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by John Kinghorn

“GREY PETREL COMING DOWN PORTSIDE FROM THE BOW” were the words blasting through the miniscule speaker on the guides’ radios. This was of course followed by a stampede of eager, adrenaline-driven birders all running and jostling against the railings on the portside of the luxurious cruise liner, the MSC Sinfonia, in an attempt to lay eyes on the now careering and highly-sought after procellariid. All of a sudden cries of “there it is!” began to echo from decks twelve to six at the stern of the ship, interspersed with cheers of joy, crisp high fives, and the machine-like shutter clicks of many a camera, as ‘trigger-happy’ birders tried their best to capture the moment, and, most importantly, the bird, in all its rarefied glory.


If you had said to me at any time before the 24th of April 2017 that almost two thousand birders crammed onto a single cruise liner would all simultaneously experience some of the best pelagic birding to have ever been experienced in our waters, I would have answered you very skeptically, in fact I would have thought you completely mad. It is thus only understandable that the first hour and forty minutes experienced on our first morning’s birding in the deeper oceanic waters almost 140 nautical miles south of Cape Town left me speechless and shaking thanks to levels of excitement only ever experienced previously when Disney announced the creation of a new Star Wars movie. Quite frankly, it was probably one of the best days of birding I have ever experienced in all my ten years of birdwatching.

Birders on Board MSC Sinfonia (photo John Kinghorn)

Birders on Board MSC Sinfonia (photo John Kinghorn)

Each year BirdLife South Africa hosts their Annual General Meeting in a different part of our absolutely gorgeous country, and each year they choose to highlight the birds and birding in that area, which inevitably sees birders from far and wide ‘flock’ to this meeting of like-minded, driven, and passionate birders, whether it be to partake in the AGM itself, participate in the bi-annual ‘Learn About Birds’ conference, or simply enjoy the biodiversity to be found wherever the event may be. Only once before has BirdLife South Africa taken this event to the deep blue, and that was back in 2013, when the congregation of birders, scientists, and general members of the public headed north along the West Coast of South Africa, from Cape Town to Walvis Bay in Namibia and back again. It was such a success that four years later they decided to do it again. However this time there was a twist: majority control over the MSC Sinfonia, a custom-designed route tailored specifically for the best birding in our sub-region’s waters, chumming, and the ability to specify which evening would have chocolate mousse and which wouldn’t (jokes aside, though, this dessert needs to be made mandatory for further dinners on the next Flock at Sea). It took years of monthly meetings and negotiations with the MSC head office, but they eventually came to the party, the bird party that is, much to the excitement of the South African birding community.


So what was all the hoo-hah about a customized, birding-specific route? Besides the facts that the waters off the coast of South Africa, particularly off the Western Cape, are arguably some of the best waters in the world for pelagic birding, next to New Zealand and Australia, and that some incredible species are to be seen in their hundreds when finding a fishing trawler on your ‘average’ day trip, there were gems that lay waiting in the deeper waters, mouth-watering specials which rarely come into the trawling grounds but prefer the upwelling and colder waters along the continental shelf. This is the edge of the southern African sub-region and the beginning of the world-renowned southern oceans, which carry on due south to the icy continent of Antarctica.

The route we traveled (photo Andrew De Klerk)

The route we traveled (photo Andrew De Klerk)

There is nothing more rewarding for us guides to witness the facial expressions of eager, first-time pelagic birders the moment they lay their eyes on their first albatross. On pelagic day trips out of Cape Town this is generally a species of the genus Thalassarche which makes an early appearance, either a Shy or Black-browed Albatross, both of which are considerably smaller than the biggest of them all, species of the genus Diomedea, or the ‘Great Albatrosses’. One can therefore imagine the pleasure we got from showing these eager, new pelagic birders their first-ever albatrosses, and not just any albatross, but a good five or so Wandering Albatrosses of varying ages, which had been following the ship since first light – heart-stopping stuff!

Wandering Albatross (photo Francois de Plessis)

Wandering Albatross (photo Francois du Plessis)

It wasn’t long after the Grey Petrel sighting, and most certainly long before our adrenaline levels were able to stabilize to a normal rate again, when the call of “Sooty Albatross” echoed across the stern, immediately triggering the violent swinging of heads, one or two cases of potential whiplash from said violent neck-swinging, and vigorous scanning until the bird came into view, showing off all of its chocolate-brown glory.

