The Bird Island Group Marine Protected Area is scattered in a rough group of tiny islands not far from Port Elizabeth. They are critical habitat for African penguins and gannets. Although not usually open for tours, the islands are lovely to cruise among, especially for bird (and shark) lovers.

Did you know?

There is a lighthouse on Bird Island and the birds are used to humans coming and going.

Not far from Port Elizabeth lies a small constellation of islands known as the Bird Island Group Marine Protected Area.

They may not be large – some are not much more than glorified rocky surfaces poking out of the sea – but they are home to South Africa’s greatest colonies of Cape gannets, African penguins, roseate terns, Antarctic terns and kelp gulls.

As Addo Elephant National Park has expanded seawards, these islands have come under the protective wing of South African National Parks.

The islands are also classified as Important Bird Areas and with good reason. The gannet and penguin populations in the country are particularly dependent on these pieces of land.

Swimming below the surface of the surrounding ocean are great white sharks that prey on the many seals living on a little island called Black Rocks. There are also many species of whales, including the glorious southern right whales.

Other whales that are somewhat less flamboyant than the lolling, breaching, lobtailing southern rights include the speedy Bryde’s whales and singing humpbacks heading north on an annual migration between May and November.

If you go out on a boat cruise in and around the islands, be sure to keep a lookout for bottle-nose dolphins and other species of dolphins too.

The protection given by declaring a no-fishing zone in part of the Bird Island Group Marine Protected Area resulted in a resurgence in certain fish stocks. And the immediate beneficiaries were the penguins, who didn’t have to swim so far to find sardines and anchovies.

Going on a boat cruise is the only way of really appreciating these islands, since they’re not really places tourists can land and explore. No diving is really allowed here either – the heavy great white shark presence would make it risky.

Having said that, there has been the odd organised trip to Bird Island with its 160 000 gannets making an incredible racket and a memorable smell.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Raggy Charters
Tel: +27 (0)41 378 2528 or +27 (0)73 152 2277
Email: info@raggycharters.co.za

How to get here

There are a number of cruise companies in Port Elizabeth that can take you out on a boat among the islands. One of the best known operators is Raggy Charters. Note that it's not one of their regular cruises, since the islands are two hours from Port Elizabeth.

Best time to visit

Strangely enough, the best time to see seabirds (in the air, that is), is when the winds are blowing hard.

What to pack

Even if it's a sunny day, take a jacket, preferably something waterproof. Take along binoculars as well.

Where to stay

Port Elizabeth has many accommodation options.

What to eat

Jaffles are a very particular kind of toasted sandwich you mostly find only in the Eastern Cape province.