eastern cape scuba diving
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Dive Type: Not applicable Depth: Not applicable Diver Qualification: Not applicable

Sixty-two kilometres from Port Elizabeth and 8 km from the nearest mainland at Woody Cape lie the Bird Islands in Algoa Bay(33 50'S, 26 17'E). This cluster of four islands boasts several seabird superlatives. Bird Island has southern Africa's most populous gannetry with about 65 000 breeding pairs nesting densely on 2.4 hectares. During the winter months it is the chief breeding ground of the endangered South African Roseate Tern (250 pairs). Also in late winter and spring, huge roosts (>5 000 birds) of Antarctic Terns and Common Terns dot the rocky shoreline. In the 1930s less than 100 pairs of African Penguins were breeding on Bird Island, having been decimated by decades of egg collecting and other forms of human disturbance. Since the cessation of guano scraping during the late 1980s, penguins are thriving again on Bird and Seal Island. The population is now well over 10 000 birds. The extermination of feral rabbits in 1990 by John Kieser, an ex-cat hunter on subantarctic Marion Island, has allowed the naturally sparse vegetation to grow back from overgrazing and it is now again providing the ground cover for penguin and tern chicks to shelter from the elements and Kelp Gull attacks

A few hundred Cape Cormorants and dozens of White-breasted Cormorants breed across the narrow channel on Seal and Stag Islands. As is typical for these species, numbers of breeders fluctuate between years in response to the abundance of their main prey species. Poor management practices at Port Elizabeth's rubbish dumps, seaside gastronomies and fish industries have artificially elevated the Kelp Gull population. Approximately 450 Kelp Gulls pairs were breeding on Seal and Stag Islands in 1999 and were making life hell for the resident penguins. South Africa's easternmost breeding colony of Swift Terns (670 pairs in 2000) is situated on Seal Island. African Black Oystercatchers are another species that breeds successfully in most years and have slowly been increasing in numbers.

Among the non-breeding shorebirds, Turnstones, Little Egrets and Whimbrels are regularly seen foraging. The full bird list is quite impressive and includes such out-of-place oddities as Willow Warbler, Lark-like Bunting, Kurrichane Buttonquail and Pink-backed Pelican. The islands are a great place to watch pelagic bird species, especially during stormy conditions when albatrosses and the larger petrels can be spotted close by.

Bird ringing has always featured strongly as a research technique used by marine ornithologists active on Bird Island. Since 1978 some 42 000 Cape Gannets and more than 2200 African Penguins have been ringed there. Intensive retrapping of banded birds has shown that both Cape Gannets and African Penguins are highly faithful to their birthplace when the time for breeding comes, although they mingle freely with birds from west of Algoa Bay during phases of post-breeding and juvenile dispersal. In recent years some 1000 terns of three species have been added to the ringing total. Subsequent controls and retraps have underlined the global importance of this island for Antarctic, Common and Roseate Terns. Bird Island is also the site of a long-term seabird monitoring programme by the Port Elizabeth Museum which is funded by DEAT's Marine and Coastal Management

Presently the Bird Islands are administered by the Directorate of Nature Conservation in the Eastern Cape who maintain only a perfunctory presence on Bird Island. It is widely expected that the islands be turned over to South African National Parks in the near future to be incorporated into the Greater Addo National Park. If this becomes true, in time to come the development of small-volume, low-impact tourism is likely to make Bird Island accessible to the enthusiastic sea-birder. 

Avian Demography Unit
Department of Statistical Sciences
University of Cape Town


Specie List for Dive site: (PE-AB)-Bird Island
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Morus capensis (Cape gannet)
Spheniscus dermersus (Jackass penguin)
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eastern cape scuba diving