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.
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).