Sooty Albatross (photo Francois de Plessis)

Sooty Albatross (photo Francois du Plessis)

However, it would seem that Mother Nature had not yet finished her scheduled delivery of avian specialities, because within a matter of minutes after admiring the Sooty Albatross the call of “White-headed Petrel” came through on the guide’s radios. Personally, this was one of the Pterodroma species I had most wanted to see, and I know that my friends and colleagues, Dylan Vasapolli and Jason Boyce, who were both guiding on the boat, likewise ranked this as a bird they desperately wished to see. The bird performed exceptionally well, and we all managed absolutely jaw-dropping views of it.

White-headed Petrel (picture Francois de Plessis)

White-headed Petrel (picture Francois du Plessis)

When we thought that our day simply couldn’t get any better, all of a sudden somebody screamed a question which had previously only been spoken of in legends and fables and one which stopped the hearts of a good few hundred birders as the suspense rose and the bird got closer to the stern: “Hang on, is that a Light-mantled?”. The light coloration on the bird’s back in contrast to the rest of its chocolate-brown body was what had us all going, but as it came closer we were able to make out the thin, pale-blue line on its lower mandible, and, all of a sudden, as if in unison, the stern of the ship with a good three hundred birders present erupted into cheers of joy and jubilation as we feasted our eyes on the Light-mantled Albatross’s natural beauty. We were sitting with mouths slightly agape and the breath knocked out of us as if we were in the twelfth round of a pay-per-view boxing match, and although not many will admit it, there was a lot of drooling going on… This surely had to take the spot for ‘bird of the trip’!

Light-mantled Albatross (photo Francois de Plessis)

Light-mantled Albatross (photo Francois du Plessis)

The first day most certainly set the bar high, but the following two days didn’t disappoint either, with highlights including Black-browed, Indian and Atlantic Yellow-nosed, and Shy Albatrosses, both Northern and Southern Giant Petrels, Soft-plumaged, Great-winged, and White-chinned Petrels, Sooty, Cory’s, Great, and Manx Shearwaters, Black-bellied, European, and Wilson’s Storm Petrels, Antarctic and Salvin’s Prions, Subantarctic Skua, and several groups of Arctic Terns making their way north – a list most definitely indicative of the incredible birding that the southern oceans have to offer!


Reflecting back on this incredible experience as a whole – the gorgeous sunsets, the great food, the opportunity to share birding tales from across the globe with like-minded folk, friends, and colleagues, and the comradeship among all in attendance – was an intangible vibe that we won’t be forgetting in a long time.  It was an absolute privilege for the folk from Birding Ecotours to be a part of this event, one which has proved to undoubtedly have been one of the best pelagic trips to be had in our waters in a very long time! It was even more of a privilege for us to share with those on board our love, passion, and enthusiasm for sea birds and pelagic birding as a whole, and we thank BirdLife South Africa for this incredible opportunity and the great work that they are doing to conserve our world’s seabirds!


This, however, does not mark the end of our pelagic adventures! Birding Ecotours has been running pelagic day trips out of Cape Town for some time now, and we would love to have you join us on one of them to experience with us this “whole new world”, to quote Disney’s Aladdin. You can view more at http://birdingecotours.com/style/1-day-pelagic-trips.

John Kinghorn


Tours by destination



Regent Bowerbird

Australia is a natural wonderland of beautiful beaches, crystal blue waters, amazing ancient rock formations, and pristine rainforests. Australia is the sixth-largest country in the world and has the lowest population density per square kilometer. Australia has 16 world heritage-listed properties, with its historic townships, bustling cities, vivid landscapes, and exotic flora and fauna all adding to its unique appeal. Much of Australia’s exotic flora and fauna cannot be found anywhere else in the world, and the lifestyle is one second to none.

