Flock to Marion: a chance of a lifetime

Anton and Natasha Schutte of Sunset Adventure Travel have travelled the lenght and breadth of this continent (and a few others) in search of adventure – particularly the feathered kind. A dream come true was the “Flock to Marion” expedition to the Southern Ocean Islands presented by BirdLife South Africa. Photos supplied/by Alex & Juanita Aitkenhead.

The hyperbolic use of the phrase “chance of a lifetime” has become a rhetoric device, often overused. Nowadays, almost everything is a chance of a lifetime, be it an excellent job offer, a chance to meet someone famous, or even going on a trip to a great tourist destination.

Flock to Marion by Birdlife South Africa- initially planned for the end of January 2021 by postponed to the dreaded C-word – had the same phrase connected to it. Although this was not the first of its kind (and hopefully it won’t be the last), “chance of a lifetime” again seemed to be an enticing way to describe a great trip for cosmopolitan birdwatchers. This, however, was the real McCoy! A true bucket-list item.

When you open any bird book, it is almost natural to skip the first sections as they mainly contain birds that only seem accessible to the professional experts (whose job it is to find and monitor these birds) or an extremely lucky few. To put this statement in perspective, the Southern Ocean, where many of these birds occur, is one of the least-visited places on the planet.

Since most of the readers of this magazine are highly attuned with direction and maps, I will not even attempt to describe the boundaries of the Southern Ocean. Dubbed the world’s fifth ocean, a term that researchers have used for as long as they can remember, this waterbody’s official recognition is still highly debated in some circles. According to the Limits of Oceans and Seas (S-23), a decision by the International Hydrographic Organisation (IHO) in the spring of 2000 delimited a fifth world ocean, the Southern Ocean – stretching from the southern portions of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. The Southern Ocean extends from the coast of Antarctica north to 60 degrees south latitude, which coincides with the Antarctic Treaty Limit. The Southern Ocean is now the fourth largest of the world’s five oceans (larger than the Arctic Ocean).

Of mice and men

The ocean is divided into three latitudinal zones: temperate, subantarctic and Antarctic. The role of humans and their impact on this sensitive ecosystem was probably one of the main reasons for this voyage to set sail, but the real motivation was visiting Marion Island. According to the Mouse-Free Marion Project – a conservation project by Bird Life South Africa and the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment aimed at saving Marion Island’s seabirds by eradicating introduced house mice from the island – house mice (Musmusculus) were introduced to South Africa’s sub-Antarctic Marion Island, by sealers in the early 19th century. Over the last two centuries they have significantly reduced the abundance of native invertebrates, and domestic cats (Felis catus) taken to the island in 1948 to control mice at the South African weather station soon turned feral, killing large numbers of breeding seabirds.

An eradication programme finally removed cats from the island by 1991, in what is still the largest island area cleared of cats. Removal of the cats, coupled with the warmer and drier climate on the island over the last half century, has seen increasing densities of mice accumulating each summer. As resources run out in late summer, the mice seek alternative food sources and especially nestlings fall prey to them. Since 2015, 5% of summer-breeding albatross fledglings have been killed each year, as well as some winter-breeding petrel and albatross chicks. Marion Island is home to globally significant seabird populations and as a Special Nature Reserve, the Prince Edward Islands are afforded the highest degree of protection under South African environmental legislation.

A recent feasibility plan suggests that mice can be eradicated using aerial baiting. Learnings from the Gough Island Restoration Programme in the winter of 2021, spearheaded by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), will be taken into account for the Mouse-Free Marion Project. Although this is a collective effort, and many bodies and institutions should be accredited with the accolades, Bird Life South Africa has played a pivotal role. The organisation’s “Flock to Marion” expedition was one of these success stories that should be told.

Let’s get flocking

After getting the green light following some relaxation in travel restrictions, MSC Cruises notified all guests that the much-awaited Flock would finally take place in January 2022 and the excitement of 2019/2020 started building again. BirdLife South Africa’s communications on what to expect, the seminars arranged, and experts convened to accompany us on the voyage educated even the novice birder and was nothing short of amazing.

These experts, who have dedicated their lives to the study of mammals, seabirds, oceanography and more, were the real heroes of this story. Most people who get started in birding can easily do it by simply picking up binoculars and buying a birding field guidebook. However, the age-old saying of the more you know, the more you realise how little you know, is probably the proverbial bug that makes birding so addictive. This is not necessarily true when going out to sea in search of the world’s rarest birds. For this reason, BirdLife South Africa handpicked some 40 of the best bird guides available and posted them throughout the ship to assist with the identification of birds, mammals and fish alike.

Towards the end of January, the MSC Orchestra left Cape Town harbour with1 500 excited passengers onboard, heading in a south-eastern direction towards the Prince Edward Islands. It was not long before the first calls came as mako sharks bridged next to the ship and African penguins could be spotted in the distance. Spirits were high as the Cape Peninsula disappeared in the distance. The feeling that we were about to sail the high seas, like the pioneers of old, brought humility over many of us. This was overlanding as we had never even dreamed of! For this trip, we traded our 4×4 overlanding vehicles for a 100 000-ton ship that is 293m long, 32m wide and 60m tall. It is propelled by a 50 000kW diesel electric engine that reaches a top speed of 23 knots. What an absolute privilege! We had to pinch ourselves – was this not a dream?

