Flock at Sea Again 2017 – Pelagic Birding Cruise

A few years ago I put down a deposit for the Flock at Sea cruise that had been announced to take place in 2017. There was a previous Flock at Sea cruise back in 2013, but unfortunately I missed it. This time I was making sure that I didn’t miss out. And I can honestly say that the cruise exceeded every expectation — even despite a rocky start. On the cruise, I was sharing a cabin with a friend of mine Andrew, who was filling in for a birder who wasn’t able to make it.

Day 1

The Longest Line

Andrew and myself arrived at the E-Berth dock ready for boarding at 11:45am, originally the ship was meant to board in the morning but due to a logistical problem the boarding time was moved to 12 until 3, so we arrived prior to official boarding time. When we got there, a long line snaked through the docking area as the immigration system was apparently offline, and as such passengers from the previous cruise who were disembarking, had to be checked out manually at immigration. This meant that our boarding time got delayed. 2000 people queued up in the sun, until eventually at around 2:30 the boarding began. To be fair, after the boarding had begun it was a relatively quick and painless procedure to get on the boat, and by 4pm everyone was happily on board.

We went through to our room, dropped off our luggage and soon underwent the mandatory safety drills that take place prior to departure. It was almost immediately after this that the ship left the harbour and the next time we went up on deck Table Mountain was becoming somewhat of a distant sight.

Bon Voyage

The light was beginning to fade as we passed near Robben Island. The passengers had all moved on from the annoyances of the delays and instead were already fixated on the scenery and on the ocean below us. Even sitting at the 11th deck, I was surprised by how close some of the birds were to the ship, as I was expecting distant specks that are hard to identify. Our first species of the trip (sans the Gulls and Terns at the harbour) were some African Penguins, followed by some Cape Cormorants and White Chinned Petrel. By the time the sun had set behind the horizon, we had also seen our first Shy Albatross of the trip.

Once the sun had set, it was time to explore the MSC Sinfonia. The ship was extremely large, boasting a total of 13 decks, each with something unique. The 5th deck was the main lobby, and included numerous pubs, restaurants etc. Andrew and myself ended up going to the Irish Pub for cocktails early in the evening, and I was surprised by the large variety of non-alcoholic drinks they had on board, not drinking alcohol usually means I am not afforded the same luxuries in variety. I picked up a Virgin Pina Colada and Andrew got something, but in the adult version. The prices for the drinks were extremely reasonable, ranging between $2 and $4 in most cases, not much more than you’d find in a normal bar. There were also vouchers available, where you could buy a drinks package at a discounted rage, sometimes saving you in excess of 20%.

cape-town-flock-at-sea

Cape Cormorants
Cape Cormorants
msc-sinfonia-irish-pub
The MSC Sinfonia had comfortable areas to relax and order a drink.

Andrew was having to work throughout the trip, so internet was imperative and prior to our departure, a stress factor for him. However, we were impressed by the stability of the MSC Sinfonia wifi network. The ship uses a satellite internet service, which while quite expensive — offers very decent quality internet, especially considering we were along the continental shelf line. I purchased one of the cheaper packages, the Social package which gave unlimited bandwidth to social networks and chat apps such as Facebook and WhatsApp, all I really needed.

Before we knew it, it was around 22:30 and the bed was calling. And while on the topic of bed, the beds and pillows of the Sinfonia were both unbelievably comfortable and neither of us found it difficult falling asleep, in fact it was more difficult to stay awake while being gently rocked by the swell inside a comfortable bed.

Despite our room being the cheapest available option, an inside cabin — the room was not as small as I expected and had sufficient room for the both of us. It also came with decent cupboard space and bathroom including a shower.

Day 2

A Birding Anomaly

Tuesday was our first real day of birding, I woke up prior to sunrise and made my way out the cabin and towards the back of the ship, not knowing what to expect. It was a little breezy, but otherwise conditions were not bad at all. A fairly small group of us were out on the stern, the guide at the time on deck 5 was Peter Harrison, and John Graham was next to us setting up the oil. Sunrise was great, as it broke through some clouds in the distance. The only downside was that it meant that shooting the wake was shooting into the sun, however we managed.

