Ocean Wanderers: The Cape Gannets of the Malgas Island Pelican Watch

There I heard naught but seething sea,
Ice-cold wave, awhile a song of swan
Then came to charm me gannets’ pother
And whimbrels trills for laughter of men,
Kittiwake singing instead of mead.

The Seafarer (7th Century)

A chorus of excited “warrra-warrra-warrra” erupts from the bustling gannetry below; fishing parties returning, circling aeroplane-style overhead, while the grounded birds, necks stretching skywards, search the slate-coloured clouds for the arrival of their partners. My senses are engulfed by the scene surrounding me; the colony in a constant state of motion as partners bow and preen in greeting, the sky swirling with Cape gannets elegantly coming into land. Dropping effortlessly, almost angel-like, from above is, however, where their gracefulness ends. Sitting atop the toilet block, housing the daunting “Thunderbox” (more on that later), I am struck by the harsh contrast of their final contact with the ground. Their epic journeys in search of churning baitballs, the speed and precision of their plunge-diving displays, and the streamlined curves of their silhouettes clash jarringly with their clumsy crashlandings as they faceplant into the guano-covered earth.

As a SANParks Honorary Ranger, I have the privilege of doing duty in South Africa’s incredible Nature Reserves and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and as such, recently spent a week with the gannet colony on Malgas Island as part of the Pelican Watch Programme. This Programme was started in 2007 and is a SANParks management strategy aimed at alleviating the catastrophic impact on the breeding success of Cape cormorants (Jutten Island) and Cape gannets (Malgas Island) caused by the great white pelican predation on young chicks and eggs. This species of pelican is primarily a freshwater-fish eater and has not been recorded eating seabirds outside of their southern African range. In the past there has been occasional reporting of pelicans predating seabird chicks within this region, but this relatively uncommon phenomenon did not pose a threat to the populations of species that were taken. Until the breeding season of 2005/06 that is, when the pelican predation on West Coast seabird breeding colonies intensified.

Driven by an expansion in the pelican population, as a result of a safe breeding environment on Dassen Island and the introduction of an untapped artificial food source in the form of agricultural offal from piggeries in the Stellenbosch region, and the subsequent need to find alternative food sources when, in 2004, the offal supply ceased. Seabird predations have increased at an alarming rate since this range expansion of the pelican and, because cormorants and gannets (their main prey species) are already under severe stress from commercial overfishing, this additional load on their numbers threatens their survival on the Cape’s West Coast. The 2006/07 breeding season was disastrous for West Coast seabirds with a total failure of the breeding effort of the Cape cormorant and kelp gull colonies on Malgas, Jutten and Schaapen islands and the wiping out of the crown cormorant colony on Dassen Island and swift tern chicks on Schaapen Island. Pelican predation on these seabird species sees a sharp increase during their breeding season, in response to the increased energy needs experienced while raising chicks. This takes place annually between October and January/February which coincides with the breeding seasons of cormorants, gulls and gannets on these offshore islands. Hence the establishment of the Pelican Watch Programme during this time. Teams of SANParks rangers and volunteers work from dawn to dusk for their 7-day duty shift of reducing this predation pressure and so allowing as many Cape cormorant and Cape gannet chicks to fledge as possible.

Jutten and Malgas islands fall within the jurisdiction of the West Coast National Park and are located on either side of the Saldanha Bay entrance; Jutten to the south and Malgas to the north. The foundation of Pelican Watch is to protect the nestlings and juveniles of Cape cormorants (Jutten) and Cape gannets (Malgas), both Endangered Benguela Upwelling System endemics, from pelican predation by physically chasing off pelicans that land on the islands but being sure not to disturb the nesting birds. Jutten Island supports the greatest concentration of breeding Cape cormorants on the West Coast (the largest South African colony inhabiting Dyer Island on the South Coast) while Malgas Island is a key breeding colony for a seabird already under severe stress from overfishing. The effectiveness of the Pelican Watch chasers was demonstrated through a study carried out on Jutten Island during the 2007/08 breeding season. Breeding success was monitored by splitting the island into two zones; a “pelican-free area” (landing pelicans were actively chased) and a “pelican territory” (pelicans were left undisturbed). Results showed that 0.72 Cape cormorant chicks fledged per nest (within normal fledging rates for this species) in the “pelican-free area” whereas no Cape cormorants chicks survived in the “pelican territory”.

