The Ship: MV Madagascar
Guides: Alvin Cope, Andrew Sutherland, Athol Marchant, Barrie Rose, Barry Watkins, David Allen, Dave Weaver, Ian Sinclair, John Graham, Dr. Peter Ryan, Prof. Phil Hockey, Dr. Rob Leslie and Trevor Hardaker
Photos supplied by: Neil Gray, Philip Coetzee, Margaret Gibbs and Trevor Hardaker
Monday, 21 November 2005, dawned bright and early and just over 200 birders gathered at the passenger terminal at Durban Harbour to embark on what was hopefully going to be a brilliant 6 night pelagic birding trip. Excitement levels were certainly high as this trip had already been planned for months. Whilst people sipped coffee and snacked on oily toasted sandwiches, discussions ensued as to what they might all hope to see on the trip with a number of mouth-watering possibilities being mentioned...

After a lot of red tape with delays with the harbour pilot and customs officials, the passengers boarded the ship and MV Madagascar eventually set sail at about 14h30.

As we left the harbour, we were greeted with quite a lumpy sea which we headed straight into. Expectation levels were high as everybody scanned for the first birds of the trip from the various decks. Common Terns and Cape Gannets took the line honours as the first species on the trip list, but the first excitement came with an Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross and a Subantarctic Skua sitting close to each other on the water and these also provided the first lifers for a number of people.
As we continued into a continuously rougher sea, the first of the trips many Great-winged Petrels made an appearance. This would prove to be the commonest bird on the entire trip, being seen in good numbers throughout the trip. During the course of the afternoon, we also managed to get views of a single Humpback Whale and a small pod of Indo-Pacific Bottle-nosed Dolphins, whilst a small group of birders watching the bow glimpsed an immature Black-browed Albatross off in the distance. The afternoon also produced a distant raptor some 30 nautical miles offshore. Although it was too far to identify, it had a distinct feeling of European Honey Buzzard about it, but unfortunately, we will never know.

As it got towards evening, the seas really started to “stand up” and the first night on board had many people feeling rather uncomfortable after somewhat over-indulging themselves at the buffet dinner!


Great-winged Petrel © Trevor Hardaker

Up early the next morning and we were greeted with overcast weather. The seas had calmed down dramatically overnight and a few Great-winged Petrels kept the birders entertained until eventually the rain set in. For the next few hours, many people sat around in the lounge areas sipping hot cups of coffee whilst a few “die hards” huddled under a small overhang on the pool deck keeping a look out for anything exciting.
At around 11h00 when the rain eventually abated, we were to experience a rather strange occurrence. There was a fall of terrestrial birds on the ship and for the next few hours, we were blown away by what we saw! First, in was a juvenile Red-backed Shrike. Whilst we watched the shrike, a distant unidentifiable falcon kept us wondering until our attention was once again diverted to 2 Willow Warblers. These warblers hawked insects around the ship and sometimes landed with inches of the passengers. As if this was not enough, an Amur Falcon flew over and took turns in keeping us entertained with a Barn Swallow as they showed off their respective aerial prowesses. With a distinct lack of seabirds at this time, the passerines just kept coming and we soon added Icterine Warbler, Cinnamon-breasted Bunting and African Paradise Flycatcher!! Not only were the birds confusing us, but we were also faced with at least 3 species of dragonflies, Blue Emperors, Red-veined Dropwings and Pantalas, the latter of which would remain with the ship throughout the trip.

During the course of this action, some minor distractions included another pod of Indo-Pacific Bottle-nosed Dolphins and a Hammerhead Shark. Eventually, some other seabirds started to make their appearance with the most notable being Arctic and Long-tailed Skuas, White-chinned Petrel, Wilson’s Storm Petrel and the first of our tropical targets, Sooty Tern. Shortly after this, we were treated to our first Red-tailed Tropicbirds of the trip and then, at about 15h00, there was a huge shout of excitement as a Red-footed Booby came in straight for the ship and landed on the rigging giving everyone on board the most amazing views. One could certainly tell by the vibe on board at the time that this was truly a special bird and very obviously a lifer for virtually all on board!!

