by Mark Liptrot
First suggested in 2019, the cruise was a brainchild of BirdLife South Africa. After COVID-related delays and a change of ships, if you were double-vaxxed, had a negative PCR test within 48h and a negative lateral flow test within 2h, you could board the MSC Orchestra for the cruise of a lifetime! Now read on…
What was the purpose of this epic voyage? To raise funds for the Mouse-free Marion project. A portion of the cost of the ticket went towards this project, as well as sales of Flock merchandise and fund-raising activities on board ship. This included auctions, raffles, donations and sponsorship opportunities.
But where is Marion? The above shows the position of Marion Island in relation to Antarctica and South Africa – almost halfway between the two! This was the first time that an MSC ship had ventured this far south…
Marion is one of two islands in the Prince Edward group of two – the other being Prince Edward itself. The latter is very rarely visited and has no mice on it. Some seabirds breed on one and not the other due to the different terrain – Prince Edward has much more imposing cliffs and few accessible beaches. After changing hands over the years, the group was annexed by Britain to South Africa in 1947, and a research base was established there a year later. This was upgraded in 2008 at a cost of RM200. It is an active volcano, last erupting in 2004.
The islands fall under the jurisdiction of the Cape Town Magistrate’s Court, and South African law as applied in the Western Cape applies on them. The islands are also deemed to be situated within the electoral district containing the Port of Cape Town; as of 2016 this is ward 115 of the City of Cape Town.
The newer buildings are on the right. The 6 000-m2 modular facility can accommodate 80 people and was completed in 2008. No cement was used in the construction due to the detrimental effect this has on the environment.
The islands are situated in the path of the winds known as the Westerlies – the Roaring Forties. If you go below 50’ south you encounter the Furious Fifties, and below 60’, the screaming Sixties (sounds like Beatlemania). There’s an old sailors’ saying… “Below 40’ there is no law and below 50’ there is no God”. The sealing seafarers brought mice to Marion in the late 18th century. Mouse populations steadily increased, and when the research station was built in 1948, cats were introduced. These kept the house mice at bay at the research station, but soon went feral and started to kill and eat seabirds; the cat population swelled to over 3 400 by 1977. These killed an estimated 455 000 seabirds annually. A few cats were intentionally infected with the highly specific feline panleukopenia virus, which reduced the population to about 600 by 1982.
Teams were employed to shoot the remaining cats at night, a process which took 14 years to complete. But this meant that there were no predators for the mice, whose population subsequently exploded, and these also started attacking the seabirds and eating them alive. Attacks became more frequent as the mice learnt that the food was easily obtained:
Climate change also played a part; a drier, warmer climate meant that the breeding period for mice was also extended – they have more litters per year than in previous cooler, wetter years. There were a few attacks recorded in 2009, but these have been steadily increasing each year. About 5% of sooty, light-mantled and grey albatrosses were killed by mice in 2015.
So, what needs to be done?
- mice need to be killed humanely
- this needs to happen in winter – however, this is when weather is at its worst
- there needs to be no risk to other species
- experts in this type of process need to be employed
- there may be need to repeat the process to ensure success
This project has been undertaken on Gough Island. Experience from this was that Marion would need 10kg of poisoned bait pellets per hectare, i.e., 295 tonnes of pellets. This is dropped from helicopter-controlled hoppers. The project is due to start in 2024 dependent on funding. About R6 million has been raised so far, mainly due to the ‘sponsor a hectare’ initiative, where you can sponsor I hectare for baiting for a donation of R1 000. R3 million of this was raised on the cruise alone! The whole island needs to be sprayed in as short a time as possible outside of the breeding period (i.e., winter) without missing out any sections.