Volunteers now ensure that both islands are “pelican-free areas” by being on watch from dawn to dusk and chasing off any landing pelicans for the duration of breeding season. My first 7-day shift on Malgas started with a 04:00 alarm and my last “luxurious” shower for the next week. I met my fellow intrepid islanders, Gita and Shanelle, at the SANParks pier where we offloaded all our gear and awaited our ocean chariot. With a strong south wind picking up, I wondered what the sea conditions looked like outside the protection of the lagoon. The size of our chariot was more of a small dinghy and did not appear to instil any confidence in the pair of Karoo rangers despite the reassurances of the skipper. After a 40-minute crossing through very choppy 3 m swell, we arrived drenched but exhilarated. I did manage, through the heavy spray, to spot a giant petrel whizzing past but the species could not be confirmed as my eyelids were fast being glued shut with sea salt and we kept disappearing behind a mountain of water. Some smart manoeuvring by the skipper landed us on the island, well, launched us onto the jetty. We quickly acquainted ourselves with the duty schedule, the fieldwork quirks and happily settled into the rhythm of island life, surrounded by thousands of our bustling feathered charges. It is clear when viewing old photos of the colony that the gannetry on this outpost has substantially shrunk over recent years. The overall gannet population has decreased by more than 50 % over the last 60 years, due to a calamitous blend of a south-eastward shift in prey distribution (resulting in a mismatch in the distributions of breeding localities and prey) and the competition with the South African purse-seine fishery for anchovy and sardine (Sherley et al. 2019).

Watching the colony is mesmerising, individuals blurring into one body of perpetual motion as they arrive from and depart on fishing expeditions. Their holding pattern, dependant on wind direction, seems endless, especially when birds botch their landing on the first flypast. Flying back out to sea to gain some height, many more attempts are undertaken as returning fishers search for their families. Some unfortunate individuals occasionally drop down in the wrong spot and are met with a nasty snap that sends them hurtling through the colony to safety on the edge. For an uninterrupted take-off, the gannets waddle out of the colony to the “runway” circling the nesting birds, complete a few warm-up flaps, check the wind direction and, after a few ungraceful false starts, take-off in a cloud of dust. While ungainly on land, they are impressive on the hunt which can take place up to 450 km away from their colony. A distance they can cover in one day (Mullers & Navarro 2010). Plummeting from a height of up to 30 m, they hit the water at approximately 100 km/hour, with little to no deceleration. Using their momentum, along with their wings and feet, they can propel themselves a further 20 m underwater in pursuit of prey (Ropert-Coudert et al. 2004). The remarkable hunting technique of the Cape gannet requires fine-tuned physical adaptations to survive. Hitting the ocean surface headfirst, and at such high speeds, would shoot unpleasant jets of saltwater up nostrils and could very easily kill a lesser mortal. Therefore, gannets breathe through thin slits, positioned where the upper jaw meets the rest of the skull, which are closed by a flap of hard tissue when the bird executes their missile-like dives (Guy 2016). Neck length and muscle arrangement further safeguard against buckling on impact (Chang et al. 2016).  The bodies of these birds are additionally protected by “airbags”, extensions of their respiratory system cushioning them from the impact of this plunge-diving behaviour, to prevent sore muscles and broken necks (Guy 2016). An extraordinary animal! The sea conditions worsened throughout that first day, making for a wild and stormy night.