Sooty Tern © Trevor Hardaker


Watching the Red-footed Booby on the rigging © Philip Coetzee

Red-footed Booby on the rigging © Trevor Hardaker

The Booby remained sitting on the rigging for the rest of the day (and in fact the entire night) and eventually, people turned their attention back to the waters. Great-winged Petrel after Great-winged Petrel gave close flybys for the entire afternoon and one became a little blasé about every brown bird that came past eventually hardly even giving them a second glance. Fortunately, some people were still looking carefully at all of these birds and in the late afternoon, there was once again a need for a major adrenalin rush as the trips only Wedge-tailed Shearwater sailed past the stern giving brilliant comparisons to the numerous Great-winged Petrels.
The evening festivities were enjoyed and many lifers were celebrated, but once again early the next morning, the keener birders were all up on deck at 04h30!! The Red-footed Booby greeted us before it left on its travels and we also started to pick up numbers of Sooty Terns. Again, early morning confusion was caused by a Barn Swallow and 2 House Martins around the boat whilst the cetaceans also put in a bit of an appearance with Striped Dolphin and Short-finned Pilot Whale showing reasonably well.

Several Red-tailed Tropicbirds put in an appearance and then the dipping started!! First off was a Tropical Shearwater which whizzed past the stern giving on a lucky few the opportunity to see it before it disappeared and then, just a short while later, Southern Africa’s 2nd Jouanin’s Petrel gave the birders on the bow the opportunity as it screamed past them. Needless to say, spirits were a little dampened after this as these were both particularly sought after species. What made it even worse was that an Oceanodroma storm petrel was also briefly glimpsed at this time, but could not be identified to species due to the short sighting.

A Pomarine Skua vaguely lifted the spirits as did a Ruddy Turnstone in the wake and then we were joined by a rather interesting falcon which flew up our wake and then, at low level, directly over the ship. Much discussion ensued over its identity and it was eventually agreed that it was a juvenile Sooty Falcon. It is certainly the first time that we have ever had the opportunity to discuss falcon identification on a pelagic trip!!!

Red-tailed Tropicbird © Trevor Hardaker

Late afternoon entertainment continued in the form of an Oceanic White-tipped Shark and an Arnoux’s Beaked Whale when, eventually, the “spirit lifter” we were looking for arrived. Two White-tailed Tropicbirds took off from the water near the boat and provided everyone with lovely views before they drifted off into the distance. That evening another Red-footed Booby joined us on the rigging of the ship and everybody went off to be smiling.
Up early the next morning and we were directly over the Hall Tablemount, a seamount just inside the 200 nautical mile territorial waters limit where we hoped to add a few exciting birds to our Southern African lists. Unfortunately, even after a lot of chumming, it was a lot slower than we expected with only Red-footed Booby and Sooty Terns and a small pod of Indo-Pacific Bottle-nosed Dolphins showing themselves. However, just as we were about to give up, a Greater Frigatebird made it’s appearance and was soon joined by two others, and once again, spirits were lifted on board.

It was a little disappointing when it was announced that we were outside territorial waters eventually, but nevertheless, we kept our eyes peeled. Just a short distance (literally a few miles!!) outside the 200 mile limit, we passed over the Jaguar Seamount and things suddenly changed. We were greeted with large flocks of Sooty Terns and Red-footed Boobys, numbers of both Red-tailed and White-tailed Tropicbirds (including the beautiful golden morph) and what must rate as one of the most exciting experiences of the trip when a large flock of both Greater and Lesser Frigatebirds appeared out of nowhere and hung just metres above the ship! Eventually, we left the area and set course for Europa Island. We were now getting into the heat of the day and, as is typical for much tropical seabirding, we were faced with open birdless ocean for extended periods. In fact, at one point it was timed and 94 minutes elapsed between any sightings of birds!!! It certainly felt like an eternity!!

