Cape Town Pelagic – Feeding the fish

It is commonly said that there are two stages of seasickness.  The first stage is that you think that you are going to die.  The second stage is that you hope you die.  I spent most of my Saturday in the second stage…

After having left the family in Plett last weekend whilst I had to get back to the office, I realized that I had a full weekend of guilt free activity ahead of me.  Having also left my bicycle in Plett (not wanting the admin of taking it on the plane with me) I realized that the activity was most likely to include a lot of birding.  A few plans were mulled through my mind but ultimately I was fortunate enough to land myself on a pelagic trip from Simonstown on Saturday.  It bears mentioning that I only embarked on this plan once I had done several weather checks and noted that all weather websites were saying that it was going to be a peach of a day.

The reason for my weather checks is that I am not a particularly confident seafarer.  I have been known to get seasick on a boat on a river whilst waterskiing, so pelagic trips have become a significant mental barrier that I have attempted to overcome. 

Over the many years that I have been a birder I have done about 6 or 7 pelagic trips and I have tried every remedy known to exist.  I have tried Stugeron, Avomine, Sandoz, Valoid, Epineuton (an anti-epilepsy drug), homeopathic cures (ear patches, pressure bangles and silly tablets that you stick under your tongue) and various forms of strategies whilst on the boat (including staring at the horizon, closing my eyes, sitting in the face of the wind and the spray and hiding in the cabin feeling sorry for myself) and I can honestly say that I have not yet conquered my demons.

There have been trips that I have held the worst of the seasickness off but there have been equally as many where I have not been able to enjoy myself due to the welling nausea threatening to manifest itself with some “fish feeding”.  Well, today, I’m afraid, was my worst ever. 

Despite the good weather predictions there seemed to be a slightly lumpier swell than I would have expected and after only 30 minutes of the trip, before even getting out of False Bay, I was already firmly ensconced in the stern cabin of the boat with my eyes closed and plenty of prayers being silently repeated as the boat heaved and tilted its way past the point. 

Things never really got better from there.  I waited long and hard for the curing ability of my latest concoction to kick in but it never did.  I suspect I went through a number of shades of green whilst curled up in the cabin and the only thing that was able to rouse me from my position was a cry of “Northern Royal Albatross” from the guides.  I had seen this bird previously but I had never photographed it and so it required some response.  I jumped up as ably as I could, grabbed my camera, saw the large white back of one of the world’s most impressive seabirds disappearing into the early morning sun and then proceeded to head straight for the stern of the boat where I deposited the contents of my breakfast (Refer to the note at the bottom in respect of this sighting). 

Suddenly the albatross didn’t matter and all I really wanted at that moment was to get back into my little hovel of self pity. 

The only other time I managed to raise my head was when the boat slowed down so that we could chum for some of the seabirds to get them closer for photographic purposes.  Of course I was not involved in this chumming process as it is simply a big coke bottle full of disgusting, reeking fish oil that is emptied over the stern to create a slick on the surface of the water.  Being too close to the chum would have had drastic and very sudden consequences on the state of my stomach.

The reason for chumming requires an explanation.  Most open ocean birds have extremely well developed nasal systems and if you look closely at the bill of any albatross, petrel or shearwater you will notice the complex nasal passages on the top of the bill near the base which allows them to detect food sources from kilometers away.  The chumming process takes advantage of the fact that these birds are likely to smell the fish oil from long distances and congregate around the boat.

Chumming, however, is the second choice of getting masses of seabirds together.  The clear favoured choice for these pelagic trips is to find a trawler that is pulling its nets in as there is always plenty of by-catch that attracts these birds in their droves.  It really is one of the wonders of the birding world being behind a trawler with thousands of seabirds squabbling over the scraps that fall through the trawler’s nets.

Unfortunately today we were not lucky enough to see this spectacle so we resorted back to the chumming.  When the chum had taken effect and a few others were hauling out their cameras I decided that it was now or never.  I hadn’t come all this way not to even give it a bash.  I would suffer through the nausea and get something onto my memory card if it was the last thing I do. 

If you think that staring at the horizon may be a cure for seasickness, staring through the eyepiece of a long-lensed camera would have to be considered an anti-cure.

I didn’t last long.

