So much has been written about Flock at Sea 2017 that it seems as if everything I write here will be duplicative and redundant. But, I’ve always said that these blogs are for the benefit of my kids, to be able to read about what we got up to as a birding family, when they hopefully pass this passion of mine onto my grandchildren and their children. So, my words here will mostly be focussed on the experience that I shared with my two boys and two good mates.
The Flock at Sea advertising flyer went out many moons ago. In fact, so long ago that I cannot even remember when it was, but I suspect it was some time back in early 2015. There were a few things that got me on the phone to Jeanie straight away to tell her that this was something I just couldn’t miss. The first was that it was so long in advance that a pre-arranged trip with such a significant notice period would hardly even need a pink ticket discussion. The second was that it was only a R3,000 deposit for all three of us. That was a very reasonable financial commitment in my mind. Even the full price seemed very acceptable with Tommy travelling at 60% of full fare and Adam travelling for free. Given that both boys eat just about as much as me and with Tommy on the verge of towering over me, this seemed like excellent value.
The final reason was, without a doubt, the inevitable FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) that I would have if I wasn’t aboard the pelagic trip of a lifetime.
So, the deposit was paid, we secured ourselves a balcony cabin and I got on the phone to my good mates Dave and Paul and convinced them to tag along too. At one stage I even made a booking for Jeanie and my two younger kids, Jack and Emma, but that was soon cancelled as some of the doubts about whether this would be the trip of a lifetime for them started to surface. I had visions of being seasick in the cabin along with all four of my kids while Jeanie (who doesn’t really suffer from seasickness) was stuck at dinner with a whole bunch of birders as the cruise liner heaved and crashed through the petulant waters of an early winter Cape Storm (we should be so lucky).
If I had known then what I know now I would have had the whole family with me as that scenario was about as far from what actually transpired.
Anyway, as the date got closer my expectations of “the pelagic trip of a lifetime” dwindled a bit. The Sinfonia is an enormous vessel and the chances of getting close to magical seabirds seemed slim. Sure, we’d see a few Shy Albatrosses at a distance and my boys would get to tick them from a slightly closer range than they would from a Cape Point seawatch, but we were unlikely to see anything rare up close. I also worried that cruise liners wouldn’t venture to the deepest oceans for stability and financial reasons, but my expectations remained mostly modest due to my lifetime fear of seasickness – I am definitely better on land than I’ll ever be at sea and I was pretty worried that all three of us would be holed up in our cabin, taking turns at the toilet bowl, for most of the duration of the trip.
Well, the final fear never materialised and although I took a few precautionary tablets to minimise the likelihood of getting sick, Tommy and Adam never had an inkling of illness and looked very much at home on board (although the stability of the ship was way better than I ever expected).
The first two fears also never materialised. We saw some of the most spectacular birds imaginable, mostly in a two hour rarity bonanza on the first morning. In fact, Ross Wanless had a slightly more imaginative description for those first two hours but they remain unprintable for the purposes of a family blog. The Grey Petrel, Sooty Albatross (multiple), White-headed Petrel (multiple) and the bird of the century, the Light-mantled Albatross, were all added to our list in those crazy hours and it will remain in my memory as arguably the most exciting birding stretch I’ve ever had (a lot has been written about this so no need to expand further).
We also experienced seabirds at very close proximity and I will never forget the very first bird I saw when it started to get light on that first morning. The five of us (Paul, Dave, Tommy, Adam and I) had met for an early breakfast on the Tuesday morning. We thought we had a jump on everyone else as it was 6:15 and it was comfortably an hour before it was due to get light, but it seemed as if we were the last people in the dining room, as everyone was most likely as anxious as we were to see their first birds. I was still in my “low expectation” mode having had my fears play out the previous evening as we left Cape Town harbour. It couldn’t have been a more spectacular evening as we steamed south but the birds we saw were just so unbelievably far away. This giant ship was of no interest to the occasional Shy Albatross and so this gave me more reason to feel as if we may see very little.