With that background, on to the voyage itself. The very comfortable ship, MSC Orchestra:
- Gross tonnage: 92 409 tonnes
- Number of passengers: 3 013 (we had +/- 1 500)
- Crew members: About 987
- Number of cabins: 1 275
- Length: 294m; Width: 32m; Draught: 8m
- Maximum speed: 23 knots (43 km/h)
As well as the 1 500 ‘flockers’, there were 40 specialist guides on board, including 8 community birders who were sponsored by Swarovski, Birdlife and their supporters. The guides were on duty from 05h00 to 17h00, and were stationed throughout the port and starboard decks, as well as the bow and stern. They kept in touch using walkie-talkies, and bellowed out when a new bird was spotted.
We had a deadline to meet due to expected high winds (which didn’t materialise!). We stopped and anchored just short of Robben Island…there were some people who couldn’t change their flights. They arrived too late to board by 13h00, so the ship left the harbour and lifeboats were sent to fetch the stragglers in the afternoon. Despite this setback, we left the Cape on time…
The expected route to Marion…where we went from a balmy 21’C water temperature off Cape Town on the Monday, to 4-6’ C water temperature by Wednesday. Then most of us changed into winter clothing.
But what birds to expect? Here they are:
The 350 species of seabirds world-wide make up only 3% of bird species and yet they inhabit 70% of the earth’s surface. Of the 350, 132 have been recorded in our seas. Marion Island alone has a breeding population of 2 million seabirds. So a wide range of birds – from the flightless penguins to the birds with the longest flight distribution in the world – the albatrosses, flying distances equivalent to several times to the moon and back over their 40-70 year lifespans. This was an opportunity of a lifetime for birders to see some of these iconic animals! The viewing decks could become rather crowded…
The larger (or ‘great’) albatrosses reach maturity after 6 to 18 years, breed only every 2 years and lay just one egg. A quarter of the world’s population of wandering albatrosses breed on Marion Island. The smaller albatrosses such as the yellow-nosed, sooty and light-mantled are known as ‘mollymawks’. The albatrosses and giant petrels share a morphological adaptation to aid in flight, a sheet of tendon which locks the wing when fully extended, allowing the wing to be kept up and out without any muscle effort. This allows them to maintain dynamic soaring for many hours on end, only landing on the ocean’s surface when feeding (mainly at night, when squid swim upwards to feed). A full list of birds, whales and other species is shown in the appendix.
Seabirds seen on the trip are known as ‘tube-nosed’, or procellariiforms, and drink seawater, so they have to excrete excess salt. All birds have an enlarged nasal gland at the base of the bill, above the eyes, and in the Procellariiformes family the gland is active. In general terms, the salt gland removes salt from the system and forms a 5 percent saline solution that drips out of the nostrils or is forcibly ejected in some petrels.
Skuas/jaegers are gull-like birds, and are unique in having sharp, curved claws and webbed feet.
Prions are also known as ‘whalebirds’ due them frequenting trawlers and whaling ships. They can be found in vast numbers and all species have the bold ‘M’ on the upper side of the wings. They are difficult to tell apart due to the subtle differences between the species.
Diving petrels: These chunky, short-winged birds have as their name suggests adapted to dive for their food below the surface and swim using their wings, like penguins. They are also reputed to fly through waves rather than over the surface.
Storm petrels are the smallest of seabirds, the largest being 25 cm in length (most are below 20 cm) and weigh less than 20g. They have a large wing to body mass ratio, making them extremely manoeuvrable. They often use their feet to skip along the surface, and can dive to 0,5m if necessary.
The one pictured is a Black-bellied storm petrel:
Thinus van Staden
Shearwaters are small to medium-sized petrels and can use their wings and feet to dive 1-5m underwater, eating mainly fish. Those below are Cory’s shearwaters:
Penguins have the ability to behave like porpoises when swimming away – known as ‘porpoising’. There are 19 species of penguins world-wide. Interestingly, as many dive into the dark oceanic depths, they have the ability to dilate their pupils by 300 times so they can see their prey better. Humans can expand theirs by just 8 times.