BirdLife South Africa kept tabs on all the sighted species and confirmed (published on www.birdlife.org.za) – a whopping 62 bird species, and 20 whale, dolphin and seal species; as well as 10 other notable sightings such as turtles, flying squid and giant manta rays. But I’m getting ahead of myself!

Our destination, Prince Edward Islands, is situated in a part of the ocean that is notorious for rough seas, winds pumping at 200km and swells that give even the most experienced sailors the chills. A lot was said about the roaring forties, the furious fifties, and the screaming sixties, and although we experienced it, our captain steered well clear of the brewing storms from the south. The biggest drawcard, Marion Island (46°54′45″S 37°44′37″E) is the larger of the two islands at25.03km long and 16.65km wide, with an area of 290km²and a coastline of some 72km, most of which is high cliffs. The island group is about 2 000km south-east of Cape Town and only the SA Agulhas II ship visits the area once a year to drop off and collect scientists who remain on the island for 12 months at a time. This, of course, added to the excitement as – apart from the lone fishing trawler we saw on the second day – we were the only people for thousands of kilometres. One would think that the ocean is just one big body of water. However, this voyage changed that view for many of us whom admire nature but have not studied the many aspects of the ocean. Once we reached the continental shelf, which is the true end of Africa, and if you were fortunate enough to be standing close to one of the guides that explained the change in the conditions that occur at this drop-off, it all started making sense.

These changes in the oceans are some of the main reasons why the albatrosses frequent these areas. It would be silly to even attempt to relay the science of these phenomena, but luckily here BirdLife South Africa had once again thought of everything. The seminars and printed information and the very elite speakers – people like Peter Harrison and Peter Ryan, who have spent decades at sea studying and gathering information – put the experience into overdrive. It would be a sin not to watch some of the webinars and recordings of these scientists, as they share some of nature’s secrets (check it out on YouTube).

Batty for birds!

But, of course, the real champions of this once-in-a-lifetime experience were the birds, and the people who travelled thousands of kilometres to see them. The crew and staff onboard the MSC Orchestra must have thought this bunch of birders were mad. From as early as 05:00 in the morning, people were queuing to squeeze in on the bow, the starboard side, the portside and the stern.

Cameras, binoculars, scopes, bird books, cell phones, coffee, doughnuts, and all sorts of weird outfits – including camouflage– were the order of the day. The crowds swarmed the guides, not only because they might say something interesting, but also to hear the announcements made over the two-way radios they had with them. Every announcement – be it over the two-way or the ship radio – about a possible sighting caused such a stir that had this not been a 100 000-ton ship, it could have tipped onto its side as the birders rushed from portside to starboard side and back again.

One of the great moments on the voyage was seeing some of the crew members joining in during their breaks, to see what all the fuss was about. Every new birder created adds to the conservation effort, as he or she will hopefully get addicted to this hobby, visit places to see birds, and most importantly, tell a friend. For us, it was great to see so many young people on the voyage. Spending time with some of the keen young birders showed us that the new generation is ready to fix what previous generations took for granted.

They even pushed the boundaries when one of them realised that no cruise ship had ever been down to the roaring forties, and it would be a great idea to go for a swim in the pool, while the wind was pumping at 160km per hour and the temperature was well below freezing. The unofficial record now stands at 44 degrees for the lowest swim taken by anyone on a cruise ship south of the equator.

Birds of a different feather

There are over 350 seabirds that live in and around our oceans, from the tiny storm petrels to the majestic wandering albatrosses. Being in the presence of these giant birds, with a wingspan of up to 3.5m, as they display the ultimate dynamic soaring no more than 2m above the constant swells of the Southern Ocean is simply indescribable.

Although still debated, there are about 21 species of albatross, and because they breed only on certain islands, it is relatively easy to determine their numbers, which have dropped significantly over the last 50 years. It has become a race against time to save these majestical creatures. Ridding Marion Island of the accidentally introduced mice will go a long way in ensuring the existence of the birds that breed there. However, it is not just the seabirds that are threatened by the invasive mice. Other native species that call the island home are also at risk. Marion Island accounts for a tiny bit of the earth’s landmass but is home to a disproportionate a mountof the planet’s threatened biodiversity. In fact, it is home to over two million individuals from 28 globally important populations of seabirds, many of which are threatened. According to BirdLife South Africa, removing invasive species is one of the most effective means available to protect island ecosystems.

The Flock to Marion forms part of Bird Life South Africa’s efforts to raise funds to enable conservation projects, and we are grateful that we could play a small part. The massive reward of this experience filled with memories of great sightings and excitement will always outweigh our investment. The message it left us with is that the world we live in is the only one we have and is in dire need of our help. From one adventurer to another, we plead with you to support these organisations – they are making a difference today, for the future.

More information

The Mouse-Free Marion Project: www.mousefreemarion.org

BirdLife South Africa: www.birdlife.org.za

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