Not even within 5 minutes of sunrise, we had a Wandering Albatross flying in the wake of the boat, a species that would again present itself several times throughout the day, with varying ages.

Sunrise at the back of the MSC Sinfonia
Sunrise at the back of the MSC Sinfonia
Wandering Albatross flying above the horizon at sunrise
Wandering Albatross flying above the horizon at sunrise
grey-petrel
Grey Petrel, showing the darker grey underwings and the grey back.
Sooty Albatross
Sooty Albatross
Sooty Albatross
Sooty Albatross
Sooty Albatross
Sooty Albatross
Black Bellied Storm Petrel
Black Bellied Storm Petrel. Told apart from much rarer White Bellied Storm Petrel by the darker edges on the coverts and by the legs which protrude past the tail, something seldom seen with White Bellied.
Young Sooty Albatross. Shows much whiter neck than Light Mantled, while retaining a darker back than the Light Mantled would.
Young Sooty Albatross. Shows much whiter neck than Light Mantled, while retaining a darker back than the Light Mantled would.

Little did anyone know, this was the start of an absolutely unbelievable day of birding with some massive rarities, which I hope I can remember the order of. It was a bit chaotic, with emotions all over the place, a bit dream-like.

I believe the first call was from Peter Harrison for a Grey Petrel off the starboard side. Thankfully the deck was still fairly quiet and I managed to get in position to get views through both the bins and the camera lens. Grey Petrel is a very rare bird for Southern Africa and only a handful of records exist. This was now my third lifer for the morning, as I had yet to see what were now numerous Great Winged Petrels that followed in the wake.

Next, as far as I can recall was another call off the starboard side for a White Headed Petrel, another very rare bird that found its way not only onto my life list but many of the country’s top lister’s.

Light Mantled Albatross moving across the starboard side of the MSC Sinfonia
Light Mantled Albatross moving across the starboard side of the MSC Sinfonia
Light Mantled Albatross
Light Mantled Albatross
Light Mantled Albatross
Light Mantled Albatross
Young Wandering Albatross
Young Wandering Albatross
wandering albatross
Wandering Albatross
Mature Adult Wandering Albatross
Mature Adult Wandering Albatross along with younger individual to the back

It didn’t stop, and within 30 minutes to an hour another call rang out “SOOTY! SOOTY ALBATROSS!”. Everyone ran to the edge to catch glimpses of what was no doubt a target bird for many, the majestic Sooty Albatross, which was coming up the wake and then moving along the starboard side of the ship. The bird gave us really good views once it moved out of the glare of the morning sunlight reflecting off the wake.

Once the bird had passed, everyone began to calm back down — the time at this point was not even 9am. The peak of the day however was yet to be reached, waiting just a few minutes around the corner lay what will be remembered by hundreds of birders, as likely the pinnacle of their sea birding lives… A bird appears in the distant wake, someone calls “Sooty Albatross in the wake”, as the bird comes a bit closer a mumble or two slip from a few mouths.

“Very light on the back…”

I had thought the same, tracking it in the wake, but dare not speak the suggestion.

That was all that was needed to get John Graham to drop what he was doing with the oil setup and put his bins to use. Seemingly in synchronous harmony, “LIGHT MANTLED ALBATROSS” rang out from the deck above, as well as from John. Everyone scrambled to get views of what is an unbelievably special sighting, in fact just the 15th record for South Africa. The Light Mantled Albatross continued to move up towards the boat, also then moving towards the starboard side of the ship and flying alongside us before disappearing. For everyone that was present on deck, it was a moment of heavy emotion. And for those who were either still sleeping or on another part of the boat, it will go down as a painful memory.

flock-at-sea-again-2017
Dozens of birders lining the back decks of the ship, this was the scene for majority of the trip.
Wandering Albatross Underwing
Wandering Albatross Underwing
Wandering Albatross
Wandering Albatross
Soft-Plumaged Petrel
Wandering Albatross Head On
Wandering Albatross on Approach

Justin Nicolau, one of the guides on the cruise had funnily enough jokingly commented the other day on one of my Facebook statuses, saying how if a Light Mantled was found it would be a case of every man for himself. And it turned out to be just that.

