Year in the Wild Blog

Days 32-33 – Year in the Wild 2013-14 – Organized chaos at Bird Island

I’m now in Addo Elephant National Park, and although I’ve already spotted lots of elephants, I’ve been lucky to spend the day with the park’s marine rangers. Addo is most famous for its conservation of elephants, but the park is also responsible for the conservation of several offshore islands with a huge amount of wildlife, including the most easterly breeding colony of Cape fur seals.

But these islands are absolutely critical for two threatened bird species: the endangered African penguin and the vulnerable Cape Gannet.

St Croix is a small rocky island near Coega harbour that is home to the largest breeding colony of African Penguins in the world. According to Birdlife South Africa, about 40% of the world’s African penguins are located here and on surrounding islands. (The island is also an important breeding colony for Cape Cormorants, one of the few situated in the warm Agulhas current waters).

Bird Island hosts the world’s largest nesting colony of the vulnerable Cape gannet, with about 160 000 birds at any time. It’s a vital population, because there are just six breeding colonies left. Both penguins and gannets have seen their numbers fall dramatically in the past few decades – most probably because of overfishing by trawlers. The islands are also the only place in South Africa where Roseate terns breed.

I headed out to Bird Island with the marine rangers to see if any of the Gannets had been “oiled” by the 168-metre German  bulk carrier Kiani Satu which stranded itself near Knysna about two weeks ago. This ship was carrying 330 tons of fuel oil – as well as 15 000 tons of rice!.

Although it has now been dragged out to sea, away from the coast, it leaked quite a bit of oil, and although most of the environmental damage has occurred at Goukamma Nature Reserve, some oil has been found all the way up the coast near Addo’s shoreline – about 400kms away!

Henvick Visser is the senior marine ranger, and he told me that they had to airlift via helicopter several oiled African Penguins recently from St Croix, to get them cleaned up. (They had to use the chopper because sea conditions have been so rough).

The trip out to Bird Island takes about 90 minutes from the huge port of Coega, near Port Elizabeth. It’s a rough, tough trip on an 8-metre rubber duck, which seems very small while negotiating huge swell and wind chop. All credit to skipper Bradly Koopman for keeping the team safe (but not necessarily dry!)

When we arrived at Bird Island, the wind dropped suddenly and it seemed like a different world. The noise from the squabbling birds is deafening, while the stink from the guano takes some getting used to. When you walk your feet tend to sink a little into the soft, dry bird poo. Haha!

The rangers Buhle Puwe and Simpiwe Ngubane found one or two oiled Gannets, but other than these, most of the birds were in excellent condition, a relief I am sure for the team.

Two things were clear.

Firstly, Addo and it’s marine section lie very close to the industrialised ports of Coega and Port Elizabeth. While waiting for the rangers to launch the rubber duck, I spotted a pied kingfisher hovering over the shallow sea water in the harbour, with huge container ships nearby – an incongruous, but nevertheless fantastic combination of nature surviving despite all the development.

But if anything did happen to go wrong with a ship at Coega, then Addo’s offshore islands and the birds and seals would be seriously affected. This is the reality of South Africa…and something I’ve seen all over the country. Huge cities and industrial areas, often within throwing distance of “wild” places.

Secondly, Addo is very diverse. When driving back to the main camp, I spotted several elephants, buffalo, kudu, jackal and warthogs…while in the morning I had been surrounded by thousands of Cape Gannets, seals and penguins, and also several dolphins that swam alongside our rubber duck for a while. There aren’t too many places in the world where you can see such a diversity of large fauna in one day! It’s a very diverse park.

Check out my K-Way Video Report on Bird Island below (or click here if you can’t see the video), as well as a short vid from my GoPro (click here) on what it’s like being on the rubber duck…and of course check out my photos too!

The beautiful lighthouse on Bird Island makes a striking backdrop to the gannets

African penguins with lighthouse of Bird Island behind

Thousands of gannets!

They are actually very beautiful birds, even though they sound like out-of-tune geese!

Constant bickering...just like any other big family!

Graceful - and very tough. These birds can fly for thousands of kilometres in search of food, diving up to 15 metres deep to catch fish.

Gannets can fly very close to the ground and ocean - their spatial awareness is impressive - not sure how their wings don't catch the waves!

Organised chaos of the highest order...if that makes sense. Birds are taking off and landing all the time...and somehow they know where to land in among thousands of other birds!

Hey, that's my spot! Out the way!

Marine rangers Buhle Puwe, Simpiwe Ngubane and skipper Bradley Koopman in SANParks uniforms, with two contractors.

Dolpins near our boat

Cape fur seals, on the way to Bird Island

Elephants spotted on way back to main camp - this is just a few kilometres from the national N2 road, and the adjacent Indian Ocean, where all the marine life occurs.

For more, go to and Check out my Flickr photos at and my Instagram photos at Twitter on

Thanks to my partners Cape Union MartFord EverestGoodyear, and K-Way.

As well as EeziAwnFrontrunnerGlobecommHetznerNational LunaOutdoor PhotoSafari Centre Cape Town, Tracks 4 Africa, and Vodacom.

Conservation partners BirdLife South AfricaBotswana Department of Wildlife and National ParksCapeNatureEastern Cape Parks and TourismEzemvelo KZN WildlifeGorongosa National ParkiSimangaliso Wetland Park, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Parque Nacional do Limpopo, South African National Parks and Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.


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