Read about our flock to Marion 2022 expedition. A once-in-a-lifetime venture into the Southern Ocean was the announcement. It would be Birdlife South Africa’s next Flock at sea, and Marion Island was our destination. Having read about how successful the previous Flocks had been and all the positive comments and excitement, it was an easy decision to get on board. Now, all I needed to do was convince my wife to join me in what was dubbed the event of the year amongst the birding fraternity.
A group of the most enthusiastic birders from South Africa and abroad, venturing into the Southern Ocean on a cruise liner in search for these vulnerable seabirds. Read about our experience and enjoy these memorable moments as we learned about the plight that most seabirds face in their struggle for survival.
As the MSC Orchestra sailed out of the Cape Town Harbour, we needed to pinch ourselves to make sure that this wasn’t a dream. After three years of careful planning and many hurdles, Birdlife South Africa’s Flock to Marion was underway. We were heading into the roughest, stormiest ocean in the world. We were going where no cruiseliner had dared venture before, the Southern Ocean and specifically Prince Edward and Marion Island.
Prince Edward Islands
The Prince Edward Islands are situated in the Roaring Forties, approximately 2130 kilometres, southeast of Cape Town. Consisting of two islands, Marion is larger(25km long and 16km wide, and around 290 square kilometres). High cliffs dominate the 72km coastline with a few sheltered bays on the eastern side.
Prince Edward Island is only 45 square kilometres, with no permanent scientists based on this Island to ensure the natural state is maintained.
These Islands are safeguarded by the Prince Edward Island Marine Protected Area to preserve and care for the Fauna and Flora on and around the Islands. It is an important breeding area for 29 bird species: five albatross, 14 Petrel, and four Penguin species, amongst others.
“The Flock to Marion 2022” was part of the awareness campaign for the Mouse-Free Marion Project and forms part of an ongoing conservation project to eradicate Marion Island of the common house mouse (Mus musculus).
Mice were introduced to the South African sub-Antarctic Marion Island by sealers in the early 19th century. Over the last two centuries, they have significantly reduced the abundance of Sea Birds. Since 2015 it was estimated that more than 5% of the summer-breading albatross fledglings are killed yearly. It would naturally include mortality rates amongst the other breeding sea birds on the Island.
These mouse-eradication projects are a worldwide problem on many isolated islands around the world.
The Aim Of The Project
The Mouse-free Marion project aims to bait the Island using helicopters, scheduled to commence in 2024. It is based on all the lessons learned from a similar restoration program completed in the winter of 2012 on Gough Island.
Excited to be part of the conservation efforts on Marion Island, we began in earnest with the planning and preparation for this epic voyage to the Southern Ocean.
- Sea Birds and Cetaceans
- Warm Dry Clothing
- Camera Gear
- Birding Guides and Ship Layout
- Proximity to the Prince Edward Islands and Marion
The organisers thankfully understood these requirements, and they started on a massive educational drive. Webinars covering the various bird groups assisted us in understanding the expected Sea-Bird species and how to identify them. In addition, we learned about the multiple Cetaceans we would expect to encounter:
Bird Guides would be stationed around the vessel at dedicated locations to help identify the birds spotted, and reports would be radioed to all stations. Major sightings were announced over the ship’s intercom system.
High on the priority list was the permit for ship to enter the Marine Protected Area around the Prince Edward Islands and Marion. Unfortunately, it was declined, and we were restricted to a 20 km zone from the Islands, thereby removing any prospect of listing any of the Shore Birds. The Main Purpose of this voyage was to expose the wealth of sea birds and Cetaceans in the Southern Ocean to more than 1500 eager Flockers.
Communicating The Main Threat That Seabirds Face
It was the perfect setting to highlight the plight of our seabirds on the Prince Edward Islands, who are under threat from the House Mouse (Mus musculus). Ongoing research and a comprehensive feasibility study on the eradication process were presented by Anton Wolfaardt through a series of lectures on various conservation programs on Marion Island. Mouse Free Marion would create awareness and solicit funding to proceed with the project of baiting the entire Island over a calculated period of two weeks, in an attempt to eradicate these mice and save our seabirds.