Day two dawned earlier than expected, and with a slightly grumpy atmosphere, as we were woken at 04:00 by randy oystercatchers chasing each other around on the beach below the house. I took the first patrol of the day, watching the sunrise as I rounded the island; the beautiful early morning light catching the wings of the first departing flocks. The sounds accompanying me were many and varied; the scream of the swift terns readying themselves for the day, the backdrop of gentle calling between the awakening gannets and the canon-fire of waves crashing through the small crevices between the boulders fringing the island. After a late breakfast, I wandered down to the shell-covered beach for my first swim; refreshing in an ankle-numbing, skin-burning type of way that only the West Coast can deliver. With the surge still strong, I anchored myself to kelp stipes and just floated in the swell with a Cape fur seal for company and the gulls and gannets circling overhead. In between patrols and watches, I spend my time writing and reading, drinking bountiful cups of tea (always tastes better from a stove-top kettle), completing counts, recording sightings and information, wiping down solar panels, preparing our washing water from the tank, and sweeping a never-ending supply of feathers out the front door. The gannet holding pattern above the island has changed direction, signalling a shift in the wind direction, the birds now making their final descent from the west, and I marvel at the fact that there are no collisions. Every now and then a deep owl-like “whooo” rises delicately, albeit forlornly, above the cacophony of “warrra-warrras” announcing the skyward search for a partner.

A calmer sea made for a quieter patrol on day three, the soft sounds of waking gannets fluffing themselves in the pastel light of pre-dawn is incredibly endearing. You find yourself quickly becoming fiercely protective of your little rugged island home, along with all the furry and feathered inhabitants. I am even mightily impressed by the guano-flinging accuracy of the kelp gulls, reminiscent of wartime B52s, you can hear the incoming projectile even before it splats across an unfortunate item of clothing. While swimming out in the channel, a small pod of dusky dolphins cruised past, and we spotted a yellow-billed kite from the mainland hunting pigeons between the outbuildings. Several private vessels approached the island, within the no-go zone of the MPA, and continued to do so throughout our watch despite efforts by SANParks Marine Rangers and the SAPS Water Wing to remove them. Poaching along the mainland coast and offshore from many of South Africa’s islands is fast driving numerous marine species, such as the West Coast rock lobster and the abalone, to extinction. According to the Marine Anti-Poaching Unit a person could earn in two hours, the equivalent of four times the average monthly income thus transforming the coastal network of small fishing communities into outposts of international organised crime. The overexploitation of marine resources is causing irreparable damage to ecosystems which are already under great strain from threats such as climate change, habitat loss and pollution. This became a standard topic during mealtimes; human behaviour has directly and indirectly resulted in so many ecological disasters, is it too late now to undo the already done?

Mealtime debates ruminated on the ecological ethics. What is natural these days? Humans should be part of the earth’s great ecosystem, we have removed ourselves from it and continue to manipulate it for our own benefit, but to what extent? As mentioned, the Cape gannet is a marine top predator endemic to the Benguela Upwelling System and, along with species such as the African penguin, is the focus of intensive conservation efforts. Sometimes at the cost of other species deemed less threatened. Cape fur seal colonies in this System are also struggling in the face of overfishing, pollution and entanglements, and have experienced mass abortion and die-off events over the last two years. While the African penguin and the Cape gannet are both listed as Endangered, Cape fur seals are listed as Least Concern and so conservation priority is given to the birds. The dire situation in which all these species find themselves, is because of human activities and behaviour and yet poaching continues unabated and we must prevent seals from gaining access to their natural food sources. While I realise the necessity of these conservation efforts to curtail the impending disaster, it does still feel hypocritical. Gita and Shanelle were great debate companions and with no topic off limits, intriguing rabbit-warren style discussions stretched late into the night; opinions broken and new ones, with more understanding, formed.