I think it may have been 7 minutes of photography before the camera was put down (or thrown down) and I headed for the back of the boat to continue depositing anything that I still may have had inside me at that point.  To add insult to injury, whilst I was prone over the side of the boat there was an especially deep swell and gust of wind which resulted in a spray of water resembling a few large buckets of water being emptied right on top of me.  I was now drenched from head to toe.  That was the last bit of birding that I would be doing for the day.  I accepted defeat gracefully (the camera stint had almost been worthy of a Purple Heart) and I resumed my position for the entire trip back to the Point.

It bears mentioning that seabird photography is one of the most difficult forms of photography that I have ever attempted.  Not only is seasickness an enormous hurdle to overcome but the erratic and sometimes violent shifts of the boat make it very difficult to gain any stability whatsoever.  It requires a very steady hand, a strong stomach, a very fast lens, heaps of luck (in my case) and stacks of memory space.  The memory space is required as seabird photography results in plenty of what they euphemistically call “habitat shots”, with nothing in the frame other than lots of blue ocean and perhaps a little sky.  Here are a few examples from my stint today (note: not a hint of a bird in these photographs and not a single bit of cropping):


As remarkable as it may seem, my 7 minute foray actually produced one or two results including a lifer photo of an Antarctic Prion.  These are not my best efforts but under the circumstances I am reasonably happy with them.  I would have to admit that there was pure luck involved in these photos as I was not feeling well enough to employ any skill:

Antarctic Prion

Black-browed Albatross

Pintado Petrel

Wilson’s Storm Petrel

White-chinned Petrel

Since this may be my last pelagic trip for some time (I am not sure I can brave another one any time soon) I thought it would be fair to post a few photos that I have taken on previous trips just to show that I have a strong stomach every now and then: 

Shy Albatross

Pintado Petrel

Black-browed Albatross

It wasn’t a moment too soon that we docked back in Simonstown harbor and as they say, the best cure for seasickness is standing under a tree, so it wasn’t too long before I was delighted to be standing back on terra firma.


(The irony of this sighting needs mentioning.  Unbeknown to me (I was holed up in the cabin whilst discussion ensued) the identification of this bird was shortly thereafter confirmed as a Southern Royal rather than a Northern Royal but I only discovered this on Monday morning.  The irony is that I had never seen Southern Royal before so this sighting constituted a lifer for me.  Some list purists may suggest that I should leave this one off my list but after all the suffering I put myself through I am going to be adding it.  It gives me one less reason to go on another pelagic anytime soon.)




7 comments on “Cape Town Pelagic – Feeding the fish

  • Lisl van Deventer says:

    Mike, lots of sympathy – I’m always sea sick and have tried a number of remedies as well. Newest advice (which I’ll try in August) is OXYGEN (not tablets, which I’m started to suspect I’m alergic for)! Will let you know …

  • I thought that turning green was simply another term for feeling queasy until I actually saw someone turning green on a crossing between Maputo and Inhaca Island – quite something to see!

  • Peter Sharland says:

    Hey Mike

    Jenny and I were on the boat – you have all our sympathy! Certainly was the choppiest pelagic we have been on. Well done on some great pics in the 7 minutes that you managed. The prion and the albatross were lifers for us, never having been on a winter pelagic before. Five albatrosses in one day is pretty awesome, particularly if an albatross is “my best bird anywhere”.

  • Nice story! I was on a pelagic in late July with 5-8 meter swells. Not a lot of fun and at least 6 (maybe 7) of the 11 passengers fed the fish as well. I also missed a lovely, would-have-been-lifer sighting of a Great-winged Petrel while I was doing stomach crunches over the side. Apparently, it flew just above head height over the boat then flew over the wake for a while. Unfortunately, it was in the company of 4 or 5 White-chinned Petrels so although I was pointed in the general direction and saw the group of birds, I don’t know which of them was the GWP….

  • As always, a great read Mike and some good pics! I’m sorry you had to suffer but (selfishly) it does make for a very amusing blog post!!

  • Mary-Ann says:

    Great blog Mike and sorry to hear about the trip as you had a very jealous son in Plett who wanted to join you! Impressed you still got some great shots in your 7 min’s!

  • Hi Mike,

    I am sorry to hear about your adventures at sea. Here´s a tips that might help or might turn out very bad: Drink a bottle of Cognac before you go out to sea (at least half a bottle). This might get your body swinging in harmony with the waves 🙂

    Best regards



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