We wrapped up breakfast and I was strolling to our room when I got a whatsapp on the general notification whatsapp group and it simply read “Wandering Albatross at the stern”. Now, a Wandering Albatross rates as one of my favourite birds on the planet. I had only ever seen one of them on a previous pelagic trip many years back and I had hoped I’d see a few more. I stopped walking to our room and replaced that with a frantic run (there would be a lot of running along passages over the next three days) and burst into the room to grab my camera and bins. I decided I may as well have a quick look from the balcony to see if I could see the Wanderer that had been mentioned. I slid open the door and stepped onto the balcony and looked about 30 metres out and there was a majestic adult Wanderer that slowly swept past me (the pics below are not of that first bird as the light was lousy but this seemed like a good place to put in the collection of Wanderer pics I accumulated on the trip).
It was in that very moment that I knew that this trip would be something special.
We had never been aboard a cruise ship and this was certainly an unconventional introduction for us, but the whole package worked so well. The Sinfonia was stable on some lumpy seas and it had every comfort required. Our room was a little small, with Tommy’s bed a mere shelf hanging from the wall, but we spent very little time in our room so it mattered little.
The meals were way better than the average fare I had expected and the bottomless pizza was something that Tommy valued higher than the Light-mantled Albatross.
The pizza station opened at 11am each morning and he was always there sampling the first fresh batch of the day. If I had allowed him to stay awake until midnight he would have been polishing off the last slice of the day as well. He had a bit of a panic on day one when he found out the pizza station only opened at 11am. With breakfast at 6:15, how was he possibly going to be able to survive until 11?
Thanks to his keen sense of smell and adventurous spirit it wasn’t long before he established that the pancake station was open from breakfast until it was replaced by pizzas at 11.
It was a great relief for him and, to be quite honest, for Paul as well. Tommy’s purpose on board was well established as he fulfilled the role as Paul’s personal Mr Delivery. From 7:30am Paul had a steady stream of pancakes, pizzas, coffee and gin and tonics delivered to him with a smile. Quite remarkably, in all of Tommy’s wanderings on the ship he never missed a single decent bird. He even disappeared for a two and a half hour nap on that first day (teenagers) and he only missed three good birds (Antarctic Prion, Northern Giant Petrel and Black-browed Albatross) which were easily caught up on days two and three.
The rest of us weren’t so happy to dice with disaster in the way Tommy was. As much as we were encouraged to book this trip for FOMO purposes, nothing could measure against the FOMO that pervaded the decks for the entire duration of the trip. Seabirding is unpredictable and random sightings happen far more regularly than they would on a normal land-based trip. If you are in the right habitat for a Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, somewhere in the rocky hillsides of SA’s dry west, you have a very good chance of seeing one. And if your mate sees one first it is highly likely that you will also get to see it a few minutes later. You may even disappear behind a boulder for a toilet break and your chances will still be good at catching up with your target.
Well, pelagic birding is entirely different. Aside from the differences in the depth of water and the distance from land (which is never really apparent to the average birder on board) there is just no way of knowing what spectacular bird could appear on the horizon or zoom past the bow. Literally anything is possible and it usually happens in an instant and then it is over. There are no barriers to stop the bird moving in whichever direction it is going and with a ship the size of the Sinfonia there is no way of chasing after it. Most of the time you get one chance and if you miss it then you have to live with it.
And so the only solution to this problem was to position ourselves next to a guide with a radio and never leave the deck of the ship. Ever.
For the most part that was our strategy and it worked very well for us. Tommy was our busboy and delivered all our requirements (except visiting the heads on our behalf) and so we stood for the entire duration of the day peering out over the deep ocean and waiting to hear the excited crackles on the radios. It was also always important to act fast in the event of a good bird appearing. There was no better example than the Light-mantled Albatross.
We were standing on the 6th deck on portside when our assigned guide called out “Light-mantled Albatross at the stern”. Admittedly, her voice could have expressed greater urgency but it was early on day one and perhaps this would be a common occurrence over the three days in the deepest oceans. Given that there was only one person on board at that time that had this bird on their sub-region list, we all agreed that the shout out could have been a touch more animated.
