Posted on the 9th May 2016

Birding tourism in South Africa has increased exponentially over the past decades and constitutes a welcome financial injection for the local economy. Great news for local birders as well as international visitors who flock to our shores to enjoy our excellent birding opportunities, is that the Dyer Island Trust (DICT) has commenced pelagic birding tours from Gansbaai after having undertaken several trial runs. I was fortunate enough to partake in the first outing with paying clients on May 1.

Wandering Albatross - Richard Masson















Shy Albatross - Charles Naude
Black-browed Albatross - Charles










Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross - Richard
Wandering Albatross - Richard









Black-browed Albatross - Richard 














At 37 nautical miles (some 70 km) from the Kleinbaai harbour, pandemonium erupted aboard the Whale Whisperer. The reason was obvious. We were nearing a fishing trawler and thousands of pelagic birds were gathered in its wake in anticipation of the offal of the harvest awaiting in the nets.

“Look there,” shouted Chris Cheetham, outings co-ordinator of BirdLife Overberg, pointing excitedly in the general direction of a Wandering Albatross. According to Wilfred Chivell, multi-award-winning nature conservationist and founder of the DICT, it was their first sighting of this species during a deep- sea excursion. Then Chivell could not contain his own excitement as he spotted a Black-bellied Storm-Petrel, another first for their expeditions.

Charles Naudé, another member of BirdLife Overberg, was even quieter than usual as he turned his camera towards one irresistible scene after another.

The most photographers were using the movement setting and the only audible noise apart from the cacophony of chirping birds was a continuous and furious click, click, click-click-click-click-click. We were surrounded by some 20 species of pelagic birds and the heads of the observers swiveled to and fro like those of Wimbledon spectators. In abundance were not only four Albatross species, but rafts of the beautiful Pintado Petrel, Storm-Petrel, Cape Gannet, Skua, Prion and many, many more.

Due to an impressive swell the boat was the opposite of stable, therefore many of the images merely portrayed expanses of water or horizon. The quality of the others varied from poor to passable to excellent, depending on the experience of the photographer and the quality of the equipment.

Species swarming in our immediate vicinity included Wandering, Indian Yellow-nosed, Shy and Black-browed Albatross; Pintado Petrel; Sooty, Cory’s, Great and Flesh-footed Shearwater; White-chinned, and Great-winged Petrel; Southern and Northern Giant-Petrel; European, Wilson’s and Black-bellied Storm-Petrel, Parasitic Jaeger; Antarctic Prion; Arctic and Swift Tern; Cape Gannet and sub-Antarctic Skua.

Our capable guides conveyed a lot of information about the various species to us, including that Skuas are regarded as the ocean’s hyenas and often scavenge food from Gannets and Storm-Petrels. They are also predators who will kill penguin chicks or eat penguin eggs at breeding colonies on islands. The little Storm-Petrels – Wilson’s and European - are the feather-weights of the ocean. They weigh 20-22 g, the weight of a school pen. According to Ian Sinclair and Peter Ryan’s Birds of Southern Africa, 6 million pairs of Wilson’s Storm-Petrel breed at sub-Antarctic islands and Antarctica and it is the most abundant pelagic species.

We also learned that some 100 pelagic species occur along the nutrient-rich Cape coast. At the end of our trip, our total numbered a very respectable 27 species. 

Shy Albatross with Pintado Petrel in the background - Richard 















Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross - Charles
Wandering Albatross - Charles









Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross - Richard
Southern Giant Petrel - Richard










That little white paper bag

We left at approximately 07:00 from Kleinbaai, just as the sun rose to the east. The weather forecast was not quite spot-on, and instead of the calm seas we were expecting, a recent cold front had caused choppy waters which had us holding on tightly to the rails.

I was extremely thankful for having remembered to purchase motion sickness pills the previous day. At 25 km (or 13 nautical miles) from the coast, just as excitement erupted due to the first sighting of a Shy Albatross, the first passenger became seasick. Judging from his body language and the unfortunate expression on his face, he probably experienced one of the worst days of his life. The first sign of a smile was only detected once we were back at the Great White House, headquarters of the DICT.

According to Chivell seasickness consists of only two phases: During the first you feel as if you are going to die; during the second you hope you are about to die. According to Hennie Otto, our other skipper and a very capable bird guide, choppy seas are favourable for pelagic birding. An investment in motion sickness medication is therefore advisable, unless you are convinced that you are one of the lucky ones with sturdy sea legs!

