BirdLife South Africa’s 2022 FLOCK CRUISE TO MARION ISLAND

In January 2022, Lindsay and I were fortunate to be part of a cruise on the MSC Orchestra to the Prince Edward islands in the Sub Antarctic Indian Ocean, some 1920km southeast of Cape Town.

This was the “2021” BirdLife’s four-yearly gathering of bird-watching enthusiasts. The cruise liner MSC Orchestra can take over 3000 passengers, but it is believed that some 1400 passengers were on the cruise. A stressful part was ‘passing’ a PCR test some 48 hours before embarkation time and then testing negative in an antigen test at Cape Town docks! Our trip was not guaranteed until these steps had been successfully accomplished.

This, together with the rich diversity of birds and cetaceans in the area and surrounding ocean. Marion Island was declared a marine protected zone in 2013. The only permitted human inhabitants are the staff of the meteorological and biological research station run by the South African National Antarctic Programme. The MSC Orchestra was only allowed to sail up to 12 nautical miles from the island’s coast, and sadly we did not see the island because of low clouds!

The theme for the cruise was to raise awareness and funding for the ridding of Marion Island of mice that attack ground-nesting birds and threaten future breeding patterns.

The project entails air-dropping mouse bait capsules over the island using helicopters. The belief is that the mice, in turn, carry the bait into their burrows and expire there, thus not being seen as contaminated food by the seabirds. Similar successful projects on Gough and South Georgia islands provide impetus for the venture. While fund-raising has been in progress for some time, a total of R2,2 million was pledged on the cruise.

The large ship handled the Roaring Forties very well, with only minor sideways rolling. There was some rain and very high winds requiring the closing of decks. Though gloves, beanies and a rain jacket were worn, extreme cold weather clothing was not utilised though diligently packed as instructed!

Every day from 05h00, expert bird guides manned points on the outside decks and called in birds as they appeared on the horizon. A typical deck scene is shown here with ever expectant birders poised to catch a glimpse of a seabird as it zooms past the ship. The large ship enabled good photographing positions. The grey sea and fast flight of birds made photography difficult, and many blank and out-of-focus frames had to be confined to the dustbin!

A photographic lecture was delivered on board in which more appropriate and ultimately useful camera settings were proposed. The range of camera lenses on board was mind-blowing, with my 400mm lens being puny by comparison! A new development in mirrorless cameras was also very much in evidence. However, the jury is still out on whether the quality can equal the tried and tested single-lens reflex versions.

Daily lectures were presented by experts on various topics relevant to the nature of the cruise. The most prominent of these was by Peter Harrison MBE, widely known as the ‘David Attenborough of the Oceans’.

All in all, 58 seabird species were sighted and verified. There was always vigorous debate amongst the experts about some of the rarer species, and only clear photographic evidence was the decider. The voyage southwards went through the Atlantic Ocean convergence, where the warmer south-flowing currents mix with, the colder Sub Antarctic currents.

Given the abundance of food brought to the surface by the convergence, the large variety of seabird species made sightings highly rewarding. One widely-travelled seabird expert was heard to effuse about the “best albatross birding day he had ever had” and was quick to repeat ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy’s 1912 quote: “I now belong to a higher cult of mortals for I have seen the albatross”.

Ten species of albatrosses were sighted, of which four were first sightings for us. It is a truly humbling experience to observe these majestic birds as they glide seemingly effortlessly above the waves.

The excitement of seeing a new species of albatross is profound and even more so when a rare species is seen. A particularly rare albatross that made two appearances was the Tristan Albatross (pictured here), which is more usually observed in the vicinity of Tristan da Cunha Island in the Atlantic Ocean. Its sighting caused great excitement amongst the ornithologists on board.

The photos shown below is an Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross which came close to the ship. Observing albatrosses taking off from the water is always a photographic treat to capture. They create puddles as they ‘run’ on top of the water to gather enough speed to take off.

Small numbers of King and Macaroni penguins were briefly sighted as they porpoised through the waves. Though not small in size, the penguins looked tiny given the height of the deck above the water.

In addition, petrels, storm petrels, diving petrels, shearwaters, and prions were sighted in the deep southern oceans, as well as jaegers, phalaropes, oystercatchers, terns, gulls and gannets closer to our local shores.

We were able to see 14 new species on this trip which took our total of photographed birds to 589 of the more than 900 species on the South African bird list.

Also observed in abundance were various cetaceans – six confirmed species of dolphin, eight species of whales, and two species of seals, together with sharks, manta rays, flying fish and even some turtles. Here is one of those lucky shots of a striped dolphin out of the water.

Our voyage into the southern ocean was a further viewing of the abundance of nature and how privileged we are to visit this domain. Given the dearth of landmasses in the south for nesting, action to rid Marion Island of mice to protect nesting sites and thus ensure the perpetuation of the magnificent array of seabirds is sorely needed. We were able to participate in the sponsorship of the Mouse-free Marion Project, and now our sincere hope is that sufficient funds can be raised to realise this. BirdLife SA is at the forefront of this initiative.

So, for us, Flock 2022 to Marion was a life-enriching experience fulfilling so much more than the Learn, Play and Give Back segments of Retire Successfully’s Life in Balance Chart!

Graham and Lindsay Wells
February 2022.

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