Mossel Bay | Garden Route

Calling All Nature Lovers and Photographers

Capture Mossel Bay's Pelagic Birds in Action

On fishing and birding trips several pelagic birds were spotted, like this Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross spotted during our fishing and birding trip

Mossel Bay is a South African coastal town renowned for its diverse bird species. If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, environmentalist, or photographer, you’ll be thrilled to explore the pelagic birds that call this place home on one of our birding trips, or seabird safaris. 

Pelagic birds are species that spend the majority of their lives at sea, and Mossel Bay offers the perfect vantage point to witness their remarkable behaviors. 

With its breathtaking coastal landscapes and diverse ecosystems, the Western Cape of South Africa is a haven for nature enthusiasts. Among the region’s many natural treasures are the majestic seabirds that grace its shores, creating a mesmerizing coastal symphony.

Unveiling one of our most charismatic feathered visitors

One of the most iconic seabirds in South Africa is the African penguin (Spheniscus demersus). These charismatic birds, also known as jackass penguins due to their distinctive braying call, are only found along the southern coast of Africa. They have a sleek black and white plumage, with a distinctive pink patch of skin above their eyes. The African penguin often visits the coast of Mossel Bay, and we have spotted several dozen over the years while out at sea for fishing or research purposes. There is even a small penguin rehabilitation centre here, as we have had many juvenile penguins end up on our beaches, seemingly lost from their colony. The sad news about African penguins is that their population is disappearing from over 1 million breeding pairs in the early 1900s, to less than 10,400 pairs today.

African penguins being released after rehabilitation in Mossel Bay
African penguins being released after rehabilitation in Mossel Bay

The Graceful Cape Gannet

A notable seabird species found in Mossel Bay is the Cape gannet (Morus capensis). These elegant birds are renowned for their striking appearance, with a snowy white body, yellow head, and black-tipped wings. Cape gannets are highly adapted for diving, with long, slender wings that allow them to soar effortlessly through the air and plunge into the water to catch fish. We frequently witness them repeatedly diving during the winter; peak sardine season. When they rest en masse on the ocean in a white “raft”, they create a cacophony of calls and are a breathtaking sight for onlookers. 

Marvel at the Majestic Terns

Seabirds in the Western Cape exhibit fascinating migration patterns, traveling vast distances in search of food and suitable breeding grounds. Many species undertake long-distance migrations, crossing oceans and continents to reach their destinations.

For instance, the Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea) is a seabird that breeds in the Arctic during the summer months and then migrates all the way to the Antarctic for the winter. This incredible journey covers a distance of over 40,000 kilometers, making it one of the longest migrations in the animal kingdom. A number of tern species have been spotted in Mossel Bay, albeit rarer sightings than the Arctic tern, swift tern and sandwich tern, with the Damara tern and Caspian tern being of particular interest.

White-winged terns choose to winter in Mossel Bay. Seen here on the rocks at The Point
Many species of terns choose to winter in Mossel Bay. Spot the DamaraTern.

Stunning Skuas, Shearwaters and Petrels

Other seabirds, such as skuas and petrels, undertake shorter migrations within the Southern Hemisphere, moving between different regions in search of food and favourable conditions. We see sub-Antarctic skuas from around May to October in Mossel Bay. Although you see plenty offshore, you’ll sometimes encounter them a little closer to the coast, when they follow the fishing boats back to shore. They are highly opportunistic predators, so where you see a fishing vessel, you’ll likely find a skua or two. A bird that you will find by the dozen around fishing boats during the winter, alongside skuas, are flesh-footed shearwaters (Ardenna carneipes) and we do see the occasional sooty shearwater (Ardenna grisea). Excitingly,  there have been sporadic sightings of black-bellied storm petrels (Fregetta tropica), white-chinned petrels (Procellaria aequinoctialis), and even the Southern Giant Petrel (Macronectes giganteus). 

Sub-antarctic skua visits our boat during a family trip
Sub-antarctic skua visits our boat during a family trip

Impressive Albatross

One of the most amazing sightings while offshore are magnificent albatrosses, with impressive wingspans, gliding effortlessly through the ocean currents. They have the longest wingspans of any living birds, with some species reaching to over 3.5 m. Watching them fly with little effort is something not to be missed. They use dynamic soaring and slope soaring techniques.  Sadly, Albatrosses are threatened by various factors, such as habitat loss, invasive predators, pollution, overfishing, and bycatch in longline fisheries. Most albatross species are listed as endangered or vulnerable by the IUCN. Conservation efforts are being made to protect these magnificent birds and their habitats. One of the initiatives is the Albatross Task Force, who can boast a massive achievement of reducing albatross deaths by 99% in the South African trawl fishery and by 85% in the pelagic longline joint-venture fleet.