An outing such as this requires extensive planning. Weather conditions are studied intensively beforehand, since the safety of the guests is of paramount importance. The outing is usually planned over two days or even two weekends, in case the weather hampers clients’ opportunity to tick off all those “lifers” on their birding life list.

As is the case with all of the DICT’s tourism activities (its ecotourism partners also offer whale-watching, shark cage diving and sea eco-tours), guests are pampered. Coffee and rusks are served beforehand, as well as a wholesome breakfast at sea and coffee or tea during the debriefing session afterwards. 

Northern Giant Petrels - Richard
Northern Giant Petrels - Richard











Black-bellied Storm-Petrel - Richard
Wilson's Storm-Petrel - Richard











Wilson's Storm-Petrel 2- Richard
Pintado Petrel - Richard










White-chinned Petrel - Richard 










With a little help from my GPS

Possible fishing trawler activity is determined beforehand by means of GPS and radar equipment and during our trip we set off from Kleinbaai in a southwesterly direction. The same on-board equipment is used to trace trawlers at sea.

Thoughts about the Titanic and other sea disasters inevitably surfaced while there was no land in sight and we were surrounded by the deep, dark ocean, but Chivell made it quite clear that the sturdy Whale Whisperer with its huge engins, which was initially designed for whale watching, would not let us down. This spacious boat is extremely comfortable and its observation deck is ideal for photographic purposes.

Initially it was the presence of Hartlaub and Kelp Gulls, White-breasted and Cape Cormorants, Cape Gannets and Terns which caused the heart to beat faster, but the adrenalin only really started pumping when we spotted the trawlers and their faithful feathered followers in the distance.

After spending two exciting hours at the first trawler, we decided to move on to the next one, where the activity was less intense. Then it was time to head for home. The whole excursion lasted more than seven hours.

On our way back we were fortunate to pass a raft of approximately 60 African Penguins. This species has been classified as endangered since 2009 and according to BirdLife International it is critically endangered. It was therefore very special to see such a large group at sea. 

Great Shearwater - Richard
Great Shearwater - Richard











Subantarctic Skua - Richard
Subantarctic Skua - Richard









Swift Terns - Richard
Swift Terns - Richard










Overberg is feather-friendly

Birders from the Overberg and further afield previously had to travel to Simon’s Bay or Hout Bay to undertake a pelagic trip. This initiative by the DICT, which has recently received its second world-wide award for responsible tourism within the last six months, will attract both local and international birders and do even more to establish the Overberg as a top birding destination.

The trip is ideal for both beginners and experienced birders, because the former cannot stop gawking and there is always a possibility that the latter could come across a rare species to tick off on that extremely important life list. Eye contact with surfing dolphins, whales, sharks and seals is also a distinct possibility during the trip.

It is pure pelagic magic and an apex experience which definitely belongs on the birding bucket list.

African Penguins - Richard
Cape Gannet - Richard










Tern's identification not yet confirmed - Charles


















What to take along to ensure a pleasant pelagic outing:

- A hat or a beanie in winter;

- Gloves;

- Layered clothing. It can become icy cold on the boat, even in warm weather.

- Waterproof jacket and trousers and even water boots, since the high speed at which the boat travels can cause water spray and discomfort;

- Motion sickness medication; and

- Sunscreen lotion.


Guests of the DICT will always be accompanied by an extremely experienced skipper and one or two experienced bird guides. To book, contact Hennie Otto at

- Find out more about the DICT, its projects and its awards at

Report by Ilse Bigalke of BirdLife Overberg




CARIN MALAN (posted: 2016-05-09 16:04:46)
Brilliant report and photographs. I am fast becoming one of the biggest Palagic Magic Fans !!!!
VIVIE (posted: 2016-05-06 17:52:58)
DI PARKER (posted: 2016-05-05 09:52:08)
ELSABE KETTERINGHAM (posted: 2016-05-05 09:41:09)
Pragtige foto\'s. Baie geluk! Die see lyk ook heel kalm.
JOHN FINCHAM (posted: 2016-05-05 08:49:29)
Thanks Anton
ANTON ODENDAL (posted: 2016-05-05 08:25:25)
Brilliant images guys - can\'t wait for the report