After one of these late-night symposiums, my fellow islanders decided to attempt the solar shower and very kindly left me some water for a hot wash, a rather luxurious indulgence. There was still some water left after washing body so I thought I would take a chance and wash my hair, forgetting how long and thick it was. Well, predictably the water ran out and so, with head full of shampoo, foam running into my eyes, I had to change into my swimming costume and brave the icy ocean once more. The tide was much higher and there was one heck of a surge. Before I could even properly get my footing, I was swiftly sucked out and rudely dumped back up between the boulders. This happened a few times, and quickly. Annoyingly my foot wedged between two rocks, twisting my knee, before I was once again dragged out like a ragdoll in a spin cycle. I was acutely aware of my swimming costume rapidly filling with the shells being churned up in the impact zone and decided that my hair would just have to stay soapy until my swim the next day. Mother Nature, in all her mischievous glory, had other ideas. I got sucked out to the kelp beds, where I could finally de-soap my hair but then, with the finality of an annoyed toddler getting frustrated with a toy, I was dumped, on my back, legs flailing, and my nose full of water, between two boulders. I finally managed to drag myself out of the ocean washing machine and hobble back to the house with wild, shell-filled hair plastered all over my face and the advice from a previous islander coming back to me, “only swim at low tide”. No mystery now as to why! I was still finding shells stuck to my body the next day.

A turbulent ocean does however make the evening patrols more special, reuniting gannets backlit by low pink clouds and swathes of sea spray. We noticed a few of the kelp gulls covered in blood (we now know that it’s just red dust from the Saldanha Iron Ore Terminal across the bay, so not nearly as impressive), they look decidedly hardcore and none of the other birds seem to mess with them. I even witnessed some serious WWE moves between members of this kelp gull mafia, one body-slammed another and flung him out of the edge of the colony by his tail. The offending bird skulked off into the shadows, no doubt planning his revenge. The tower-top lookout point gives you uninterrupted views to all these dramas. As mentioned, it also houses the “Thunderbox”. Instilling dread in the lead up to the trip, this simple rope and bucket system turned out to be the cleanest (short) long-drop set-up I’ve ever encountered. And with one of the best views. The slop-bucket walk of shame and the hatching of plans of how to use the contents as poacher deterrents became daily entertainment. Emptying the bucket at night is a rather odd contrastive experience. Against a sky full of stars and an awesomely bright moon, you trudge down to the jetty trying your best not to trip over any hidden obstacles to avoid sloshing even a little bit of the bucket contents anywhere near you. Making sure you don’t step off the end of the jetty while marvelling at the bejewelled sky, you’ve got to time the “dumping” just right with the wind to avoid splashback. Tying the bucket to the jetty, so as not to lose it into the void, is a must. After a few slooshes, it is ready to be reinstated as the “Thunderbox” throne. After one such night-time mission, I returned to the house only to find that I had been locked out. I terrified Shanelle when I knocked at the glass door with a torch held to my face (innocently showing her who it was which, on later consideration, was blatantly redundant).

Another day, another bone-chilling swim. A red tide swept into the channel on day four, bringing with it oodles of bioluminescent comb jellies. I lowered our “drawbridge”, where I was able to sit at sea level and observe the flashing cigar-like invertebrates. The duskies were back and feeding on the other side of Finger Rocks while a couple of fur seals sunned themselves on the warm boulders. I watched one of the seals feasting on a cuttlefish, flinging it across the surface of the water to break it up. An effective technique until one of the kelp gull mafia made off with the meal. I spotted a feeding supergroup of at least 30 humpback whales to the south-east of the island. We watched their impressive blows and breaches for at least an hour. We have all agreed that we could happily reside fulltime on this little island. It’s incredible how much more black plumage is visible in the colony in just a week. The weather changes so quickly on the island, first half of the dawn patrol can be carried out with clear skies while the second half is spent shrouded in thick fog. I was surprised to spot a juvenile black-crowned night heron, the hunched silhouette unmistakable, but they’re apparently not all that uncommon as visitors to the island.