On the left is the King penguin. The Macaroni penguin shown on the right travels 900km south after breeding to fatten up:
You never know what you may see in the water! Sunfish and flying fish were seen soon after leaving Cape Town. On our return north, flying squid appeared. These have been observed to cover distances as long as 30m above the surface of the water, presumably to avoid predators or save energy as they migrate across vast expanses of ocean, uniquely utilizing jet-propelled aerial locomotion. This phenomenon has been very rarely documented:
Three days after leaving Cape Town we approached the islands. We were hoping that we could anchor within the Marine Protected Area, but permission was declined, and we had to stay 12 nautical miles shy of any land. Marion Island was shrouded in mist, but we glimpsed Prince Edward:
This is the closest we got to Marion Island – 12 nautical miles (22 km). The blue line shows the ship’s journey:
Unfortunately, Captain Pinto, our able ship’s skipper, decided we had to hot-foot it out of the area due to impending bad weather. Winds of over 100kph were recorded within a few hours of leaving the area. The viewing decks and bows were closed to birders for a whole day until the winds subsided – by which time the prime bird areas were way southwards. This allowed us to enjoy the other attractions on this floating hotel, of which there were many!
But it wasn’t all fun and games. One evening we had to go about in fancy dress and make fools of ourselves…
Most days had three lectures you could attend – on bird or Marion-related themes (e.g., gannets, albatrosses, mammals, how not to hook seabirds, the story of Marion). These were suspended when there was a frenzy of bird activity around the ship (“albatross Thursday”!), when we had reached our destination. The highlight of the talks was the world-renowned, award-winning seabird expert, Peter Harrison MBE, who spoke separately about his life story (fascinating!), penguins and his other favourite bird, the albatross. Peter gained fame as author of seabird books in 1981 and 2019. He co-founded Apex Expeditions, which visits far-flung corners of the globe in search of rare and exciting wildlife with small groups of conservation-minded people. At the end of his lectures he auctioned signed, limited-edition prints of
illustrations of his latest book, “Seabirds – the New Identification Guide” (not available in SA). Proceeds went towards the Mouse-free Marion project.
We learnt from this lecture only 2 penguins breed in the ice and snow – the Adelie and Emperor – all the other 17 species breed on dry land. Emperor penguins can dive to 600m! No-one knows why this activity does not give them “the bends”, where gases dissolved in the blood form bubbles when coming to the surface, ensuring a speedy death in human divers. In other news, fossil penguins have been found in New Zealand the same height as a grown man.
But wait! More hazards confronted us, in the form of Cyclone Batsirai. The captain was concerned that we may be hit by this monster on our return journey – so we did not take our intended route of a slow ride offshore of Port St Johns to Durban, which would have enabled us to get even more bird sightings.
After leaving the islands, bird sightings declined, although there was some excitement as the rare Tristan’s albatross was sighted, resulting in many discussions between the differences between this species and the Wandering…very small differences indeed. It was tempting to shoot both and collect DNA samples to settle the argument 😊
But all too soon we were back in Durban, docking next to the brand-new cruise terminal at the port entrance. A true trip of a lifetime, and one that makes you want to do more birding (and improve your camera equipment). BirdLife SA should be congratulated on organising such a wonderful event! There are plans to have another Flock cruise (Flock to Marion was the 3rd), but where and when remains to be seen.
USEFUL CONTACT INFORMATION:
- BIRDLIFE SOUTH AFRICA – firstname.lastname@example.org
- BIRDLIFE ETHEKWINI KZN – email@example.com
- MOUSE-FREE MARION – Heidi Whitman Mouse-Free Marion Chief Philanthropy Officer firstname.lastname@example.org
Guide to the Seabirds of Southern Africa (2017), Peter Ryan, Struik Nature
APPENDIX: FINAL SPECIES LIST OF BIRDS, CETACEANS AND OTHER NOTABLE SIGHTINGS