Our Experiences On board The MSC Orchestra
As we steamed out of Cape Town aboard the MSC Orchestra, the water became cooler, and we entered the deeper Plankton-rich waters of the Southern Ocean. We were excited as we started encountering more pelagic birds with an increase in the variety of species. Observing our first Wandering albatross with its astonishing dynamic soaring, enabling the largest flying bird in the world with a wingspan of 3,6M to travel hundreds of kilometres without a single flap of its wings.
Exploring the ship on the inside was extremely entertaining, especially when every passage, lift foyer and stairway looked exactly the same. Like most other first-timers, getting lost on the inside of the ship was a common pastime for at least the first three days. Unlike most cruisers, we also enjoyed exploring the outer rim of the ship’s passages, and very rarely even saw the beautiful pool deck.
We came prepared, as we spent many hours training hard before the cruise, to be fit and strong for the fun awaiting us. Taking the stairs rather than using the lifts also helped, especially when you have three fabulous meals on offer every day and a buffet open 24/7.
After three days of dedicated bird watching, we finally arrived at Prince Edward and Marion Island. “Albatross Thursday” and what a spectacle. Thousands of birds and penguins held us in awe as we braved the ferocious wind from the approaching storm.
Unfortunately, the weather was not on our side, and we were met by a dense cloud-shrouding Marion Island. Low clouds and mist covered Prince Edward Island, luckily this Island was visible.
With the storm just off Marion, the wind intensified, and we were buffeted by 100 km winds and heavy seas. Captain Pinto of the MSC Orchestra cancelled our plan to sail past the two islands and a further 100km south. They were expecting 10m swells and severe winds. Unfortunately, we had to turn back and head for home ahead of the impending storm.
For many, this was a massive disappointment as we never got to see Marion Island, nor did we get to spend time in the proximity of the Island enjoying the prolific birdlife.
will remain etched in our minds forever.
Heading Back – An Unexpected Rare Find
With the excitement of Marion fading away as we travelled northward towards Durban, who could have predicted the sighting of a critically endangered Tristan Albatross? We had the good fortune to have been part of a small group of flockers at the stern of the vessel when the Tristan Albatross made a dramatic and spectacular appearance.
We didn’t know it was a Tristan Albatross at the time, but Adam Riley, who guided this Flock, made the call. It wasn’t long before the announcement was made over the ship’s intercom of this rare sighting.
With hardly any standing room after the announcement, we celebrated this majestic bird. We were blessed to have MBE Peter Harrison(the worlds leading Sea-Bird Artist and Autor of the latest “Sea Bird Identification” book) at the stern of the vessel. He showed us his reference images and described the differences between the “grubby Wandering Albatross” and the “Clean Pure White ” Tristan Albatross.
We shared this memorable moment and celebrated our joy of this incredible find. Commemorating this moment with Peter and Johnathan Rossouw from Apex Expeditions, I have to rank this experience as the highlight of my birding career and a climax of the Flock to Marion Expedition.
Nothing could match the vibrance and excitement of the Southern Ocean, and as we headed into the warmer Indian Ocean waters, the birdlife all but vanished. It wasn’t easy to adjust to this slower pace of activity; however, we did see some incredible marine life on the return leg. Whales, dolphins, Flying Squid, and the odd Tropical Shearwater entertained us as we finally arrived in Durban.
A Worthy Cause
Birdlife South Africa can be proud of its achievements – it was a professional package and a successful awareness campaign for the Mouse Free Marion Project. In addition, they managed to raise more than R3 million for the MFM Project. We wish them all the best of success when they start the eradication process on Marion in 2024.
As we all said goodbye and travelled homeward bound, we knew we had witnessed something special on this epic voyage. We eagerly await the next Flock, which will take us to the Mozambique Channel in 2023, searching for Tropical Birds and Boobies. Frankly, we can’t wait and have already started counting the days.
We would like to thank our sponsors and some individuals who made this voyage so special.