Heavy fog cloaked the island on our last full day of duty, the birds already up and heading out to sea before dawn. Spotting a seal near the colony, I noted the behaviour of the kelp gulls. Initially I thought that the gulls just saw the seal as a predator that needed to be chased and so they joined the gannets in their defence of nests and young. After further observation, it became apparent that the gulls use the seal as cover so that when the gannets panic and leave their nests, the gulls are able to take the opportunity to grab eggs and small chicks. We were treated to one last visit from the dusky dolphins and one of the most dramatic sunsets that I’ve ever seen. A flurry of white wings contrasting starkly to the pewter-drenched backdrop while the glowing hues of the setting sun to the west transformed the sky as the light shimmered and danced across the water.

Our final sunset on Malgas Island

On day eight, after an early morning patrol and a last couple of tower-top monitoring sessions we cleaned and packed, readying the house to welcome the next shift of Watchers. We begrudgingly departed the island, on a calm sea, all quite sad to leave a place that had become so special to us. No doubt about it, we will be back.

Explore. Dream. Discover.

I would like to dedicate this article to the SANParks Rangers, the protective custodians of South Africa’s incredible National Parks and Marine Protected Areas.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the Malgas Shift 10 Crew, Gite and Shanelle, for the company, entertainment, and support. It was such an awesome experience! The Pelican Watch Team, Beverley and Wendy, for all of the organising and training, and for giving me this (hopefully not) once in a lifetime opportunity. The SANParks Rangers for transporting us to and from the island safely, for ensuring that we had all the necessary supplies and for checking in to make sure that we were all still surviving. And Richard and Robin of Jutten, for answering the endless newbie questions and for so willingly sharing your experiences and knowledge.

Species List

Birds (23)

  • African black oystercatcher (Haematopus moquini)
  • African penguin (Spheniscus demersus)
  • African sacred ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus)
  • Bank cormorant (Phalacrocorax neglectus)
  • Barn swallow (Hirundo rustica)
  • Black-crowned night heron (juvenile – Nycticorax nycticorax)
  • Cape cormorant (Phalacrocorax capensis)
  • Cape gannet (Morus capensis)
  • Cape wagtail (Motacilla capensis)
  • Common starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
  • Common tern (Sterna Hirundo)
  • Crowned cormorant (Microcarbo coronatus)
  • Egyptian goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca)
  • Feral pigeon (Columba livia domestica)
  • Giant petrel (Macronectes sp.)
  • Hartlaub gull (Chroicocephalus hartlaubii)
  • House sparrow (Passer domesticus)
  • Kelp gull (Larus dominicanus)
  • Pied crow (Corvus albus)
  • Ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres)
  • Speckled pigeon (Columba guinea)
  • Swift tern (Thalasseus bergii)
  • Yellow-billed kite (Milvus aegyptius)

Marine Mammals (3)

  • Cape fur seal (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus)
  • Dusky dolphin (Lagenorhynchus obscurus)
  • Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)

References and Bibliography

Changa B, Crosona M, Strakerb L, Garta S, Doveb C, Gerwind J & Junga S. 2016. How Seabirds Plunge-Dive without Injuries. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113(43): 12006-12011.

Guy A. 2016. 4 Extreme Adaptations that make Seabirds the Masters of Sea and Sky. [ONLINE] Available at: https://oceana.org/blog/4-extreme-adaptations-make-seabirds-masters-sea-and-sky/

Mullers RHE & Navarro RA. 2010. Foraging Behaviour of Cape Gannets as an Indicator of Colony Health Status. Endangered Species Research 12: 193-202.

Ropert-Coudert Y, Grémillet D, Ryan PG, Kato A, Naito Y & Le Maho Y. 2004. Between air and water: The plunge dive of the Cape Gannet Morus capensis. Ibis 146(2): 281-290.

SANParks Honorary Rangers: West Coast Region. 2021. Pelican Watch Manual.

Sherley RB, Crawford RJM, Dyer BM, Kemper J, Makhado AB, Masotla M, Pichegru L, Pistorius PA, Roux JP, Ryan PG, Tom D, Upfold L & Winker H. 2019. The Status and Conservation of Cape Gannets, Morus capensis. Ostrich: Journal of African Ornithology 90(4): 335-346.

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