The day continued to produce good birds in the early hours with Black-Bellied Storm Petrels and later in the day, numerous Prions (which were mostly Antarctic Prions, though there was talk about a potential Salvin’s in the mix from the guides who had looked at photos).

great-winged-petrel
Great Winged Petrel
northern_giant_petrel
Northern Giant Petrel showing its light eye.
Soft-Plumaged Petrel
Antarctic Prion
Antarctic Prion
prion-antarctic
Antarctic Prion

Things Return To Normal

Andrew and I spent the evening enjoying the rest of the cruise ship, more cocktails and plenty of food. In the evenings I’d also go through the process of moving all my images for that day over onto my laptop, to ensure enough SD card storage for the next day. We spent a little time at the on board casino, as well as catching some dinner at the dinner area during first seating. Having already been stuffed from the lunch time buffet, I simply ordered an entree, which consisted of rice, prawn, calamari steak and kingklip.

Day 3

The following morning was another case of waking up before sunrise (as it would be for every day of the cruise) and heading to the back of the ship and waiting… Tuesday had set the expectations much higher than they had been, and by sunrise already there was now a mass of birders all waiting at the back of the boat, scared of missing out on something special. Personally, I found it difficult to drag myself away for even a few minutes to eat, as I was scared that something good may pass by in that time.

The back of the boat was packed with birders on all decks, a vast number peering out the back of the boat, bins to face or lens protruding out from the railings. The guides did a good job in pointing out specialties, and taking any questions than birders may have.

White Chinned Petrel
White Chinned Petrel

White Headed Petrel

White Headed Petrel showing the upper wings
White Headed Petrel showing the upper wings
White Headed Petrel showing the underwings.
White Headed Petrel showing the underwings.
great_shearwater
Great Shearwater

Wednesday was definitely slower than the day prior, and the crowds thinned out a little as the day went on. The day did however still host a rarity or two, a beautiful White Headed Petrel gave great views behind the boat, while an interesting Albatross has been thought to be a Tristan Albatross. Though there remains some controversy, as the fairly recent split from Wandering has meant that there hasn’t been much extensive research done for many to feel comfortable in the identification. The diagnostic features that separate the two were spoken about by sea birding expert Peter Harrison in one of his lectures on board, and from what I overhead, should be included in his next book. So it will be interesting to see in which direction the identification regarding the two species goes over the upcoming years.

Through the day we also got numerous views of Yellow-Nosed Albatross, most were Indian Yellow-Nosed, but there was also one or two Atlantic during the course of the day. Soft-Plumaged Petrels continued to entertain throughout most days of the trip too, along with the regulars such as the Shy Albatross and White-Chinned Petrel.

This day would be remembered less for the bird life but more for the sky, as we witnessed one of the most unbelievable sunsets out at sea. Patchy thunderstorms left us with moisture in the air, and as sun set a massive double rainbow appeared in front of a sky of fire, as the setting sun illuminated the remnants of the storm clouds. Later that evening we got a buffet for dinner, and then went to watch a comedian, who entertained us for an hour.

flock-at-sea-sunset

flock-at-sea-rainbow
Unbelievable double rainbow shortly after passing some thunderstorms out in the open ocean.
flock-at-sea-2017
An amazing sunset upon the MSC Sinfonia during the Flock at Sea 2017

Day 4

The Penultimate Day

On Thursday, the second last day of the trip I woke up early again and went on deck to see what was being found. It was clear early on that we had moved into shallower waters, as we now had Cape Gannets and Sub-Antarctic Skuas in the wake, birds which we didn’t have in the deeper waters around the continental shelf. One of the Skuas did an excellent job at showing off to us on-lookers, as it came in towards the back of the boat and hovered at the pace of the ship.

Things were relatively quiet for the first 3 hours, and I decided that it would then be a good time to grab some breakfast.