- MBE Peter Harrison: Seabirds (The New Identification Guide) Apex Expeditions
- Jonathan Rossouw: Apex Expeditions
- Mouse Free Marion Project: Dr Anton Wolfaardt
- Mike Ormerod: Orms\Canon
- Brian Murphy: Cape Union Mart
- Leica Sport Optics
- Lynx Edicions
- Faansie Peacock Birding App Firefinch
- Heather Wagner (Little Carthage River Lodge)
A notice did go out to the crew and the voyagers to keep their lights off as we approach Marion Island. The night before this happened, the crew were cleaning the decks with their lights on. A very unfortunate situation, but everyone preferred to keep it under wraps. We made mention of this possibility prior to the voyage on our Facebook Group called Friends of Flock to Marion
Bird Guides on the Flock to Marion 2022 (In no order of preference)
- Prof. Peter Ryan (Such a dry sense of humour, very dry. Seen on the decks every day, bare feet or in his slops). You can get his book Seabirds of Southern Africa here.
- Trevor Hardaker (Disappointed that we missed his on-board lecture on Sea-Bird Photography) (Sasol Birding Map of Southern Africa & Zest For Birds Pelagic Trips)
- Faansie Peacock (We all used Faansie’s new Birding App FireFinch on the #Flock it was and still is so convenient) (The Birds of Southern Africa: The Complete Photographic Guide: with app and calls: with app and calls)
- Vincent Ward (A wealth of information and always on the lookout for something new). Join Vincent at Cape Town Pelagics.
- Daniel Danckwerts ( Keen eyes and always onto Something and a great loud voice to get the message across) Rockjumpers
- Cliff Dorse (Very vigilant and always calling the birds, such a standout Guide) Zest For Birds
- Dominique Paul Rollinson (Ian Sinclair was right when he said “make sure you standing near Dom” Birding Encounters
- Gary Allport (Found the Long Tailed Jager for us )
- Prof. Ken Findlay (We were always updated on all the Cetaceans)
- Dalton Gibbs
- Mayur Prag
- Michael Mills
- Vanessa Stephen
- Dylan Vasapolli (The Italian, birding right to the end, he was calling House Crows in the Durban Harbour) Birding Encounters
- Niall Perrins ( Did not Join due to COVID 19) (Sasol Birds of Southern Africa)
- Jordan Ralph
- John Kinghorn
- Toni Geddes
- Vernon Head
- Justin Nicolau ( Did not Join due to COVID 19)
- Adam Riley ( Put the whole vessel on RED ALERT with his call on the Tristan Albatross)
- Kieth Valentine
- David Hoddinott
- Heinz Ortman
- Greg de Klerk
- Andre Bernon
- Julian Parsons
- Riaan Botha
- Tim Carr ( great work ethic and very keen eyes on the water)
- Ian Pletzer ( nice to see this Plettenberg local again, worked in tandem with Tim Carr)
- Garret Skead ( always a pleasure to stand next to this top cape town Birder)
- Rob Leslie
- Tristan Spurway (Thanks for Sharing your images of the Flying Squid and Devil Ray)
- Bruce Dyer (Has been down to the Southern Ocean sooooo many times and he has many stories to share, always great company)
You can read more about this Voyage in the Birdlife South Africa Magazine (Vol. 10 No.4 May/June 2022) as well as Avontuur Afrika (#issue 18, who also used some of our images to cover this article).
Photographic equipment used on the Flock to Marion:
Canon R5 with RF 100-500 Canon Lens
Canon 1DX with 16-35 Canon EF lens
Apple I Phone 13 pro
Samsung Note 10
DJI Mavic Air S2
Thanks for sharing their images from the #Flocktomarion2022:
Final Species list as Published by Birdlife South Africa: (our Species witnessed are ticked)
Whale-birds of the Southern Ocean
Prions (pachyptila) Afrikaans: Walvisvoel | Prion is derived from the Greek for ‘saw‘ referring to the serrated margin of the upper mandible created by a series of palatal lamellae. These filter small prey, functioning in a similar way to baleen in whales, giving the Prions the nickname of Whale-birds.
All species breed in summer in burrows, rock crevices or caves. These small, blue-grey petrels with a dark ‘M’ across the upper wing, dark tail tip and mostly white underparts are the most abundant seabird in the Southern Ocean.
In Support of the MOUSE FREE MARION Project, please donate to this critically important cause, hopefully, the project will commence in 2024.