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Orange Fruit Dove - Fiji birding tour

Fiji, a country in the South Pacific, is an archipelago of more than 300 islands. It is famed for its rugged landscape of blue lagoons and palm-lined beaches, and for eco-activities from mountain climbing and surfing to soft-coral diving and birdwatching. Its major islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, contain the lion’s share of the population, meaning much of the country is uncrowded. The climate in Fiji is tropical and warm most of the year. The two most important and largest islands are Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, which together account for 87% of the population. Kadavu in the fourth-largest island in the archipelago and is a tropical bird watcher’s dream come true. This island has the additional attraction of four endemic species found only on Kadavu, and these species can all be seen on the grounds of most resorts.

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Spotted Catbird - Andy Walker

The fauna of the vast island country of Indonesia is characterized by high levels of biodiversity and endemism due to its distribution over a vast tropical archipelago. Many sources credit Indonesia as the most species-rich country on earth. Indonesia is divided into three ecological regions; western Indonesia, which is more influenced by Asian fauna, and the east, which is more influenced by Australasian species. The Wallace Line, across which lies the Wallacea transitional region, notionally divides the two regions. There is a diverse range of ecosystems, including vast rainforests, beaches, sand dunes, estuaries, mangroves, coral reefs, seagrass beds, coastal mudflats, tidal flats, algal beds, and small island ecosystems. 1718 avian species are distributed across the entire country, which straddles all three of the Asian, Wallacean, Australasian regions.

Although West Papua, located on the island of New Guinea, is politically a province of Indonesia, it is the country’s only province that lies est of the Lydekker Line, which separates the Wallacean and Australian faunal regions. Its avifauna, therefore, is essentially the same as that of the country of Papua New Guinea.


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New Caledonia

Kagu - New Caledonia birding tour

Distant land, land of contrasts, pristine land… New Caledonia, a special collectivity of France,  is a diverse and unique destination. Bathed by clear waters at the heart of the Pacific Oceanlulled year round by gentle trade winds, le Caillou (the Pebble) has more to offer than just its heavenly beaches and brilliant sunshine. Sanctuary of the earth’s biodiversity, New Caledonia is THE destination for nature lovers. It boasts of 3,500 varieties of plants, of which three-quarters are endemic, 4,300 species of terrestrial animals, 200 species of birds (including the Kagu), 1,000 species of fish, and 6,500 marine invertebrates.


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New Zealand

Kea - Oz Horine

New Zealand is a truly photogenic country that looks more striking than any movie could convey, and within its walls of beaches and mountains, fiords and volcanoes, there is really too much to see and do. You could be surfing, bungee jumping, snowboarding, kayaking, or just hanging out on a beach with a beer; add to that rich Maori cultural experiences, outdoor music festivals, energetic cities, and amazing wildlife, and you’re looking at some seriously good times. As a compact little country it’s easy to get around in just a few weeks and makes for the perfect stop-off as part of a round-the-world trip. Or stay for longer with a working holiday visa and really feast on a country that is the ultimate playground for the young and adventurous.


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Papua New Guinea

Raggiana Bird-of-paradise - Ian Merrill

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is indeed a birder’s paradise. Thirty-four birds-of-paradise live on the island of New Guinea, of which thirty-one can be found in Papua New Guinea. The island of New Guinea is home to an incredible 399 endemics! Together with awe-inspiring scenery, endless rainforests, and fascinating highland societies that only made contact with the outside world in 1930, this makes Papua New Guinea a definite must-do destination for any avid birder.

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Island Thrush by Matt Prophet - Samoa birding tour

Samoa (formerly Western Samoa) is an independent nation comprising the westernmost group of the Samoan Islands in Polynesia. Many of its islands have reef-bordered beaches and rugged, rainforested interiors with gorges and waterfalls. The islands include Upolu, home to most of Samoa’s population, and Savai’i, one of the largest islands in the South Pacific. The others range from islets with small villages to uninhabited wildlife sanctuaries. Samoa is a postcard of natural beauty. Blessed with stunning land and seascapes and friendly people, who are proud of their country, there are many versions of paradise to discover. The country is part of the Endemic Bird Area (BirdLife International) of the Samoan Islands, and close to its capital Apia can be found one the six Important Bird Areas of Samoa, the Apia Catchments, where 16 globally threatened or range-restricted species have been observed.

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We can run any of our tours privately any time and we can also arrange custom itineraries - send us your wish-list and we'll put the itinerary together! See more here.

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