No turning back now! A motley crew assembles on the quayside before boarding the mighty S. A. Agulhas. Photo by Angus Wilson.
Sailing day at last. Post dawn I scanned from the car park and was delighted to see Southern Right Whales just offshore in the distance. The still young day meant no heat haze yet so I could enjoy clear telescope views as they rolled about in the calm waters. Spyhopping, flipper waving, blowing, a set of flukes and at least one animal must have been on it’s back, both flippers waving slowly in the morning sunshine. We loaded up the van for the last time and headed back into town and the docks. We were one of the last to arrive at the quayside, the fore deck full of our fellow travellers, discussing the exciting prospects ahead. The Agulhas looking very distinctive in her red paint, tied up whilst final preparations were being made for departure. The resupply ship for South Africa’s Sub-Antarctic islands and Antarctic bases, just over 6000 tons. Very much a working ship with few concessions to passengers. Great care was required in moving around with overhanging pieces of metal above and underfoot, not for the less than able. The onboard team was led by Dr Peter Ryan from Cape Town University, Ian Sinclair and the guides included Barrie Rose and Barry Watkins, both with many years in the fishing industry, both very experienced seawatchers and both with great knowledge and stories to tell. We threw our gear into our cabin and walked back along the road for a great lunch in Panama Jack’s a seafood restaurant located inside the dock complex itself. The tug turned us around just after 15.00 and the vessel’s engines finally came to life as we headed initially west, out of the inner harbour. A hopefully good omen in the shape of a group of 20 or so Dusky Dolphins racing past us in the outer harbour was a great start. We spent the rest of the afternoon steaming down the west side of the Cape Peninsula, the ship gently began pitching. Our first seabirds included Cape Gannets, coming past in small flocks, a few Arctic and a single Pom Skua, a number of adult Sabine’s Gulls and our first true southern ocean species. White-chinned Petrels and a handful of Giant Petrels. A feeding frenzy a few miles south also included many Cape Fur Seals and a smaller group of Dusky Dolphins, one animal multiple breaching. By dusk we had drawn level with the Cape Point, the lighthouse’s beam reaching far out to sea.
We awoke to a sunny day, with a fair southern ocean swell. We quickly discovered our vessel was a ‘roller’, flat bottomed and with no cargo in her holds, she seemed to move far more than the sea conditions suggested. Most people quickly got into the rhythm. The morning was relatively quiet, the first albatross’s included Yellow-nosed (Atlantic & Indian Ocean), a few Shy’s (White-capped from DNA analysis from birds caught on local long lines) and two immature Black-broweds ( the adults on their breeding grounds in the Falklands and South Georgia). A Humpback Whale blew a couple of times, showed some back and then vanished. A group of Risso’s Dolphins were seen too, unfortunately we were at breakfast. Most observers stayed on the back helideck, I went off in search of the monkey island, an open area above the bridge, with a view forward, much better for cetaceans. A couple of Antarctic (Southern) Fulmars were an early surprise so far north. Other birds included Cape Petrels, Great-winged (Grey-faced) Petrels, numerous Great Shearwaters (shortly to depart for the Tristan Island group to breed), a few Sooty Shearwaters, many White-chinned Petrels , giant petrels of both species and a few Arctic Terns heading for their winter feeding grounds around the Antarctic continent. Half a dozen Sub-Antarctic Skuas were seen, another two Pomarines and our first Wilson’s and Black-bellied Storm Petrels. Bird of the day for the locals was Manx Shearwater of which two were noted. In the afternoon I noticed a trawler on the horizon and after a quick word with Peter Ryan who in turn spoke to the bridge we were heading towards it. It was clear as we got closer that there were not clouds of birds around it but as we drew closer the sea was full of resting seabirds, waiting for the vessel to drop its next load of long lines in. Small rafts of albatross's’ included many Yellow-nosed along with a few Shys. A few Cape Gannets were out this far and fur seals were frequently encountered. Distant Sperm Whale blows were noted and a lucky few saw a small pod of Southern Bottlenose Whales.
here for the Trip List (seabirds and mammals)