Marine – St Francis Bay pelagics

About the Birding

As one departs from the St Francis Bay harbour, look for predominantly coastal species. This could include Hartlaub’s, Kelp, and Grey-headed Gulls, the White-breasted and Reed Cormorants, and Common (summer), Swift (Greater Crested) and Sandwich Terns. A resident family of Cape Clawless Otters may also put in an appearance, together with the hulking South African Fur Seal. The bay itself is fantastic for both African Penguin and Cape Gannet, both of which visit these waters from the nearby St Croix and Bird Island colonies.

Heading past Cape St Francis, where a large colony of Cape Fur Seals hauls of up breed each year, you will start entering deeper waters. White-chinned Petrel and Sooty Shearwater are normally the first pelagic species seen, followed soon thereafter by Brown (Subantarctic) Skuas. Four albatross species are regular in these waters including the Shy, Black-browed, Atlantic Yellow-nosed and Indian Yellow-nosed Albatrosses. Top prize would be to find a fishing trawler near the continental shelf, roughly 20km from shore, where impressive numbers of the aforementioned species can usually be seen.

Pelagic birding is distinctly seasonal, with a biphasic migration of birds from the north and southern hemispheres. During the winter months, when bird numbers are usually at their peak as southern hemisphere species move north, one has an excellent chance of adding the Northern and Southern Giant Petrels, Antarctic Tern, Antarctic Prion and possibly even the sublime Pintado (Cape) Petrels. Such is the way with pelagic birding that one is never quite sure what will be seen and the list of sought-after rarities is mouth-watering. Previous trips from St Francis Bay in the months of April-September have delivered the likes of Flesh-footed Shearwater, Antarctic Fulmar, and the Wandering, Northern Royal, Southern Royal and Grey-headed Albatrosses.

During the summer months, the regular species are augmented by a number of species which migrate into the Southern Ocean from the northern hemisphere. This includes the Cory’s and Manx Shearwaters, Parasitic Skua, both Pomarine and Long-tailed Jaegers, European Storm-petrel, Sabine’s Gull, Arctic Tern and Grey Phalarope. In the months of April-May and September-October one also has an excellent chance of seeing Great Shearwater, Soft-plumaged Petrel and the Black-bellied Storm-petrel; all of which occur in South African waters on passage migration.

In addition to birds, pelagic trips almost always produce other interesting marine fauna. Cape Fur Seal is guaranteed, while the Southern Right, Humpback and Brude’s Whales are all possible. Indo-Pacific Bottle-nosed, Common and Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphins are resident in the bay itself, while Striped, Dusky and Risso’s Dolphins are all likely further out. Previous trips have also delivered Orca (Killer Whale), Mako and Oceanic Blue Sharks, and the bizarre Sunfish.

Key species:

Up to 9 species of Albatross, Northern and Southern Giant Petrels, African Penguin, Cape Gannet, various Shearwaters, Petrels, and Storm-petrels

About the Birding Site

Marine habitats are perhaps the least explored areas of the Eastern Cape and pelagic trips offer the thrilling opportunity to access species that are typically not easily seen from shore. The open seas are an extremely challenging habitat in with to look for and identify birds and one is usually required to travel 10-20km offshore to find a high diversity of offshore seabird species. The weather plays an important role in the lives of pelagic species and, generally, the rougher the conditions the better!

Those willing to brave the elements will be rewarded with the breath-taking experience of seeing an albatross glide effortlessly over the horizon, or watching petrels masterfully navigate the wind and waves like nothing else. Pelagic trips are run on a regular basis from both Port Elizabeth and St Francis Bay, though ad hoc trips can be privately arranged.

Key species:

Up to 9 species of Albatross, Northern and Southern Giant Petrels, African Penguin, Cape Gannet, various Shearwaters, Petrels, and Storm-petrels

Other Related Information

Pelagic trips from St Francis Bay usually depart from Port St Francis at roughly -34.1829, 24.8505 though specific details are usually communicated to you by the skipper several days before the scheduled departure. Note that pelagic trips usually demand that several days are kept open, to ensure suitable weather conditions.

Recommended accommodation nearby:
No Birder Friendly Establishments are currently available in St Francis, although a variety of accommodation options are available to suit all budgets and requirements.

Other related information:

Local guide information:
No Birder Friendly Tour Operators or local guides are currently available in St Francis Bay. However, St Francis Safaris is a locally based tour operator running deep-sea fishing excursions with experience in running deep sea pelagic trips (refer to contact details).

Text prepared by:
Daniel Keith Danckwerts (Rockjumper Worldwide Birding Tours)

Key species:

Up to 9 species of Albatross, Northern and Southern Giant Petrels, African Penguin, Cape Gannet, various Shearwaters, Petrels, and Storm-petrels

Contact details:

St Francis Safaris

Tim: +27 (0)82 569 3750
Bid: +27 (0)66 304 5913

Eastern Cape Pelagic Birding Trips

Jo: +27 (0)82 887 0241
Dan: +27 (0)72 261 6387
Facebook: Eastern Cape Pelagic Seabirding Trips