Anyway, Dave was standing next to me and his whole body seemed to go into a state of alertness. He started demanding further instruction from our guide and when we heard it was moving across the stern to the starboard we really only had one choice and that was to run for it. We barged through the doors into the hallways, ran past the central column of the ship and burst out the other side of the ship. Some late breakfast-goers looked aghast as five of us sprinted right past them. As we got onto the 6th deck on the starboard side we decided to run towards the stern. As we neared the clump of people gathered towards the stern Pete Ryan (one of the clump) said to us “why are you running this way? The bird is over there” and he pointed towards the bow just as the bird rounded the front of the ship. The only person that had seen it was Dave and so we now had to move fast back to the portside.
We bashed through the doors again and careered onto the portside deck where we had been standing a mere 60 seconds before. If it wasn’t such a serious moment in our lives it would all have seemed a bit comical. All the static passengers looked at us as if we were mad. I guess they were hopeful we had some better news but we also hoped they had seen it round the bow, but there was nothing. I was in a world of pain, but Dave’s trusty eyes picked it up sweeping along the swell and before long we were all on to it. Unfortunately it never came down the side of the ship but we all saw it drift slowly away from us and we could happily breathe the most enormous sighs of relief. This was a bird you really did not want to miss.
We all had discussions with a number of birders later that day and the big question was always “did you see the LMA?” Dave happened to chat to a guy that had been oblivious to it while finishing off his breakfast and, in discussion with Dave, he seemed relaxed as his response was “well, I’m sure we’ll see another one”. Dave set him straight, in simple terms, telling him about the thousands of hours Pete Ryan had spent at sea in his lifetime and it was a new subregion bird for him. Dave’s lack of diplomacy was well noted. I am not sure how many of the 2 000 birders on board saw that bird, but I do know there were a few top listers that missed it and my genuine condolences are extended to them.
Some had a slightly different strategy to our “run as fast as you can” option. Our good mate, Michael, chose to position himself on deck six for almost the entire duration of the journey. As a result, he had plenty of space and ended up with some incredible shots. With his permission I have posted his LMA shot, which I reckon must be one of the best taken.
Speaking of photography, I had had those low expectations of getting close to some of the birds, and I was also concerned that the decks would be too high to be able to get good perspectives of the birds as they passed by. One of the opportunities I had on board to counter these fears was with Oryx, the photographic guide company, that had procured the use of the bow for two photographic workshops a day, one in the morning and one in the evening. My chance came quite early on, with a slot late on the first day. The light had been on and off during the day and even during my time slot the clouds only parted occasionally, but it was still a perfect chance to have some assistance from the photographic guides but, most importantly for me, to get access to such a good vantage point on the bow without having to elbow my way to the railing. I was also fortunate that the two hours I spent with Oryx produced some smart birds as subjects.
Another one of my highlights had to have been than rainbow sunset on the second evening. We had spent our entire day on deck looking for new birds, but it was a far quieter and more normal day at sea than the previous day of excitement, and my only real bird highlight was the close flyby of the striking White-headed Petrel.
The whole day had been dominated by low grey skies and at around 5:15 the thought of a cold beer in the Manhattan Bar was ever so appealing. We had the early dinner sitting at 6pm and we all agreed we would drop our kit in our room and head to the bar on the way to dinner. Paul disappeared through the doors of the deck and as he did so we asked him to get a jump start on our beer order. The door closed shut as Paul headed off and, in that very moment, an unusually grey headed Shy Albatross wafted out of the gloom and for a brief instant we all wondered if it may be something a little more special, which it turned out not to be.
The photographic conditions were lousy but that brief delay whilst studying this unusual bird allowed just enough time for the sun to peak through the gap in the clouds above the horizon. That was all the light that was needed to fill the sky with the most spectacular double rainbow, creating an arc in the wake of the ship. There was more sprinting along the decks and bashing through doors, but this time it was for a rainbow and not a bird. It seemed as if the entire ship’s populace was now at the stern staring aghast at such an incredible sight. To add to the spectacle, a pair of Shy Albatrosses (including the weird grey headed one) circled and soared in front on the rainbow creating a vison that surely must have come from another world.
There was only one problem. Paul was not on deck and the only thing we could assume was that he was sitting in the dingy Manhattan Bar with three tall, cold Heinekens in front of him, wondering where we were.
I felt short pangs of guilt as I snapped away at this magical sight in front of me but it was one of those moments that had to be fulfilled.
