers.

Loony appearance aside, these birds are consummate fishers. From a height of 30 metres, they can dive 10 metres under water, eating their prey before they surface. During the annual Sardine Run off the Wild Coast and KwaZulu-Natal, they seem to rain down on the shoals.

And a good thing too. Their young are voracious. When they hatch, the babies weigh hardly 70 grams. But they grow fast. Both parents can barely keep up with their demands. No sooner have they regurgitated food into its waiting beak than the baby begs for more. Ornithologists have noted that sometimes one of the parents will retire to the fringes of the colony to find a bit of peace.

Within eight weeks, a baby gannet will weigh more than an adult. Shortly after that they are pushed out of the nest and live with other chicks on the edges, learning how to fly and be clumsy beauties, like their parents.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Lambert’s Bay Tourism Office
Tel: +27 (0) 27 432 1000
Fax: +27 (0) 27 432 2335

How to get here

The best and easiest place to see Cape gannets is on Bird Island, linked by a bridge to the West Coast town of Lambert’s Bay, which is about 3 hours’ drive north of Cape Town. Take the N7 north and turn left at Clanwilliam onto the R364.

Best time to visit

In around October and November, Cape gannets start congregating on islands like Bird Island to breed.

Around the area

Take a drive to the interesting little village of Leipoldtville, then head towards Elands Bay and drive back via the bird-rich wetland of Verlorenvlei. Lambert’s Bay also has an interesting museum, where you can see some of the local tortoise species. About 50km away is the Boschenbach Nature Reserve, an excellent day trip. And from July to October, just drive a short way inland to see glorious spring flowers.

Tours to do

If you’re interested in sealife, take a boat tour with Lambert’s Bay Boat Charters. You may be lucky enough to see the rare and elusive Heaviside dolphin. You’re bound to see plenty of pelagic birds.

Get around

In the case of Bird Island, you can walk. Of course, you may also see Cape gannets if you’re following the annual Sardine Run off KwaZulu-Natal in June, or simply flying along the coastline.

What will it cost

Entrance onto Bird Island costs approximately R30 per adult.

Length of stay

If you’re staying at Lambert’s Bay (which is a working fishing town with some interesting attractions), a visit to Bird Island makes a great half-day excursion.

What to pack

Whenever bird watching, your essential equipment will always include a good pair of binoculars and a local bird book.

Where to stay

Lambert's Bay has a 3-star hotel and a wide assortment of guesthouses.

What to eat

Lambert’s Bay has excellent seafood restaurants at the harbour. There are also 2 famous outdoor seafood restaurants, 1 of them right on the beach.This area is famous for its lobster and fresh snoek (a tasty and plentiful fish).