Male Greater Frigatebird © Trevor Hardaker


Greater Frigatebirds © Trevor Hardaker

Lesser Frigatebirds © Trevor Hardaker

As the sun beat down on us on the open deck, certain “die hards” kept a watchful eye on the sea to make sure we missed nothing…

Others resorted to imbibing large amounts of liquid refreshments…

And others just fell asleep with all the late nights and early mornings eventually catching up with them…


After several hours, we closed in on Europa Island and birding immediately picked up. Large flocks of Sooty Terns abounded with the odd Bridled and Roseate Terns in amongst them and sometimes being chased by Arctic and Pomarine Skuas. We were also joined by large numbers of Red-footed Boobys and were given awesome views as they flew literally at arms length from us before suddenly swooping down and catching a flying fish. And if one needed a distraction, there were always the ever present Tropicbirds and Frigatebirds around. Added distractions were Short-finned Pilot Whales and Long-snouted Spinner Dolphins showing us their aerial antics whilst, close to the island, 2 Pied Crows were also seen. A small number of people were even lucky enough to glimpse a Green Turtle wallowing near the boat.

Due to the delay in leaving Durban, we were left with less time than expected at the island and eventually had to leave on our southward bound journey again. That evening much was celebrated and a lot of damage was done to the bar stocks on board…


Immature Red-footed Booby © Trevor Hardaker

"Golden morph" White-tailed Tropicbird © Trevor Hardaker


Those who had not engaged too much in the liquid refreshments of the previous evening were up on deck at 04h30 again the next morning, when at 04h35 the shout of “small brown petrel” went out. Everyone on deck was on to the bird quickly and could not believe their luck when we were faced with another cracking Jouanin’s Petrel (the 3rd record for Southern Africa)!! With all the screaming and excitement on board, it obviously woke a lot of people up and the staircase from the cabins below on to the deck literally erupted with people with looks of horror on their face knowing that they had probably once again dipped. Unfortunately, the bird did not hang around long enough for all these people to see it.


The day continued on much the same vein as previous days with good sightings of Sooty Tern, Greater Frigatebird, both Tropicbirds and several reasonable sightings of Bridled Tern. We were also joined at one point by a calling Common Whimbrel that circled the ship a number of times before heading off. 

As the day progressed, we were once again seeing good numbers of Great-winged Petrels with Wilson’s Storm Petrel, Pomarine Skua and some distant unidentifiable Phalaropes also recorded. Other marine creatures included Broad-billed Swordfish, Oceanic White-tipped Shark, Risso’s Dolphin and a small pod of False Killer Whales, an animal that caused much excitement on board.


Common Whimbrel © Trevor Hardaker

False Killer Whales © Neil Gray


Late afternoon with everyone on board and, once again, an Oceanodroma type storm petrel was picked up again flying low over the water at a distance under a flock of Sooty Terns, but was just too far to be identified with any certainty. Almost simultaneously, everybody rushed to the opposite side of the boat as yet another Jouanin’s Petrel was picked up. This time, there were a lot more people there to see it, and as evening fell, celebrations picked up even bigger than the previous night…


04h30 on our last day at sea and the decks were extremely quiet. The early risers were greeted with the usual birds and a male African Hoopoe also joined us for a short while. We enjoyed our last few Sooty Terns and Red-tailed and White-tailed Tropicbirds and were finally starting to realise that the trip was coming to an end… 

By just before 06h00, the decks had filled up with more chatting and coffee drinking than birding taking place when, suddenly, the screams of Barau’s Petrel erupted! The bird flew slowly down the port side of the ship affording everyone great views and then moved into the wake and stayed with the boat for probably about 6 or 7 minutes – it was certainly enough time to run downstairs and wake up some of the party animals and get them dressed and back up on deck to see the bird in time!! We could now officially call this trip a "mega trip"!!


Barau's Petrel © Trevor Hardaker


The rest of the day waned by comparison to this mega with sightings of White-chinned Petrel and eventually, our first Shy Albatross of the trip making their appearances as well as Striped and Risso’s Dolphins

Early morning on the 27th, we found ourselves just outside Durban harbour and were soon entering the harbour to dock whilst we ticked our last few species for the trip including an Arctic Skua.

Thank you to all of those people who were responsible in some small way for making this trip a huge success! Until the next one...

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