We arrived at 6:02 at the bar counter in the Manhattan Bar and Paul was sipping his beer. There weren’t two others lined up next to his. I asked him why he hadn’t ordered beers for all three of us to which he replied “I did, but I’ve drunk both of yours already”. It was hard to argue with that.
We made up for it on the last night where we made sure we were with him to avoid him drinking our beers.
So, Paul missed the rainbow and up to that point I hadn’t really missed anything, but it is almost impossible to do any trip without leaving something behind. Well, that happened on the very last few hours on our last evening as we slowly headed back to Cape Town. We were all standing on the 7th deck at the stern when a bit of commotion broke out on the port side. I rushed over with the boys and there was a lot of excitement as a pod of Long-finned Pilot Whales were frolicking close to the boat. The railing was jam-packed and Adam couldn’t see a thing through four layers of whale watchers so we decided to dash down to the 6th floor port side deck. We got to the railing a level down and there was this pod of 6 or 7 pilot whales right next to us. It felt as if we could almost reach out and touch them.
As it turned out we lingered just too long. By the time we resumed our positions back on the 7th deck there seemed to be a bird murmur rumbling around. Dave walked up to us and asked if we’d seen the Subantarctic Shearwater. A small shearwater had emerged from nowhere on the starboard side and high-tailed it past the stern before disappearing past the wake within 45 seconds (you do remember my comments about FOMO, don’t you?) Based on the evidence we had at the time it was labelled a Subantarctic Shearwater which would have been a new bird for me. Strangely enough, I didn’t feel like I had missed too much. Sure, it would have been a new bird to tick on my list but the trip had exceeded my expectation manyfold over already and I was philosophical in dealing with this miss. As it turned out post-trip evidence of the bird that was photographed which revealed that it was, in fact, a Manx Shearwater and in the end I hadn’t missed anything anyway.
Now, no blog on the Flock at Sea would seem complete without a mention of the controversy associated with the official trip list. I had originally thought to write an edgy, tongue in cheek, controversial account of all the sensitive moments on board but, as I mentioned above, this is a family blog and most of my musings are generally a place of safety, so, in the end, I decided to tip toe around all of that. I will say, however, that I was fortunate not to be standing next to anyone that called out a Tristan Albatross, or a Salvin’s Prion, or a Kerguelen Petrel, or a Blue Petrel, or a Salvin’s Albatross, or a White-faced Storm Petrel, or a Leach’s Storm Petrel when they were seen. I guess I am also fortunate that none of my photographs of prions, petrels, albatrosses or storm petrels are good enough, in post processing, to debate the width and depth of a prion bill or the length of an albatross bill.
I’m fortunate for this as I have no internal debate with myself as to whether to tick any of these mythical birds on Flock at Sea. My SA list is comparatively not a very long one, and I certainly don’t mix it with any of the big dogs, so whether I have one or two extra birds on my list, on the basis of someone else’s experienced identification of a fast flying prion at 70 metres, is probably pretty irrelevant. So, since so much has already been said and written about what should and shouldn’t be ticked by experts and laymen alike, that debate is really for another place and another time.
The final comments I will make about the trip was the phenomenal camaraderie on board. I got the opportunity to meet so many of the faces I had not yet had an opportunity to meet and I also spent a huge amount of time on deck and at various places on board talking birds all day without an iota of guilt. My boys also got to spend time with some of the top seabirders around and that is something they will remember for a long time too. Thanks to Dave, Paul, Dom, Mike, Frans, Liza, Pete, John, Trevor, Alastair, David, William, Joel, Mike B, Chevonne, Rainer, Morne, Allan, Simon, Mel, Vernon, Mark and, of course, Tommy and Adam, for all the interesting conversations.
I had embarked on this journey with my two boys hoping that they’d see a few pelagic birds to fill a few gaps in that rather empty section of their field guides and I had perhaps hoped to see a few new birds myself but it turned out to be a far better experience than I had expected. It will live in my memory for a very long time as one of the best trips ever. We can all hope that Birdlife SA are able to organise another one of these but next time around there won’t be any hesitation in booking. I’ll be at the very front of the queue.
To finish off here are a few more pics from the ship.