Sub-Antarctic Skua
Sub-Antarctic Skua
Sub-Antarctic Skua
Sub-Antarctic Skua
northern giant petrel
Northern Giant Petrel, showing the red colour at the end of the bill, differentiating it from the Southern Giant Petrel which has a greenish tip.
Shy Albatross preening
Shy Albatross preening

When I returned, I decided to head up front to the bow of the ship where a large number of birders were standing. It was tough finding a spot to even get a glimpse of the ocean, but a lot of the interesting sightings in the morning had come from the front of the ship and been missed by the back. Within 30 minutes of being up front, we managed to get a good bird in the form of a Little Shearwater (tunneyi). Little Shearwater was recently split (tunneyi and elegans), with the latter now known as a Sub-Antarctic Shearwater. The former race is more common to the east while the latter is found more typically to the south and west.

This was another lifer for me, and thankfully I was able to get a few images where one can see the white eyebrow. The Sub-Antarctic Shearwater doesn’t have white above the eye and instead the eye lies in darker plumage that covers the head area.

A Long Finned Pilot Whale behind the boat
A Long Finned Pilot Whale behind the boat
little-shearwater
Little Shearwater, showing the line of white above the eye, separating it from the now ‘Sub-Antarctic Shearwater’
Great Shearwater
Great Shearwater
Cape Gannet
Cape Gannet
Black-Browed Albatross
Black-Browed Albatross
Black-Browed Albatross
Black-Browed Albatross

Later in the afternoon we passed through a few trawlers, where we got completely overwhelmed by Black-Browed Albatrosses. There must have been in excess of 50 individual that moves across the boat in the space of 30 minutes, a species that had been relatively scarce on the trip until that point.

The birding didn’t stop at 6 though, after another great sunset some people began to notice flashes of white across the sea. Dozens and dozens of Great Shearwaters were using the lights of the ship to assist in their feeding, and would fly alongside the boat, land in front, catch their fish and then at that point, fly back up the side of the boat (which was now in front of them) and repeat the procedure.

Another lovely sunset on the penultimate day of the cruise
Another lovely sunset on the penultimate day of the cruise
cape-town-harbour
Sunrise at Cape Town harbour on the day of disembarking
Sunrise at V&A Waterfront
Sunrise at V&A Waterfront

In Conclusion

Overall, I couldn’t be happier with how the trip turned out. Everything really exceeded expectations and it’s very rare for me to go away for a week and feel like no time has passed. The memories will live with me for a long time, and it will be difficult to beat that feeling and atmosphere of a ship of people seeing a mega rarity at the same time. The high fives that followed and the glowing grins throughout. If there is another Flock at Sea happening in the future, you can bet that I will be there. The ship was excellent, and the quieter environment from the fact that it was filled with birders made it that much better. The food was great too. The guides did a great job as did those in charge of organizing the event (Birdlife South Africa).

In total I managed to see 30 species after leaving the harbour, 10 of which were lifers for me! The list below is only what I saw and does not take into account species that I missed.

Sooty Albatross
Wandering Albatross
Antarctic Prion
Black Browed Albatross
Black-Bellied Storm Petrel
Grey Petrel
Cape Gannet
Cape Cormorants
Great Shearwater
Great Winged Petrel
Shy Albatross
Indian Yellow-Nosed Albatross
Atlantic Yellow-Nosed Albatross
Light-Mantled Albatross
Little Shearwater
Northern Giant Petrel
Southern Giant Petrel
White Headed Petrel
Soft-Plumaged Petrel
Sub-Antarctic Skua
White Chinned Petrel
Wilson’s Storm Petrel
European Storm Petrel
Cory’s Shearwater
Great Shearwater
Arctic Tern
Sooty Shearwater
African Penguin
Swift Tern
Hartlaub’s Gull
Grey Headed Gull

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Bryn De Kocks

Bryn is a passionate and opinionated antinatalist and naturalist with a love for nature, the ocean, photography, severe weather and music. He spends most of his time looking for new birds within the Western Cape, taking landscape photographs or behind his computer being a nerd.

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