The day was fair, the low banks of mist wreathing the shoreline were disappearing, and the sea was turning from leaden grey to enchanting shades of blue and aquamarine.
No one in South Africa knows that one mustn’t put to sea on a Friday so the good ship Apex Predator had a full complement of intrepid birders on board as we set sail for Dyer Island. It was comforting to see that our knowledgeable captain, Brian Macfarlane had so many bells and whistles that even those who freak out about safety and know the whereabouts of every lifebelt could be comforted that in an emergency the NSRI would get us if the sharks didn’t.
The Cape coast is one of the most dangerous in the world, and no less than 12 shipwrecks have been recorded round Dyer Island alone, but there were some timid first timers aboard, so I decided to keep this little nugget of knowledge to myself.
Kelp Gulls floated photogenically above the ghostly shapes of grey mullet in the clear water. Above us two Swift Terns wheeled and screeched. Squadrons of Cape Cormorants sped in formation low over the sea and dive-bombed shoals of anchovies. A Cape Gannet practised vertical landing on its head.
We saw our first Southern Right whale, as we approached the Island, but hardened ornithologists were more excited by the Crowned Cormorant. Then came a sighting of the endangered Bank Cormorant. I ruthlessly detached Dave de Beer from his huge camera to verify the sighting. Our great leader back at the bird club is notoriously fussy, being doubtful about my capacity to distinguish an ostrich from a giraffe. OK, so it had been spotted by the venerated Phil Hockey. We decided it was safe to list.
Run by capenature, Dyer Island is a conservation area once named Isla da Fera or Island of Wild Animals by the Portuguese. It was renamed after Samson Dyer, a black American who clubbed seals and sold guano as fertiliser. One of 101 Important Bird Areas in South Africa, it is home to 23 kinds of seabirds, among which are the Roseate Tern (which, alas, we didn’t see) and the Bank Cormorant.
The African penguins stood in stolid dinner-jacketed platoons on the rocks. Well might they be wary of putting a toe into the water. The overfishing of these waters has so depleted the stock of fish that the seals and the sharks compete for them. In addition, the planet’s greatest predator, man, scoured guano out of the island until 1975. Penguins form nests out of guano, and there has been a 93% decline in numbers over the last 30 years. There are now only 1200 breeding pairs of this endangered bird, of which 200 pairs are on Dyer.
After spotting a Black Oystercatcher peeking out from the assembled thousands of cormorants and gulls, we watched the Cape Fur Seals frolic in the water. Some of them lay along the keel of a ship, wrecked 300 years ago. One or two had wounds, possibly from sharks. There are about 50 000 of them about, performing graceful ballets in the water when they aren’t eating penguins, or hauling their 350kg bodies clumsily about the rocks or sunbathing.
There were no sharks in Shark Alley, so we dropped anchor in a likely spot of the shark sanctuary and waited while the crew dispensed bait. During the World Cup, about 2000 tourists were ferried out per day to see these deadly eating machines. Actually, Homo sapiens is far more deadly. Every year one million sharks are killed by man and 10 people are killed by sharks. The gulls gave the alarm, and one graceful creature obliged, circling the boat while people dashed about with cameras. The Great White having done its duty, we hoped for Southern Right whales, and did spot a few, but they steered wide of us. Maybe they hadn’t heard we were birders.
It was a champagne day. The sun shone, we raided the food supplies, took endless photographs and didn’t have the world’s greatest bird count. Thanks for the memories, Brian and crew. Maybe next time I’ll get Leach’s Storm Petrel – if I can tell it apart fromm a penguin.