Our Albatross Visitors

Sixteen species of albatrosses regularly fly to South African waters to feed, such as the Indian yellow-nosed albatross, the shy albatross, the wandering albatross, the southern royal albatross, the black-browed albatross, and the Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross. Some of these species breed on the subantarctic islands of Marion and Prince Edward, which are part of South Africa’s territory. Others are visitors that can be seen off the coast of South Africa, especially in the winter months when they follow the cold Benguela Current. We see dozens of them offshore in Mossel Bay during winter and one of the best ways to see them is to book one of our pelagic birding trips.

Shy albatross, Indian yellow-nosed albatross and fleshfooted shearwaters surround our boat during a deep sea fishing trip.
Shy albatross, Indian yellow-nosed albatross and fleshfooted shearwaters surround our boat.

Best time for pelagic birding trips in Mossel Bay

The conservation efforts for seabirds in Western Cape

Due to various threats such as habitat loss, pollution, and overfishing, many seabird populations are in decline. As a result, there are numerous conservation efforts in place to protect these remarkable creatures in the Western Cape.

One such initiative is the establishment of marine protected areas, which provide safe havens for seabirds to breed and forage. These protected areas restrict human activities such as fishing and tourism, ensuring that seabirds have access to vital resources without disturbance. Conservation organisations also work to raise awareness about the importance of seabird conservation and promote sustainable fishing practices to reduce bycatch, a significant threat to seabird populations. Mossel Bay has its own Rescued African penguin at Seabird and Penguin Rehabilitation Centre, which is kept busy with numerous patients every year.

Rescued African penguin at Seabird and Penguin Rehabilitation Centre, Mossel Bay
Rescued African penguin at Seabird and Penguin Rehabilitation Centre, Mossel Bay

The ecological importance of seabirds in Western Cape

Seabirds play a vital role in maintaining the balance of the marine ecosystem in the Western Cape. They act as indicators of ocean health and assist in nutrient cycling, ensuring the sustainability of the marine environment.

Seabirds are top predators in the food chain and help regulate fish populations by feeding on small fish and marine invertebrates. Their guano, or bird droppings, is rich in nutrients and fertilises the surrounding waters, supporting the growth of plankton and other marine organisms. This, in turn, attracts larger fish and contributes to the overall productivity of the marine ecosystem. Seabird colonies also provide nesting habitats for other bird species, creating a diverse and interconnected web of life along the coast.

Tips for observing and photographing seabirds in Western Cape

For those looking to observe and photograph seabirds in the Western Cape, there are a few tips to keep in mind. Firstly, it’s important to respect the birds’ space and avoid disturbing their natural behaviours. Maintaining a safe distance and using binoculars or a telephoto lens can help capture detailed images without causing any harm.

Additionally, timing is crucial when it comes to seabird photography. Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to capture the soft, golden light that enhances the beauty of these birds. Patience is also key, as seabirds can be unpredictable and may require waiting for the perfect moment to capture their unique behaviours in action.

Unique experiences and tours for seabird enthusiasts

For seabird enthusiasts looking for unique experiences in the Western Cape, there are tours and activities available. One such experience is Salt Life Fishing Charters’ Seabird Safari, a birding trip that takes visitors offshore to spot the variety of pelagic birds we see off the coast of Mossel Bay. This tour gets bird lovers closer to sought-after seabirds, while offering breathtaking views of the surrounding landscapes.

Mossel Bay, being a region of significant importance for pelagic birds and attracting such a diverse range of bird species, makes it a prime destination for birding tours. Outdoor enthusiasts, environmentalists, and photographers will find our Salt Life Fishing Charters birding tours to be a haven for observing and capturing stunning images of these magnificent pelagic birds.

Reach out to book one of our Seabird Safaris.

References
  1. Avibase https://avibase.bsc-eoc.org/checklist.jsp?region=zawc22
  2. BirdLife International and Handbook of the Birds of the World (2016) Bird species distribution maps of the world. Version 6.0. Available at http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/requestdis
  3. Brooks M, Ryan P (2021). Southern African Bird Atlas Project 2. Version 1.41. FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. Occurrence dataset https://doi.org/10.15468/8x5b7h accessed via GBIF.org on 2023-09-11. http://sabap2.birdmap.africa/ [Species records]
  4. Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, S. M. Billerman, T. A. Fredericks, J. A. Gerbracht, D. Lepage, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2022. The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world: v2022. Downloaded from https://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/download/  [Taxonomy]
  5. Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 2011-2018. eBird. http://www.ebird.org/ [Species records]
  6. Facebook Global Rare Bird Alert. https://www.facebook.com/groups/GlobalRBA/ [Species records]
  7. Ueda K (2021). iNaturalist Research-grade Observations. iNaturalist.org. Occurrence dataset https://doi.org/10.15468/ab3s5x accessed via GBIF.org on 2023-09-11. https://inaturalist.org [Species records]
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