Athol Marchant Pelagics
Dave Allan Pelagics

Athol Marchant Pelagics

Athol has been doing pelagics off the South African coast (Natal and Cape) for nearly 20 years, and is regarded as one of the top seabird specialists in the country. His seabird travels have taken him to Antarctica (where he camped for 3 months), the Mozambique channel, the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and east coast of Africa. Athol has also sailed across the Indian ocean and through the South China Sea and Yellow Sea to Korea and Japan, and has birded in the North Sea off England. He got the first and second records (the only 2 records) for Streaked Shearwater for Africa (both off Durban), and is one of few who have seen the newly described Mascarene Shearwater at sea - also off Durban.

The open ocean is an extremely challenging habitat in which to look for, and identify, birds. The weather plays a major role in the lives of pelagic birds, and usually the rougher the weather the greater the number and variety of birds, with winds from the south usually being more productive than those from the north. To witness the graceful ease with which these birds use the elements to best effect is a sight not to be missed. It is important to get as far away from land as possible, and an added bonus is to find a trawler (these vessels act as a magnet to many seabirds). When not watching the birds, dolphins (Athol has seen 6 species) and Humpbacked whales often keep the birders entertained.

There are three "seasons" that are good for pelagic trips off Durban:

  1. Winter (late July and August) - this is when the birds from the subantarctic regions are most abundant. Birds seen are the impressive Shy, Blackbrowed and Yellownosed Albatrosses, occasionally Southern Giant Petrel, the ever-present Whitechinned Petrel, Pintado Petrel and, if it is rough enough, Softplumaged Petrel and Broadbilled Prion. Sooty Shearwater, Wilson's Storm Petrel and Subantarctic Skua are also common, and Fleshfooted Shearwater and Antarctic Tern are seen on many of the trips. The Mascarene Shearwater and the second Streaked Shearwater were seen on a winter trip.

  2. Spring (September) - most of the winter birds are still present, and it is the best time of the year for Greatwinged Petrel. Whitebellied and Blackbellied Storm Petrel are sometimes seen. Several rare species have also been picked up, including Wandering Albatross, Greyheaded Albatross (both far out), Slenderbilled Prion and Streaked Shearwater.

  3. Autumn (March/April) - the Yellownosed Albatross and Whitechinned Petrel remain common, while Shy Albatross are rare. Fleshfooted and Sooty Shearwater can also be seen as can European, Leach's and Wilson's Storm Petrel. Arctic Skua and Arctic Tern are common, with Pomarine Skua recorded on a regular basis, and very occasionally Longtailed Skua. This is the time of year to try for Cory's and Great Shearwater, and if luck is with you, South Polar Skua. Athol has also recorded Brown Booby and Black Tern at this time of year.

For a great and exciting experience join Athol Marchant on one of his trips - his groups are small so personal attention is assured. The cost is BP 45 or USD 74. In case of cancellation of the pelagic for what-ever reason (e.g. bad weather, etc), there is a full refund MINUS Bank Charges.

There are three trips scheduled for this year: Sunday 3rd of August, 
Sunday 10th of August and Saturday 13th of September. We sail at 07H00 latest, and usually back before 15H00 (how much before 15H00 will depend on the weather and the birds).

Athol can be contacted at Pietermaritzburg telephone (033) 3433458(h) or 082-8704430, or email

Dave Allan Pelagics

Durban is an excellent launching point for pelagic trips. Although it lacks the variety and numbers of seabirds present in Cape seas, good numbers of many Southern Ocean species reach the KwaZulu-Natal coast. The winter and spring periods (May-September) are best, when these birds congregate off our shores to escape the hostile winter conditions further south around their breeding islands in the Southern Ocean. There are even a few seabirds that are more common off Durban than further south, for example Flesh-footed Shearwater. Indeed, Durban pelagic trips have boasted several mega-rarities that have never been recorded in Cape seas, for example Streaked Shearwater, Audubons Shearwater, the new Mascarene Shearwater, Matsudairas Storm Petrel and Brown Booby. Weather conditions in KwaZulu-Natal waters are also milder than further south and it is a rare event when a pelagic trip is cancelled at the last minute in the face of relentless gales and mountainous seas. This also means that you are less likely to be crippled by seasickness. In addition, Durban is very accessible for birders from Gauteng and the other northern parts of the country.

The first pelagic seabird encountered leaving Durban Bay in the winter is the Subantarctic Skua, a dozen or so of which lie in ambush just offshore waiting for incoming gulls and terns  that they harass and rob of their food. The most abundant seabird is the Cape Gannet, which follows the sardine runs north from the Cape. Thousands to tens of thousands of gannets can be encountered, often spiralling in white clouds over the ocean offering breath-taking close-ups of their suicidal plunge-dives. The Yellow-nosed Albatross is the common albatross in KwaZulu-Natal waters, both at and away from trawlers. The larger Shy and Black-browed albatrosses are present in lower numbers and have to be carefully searched for amongst the hundreds of Yellow-noseds present at trawlers. This situation is quite reversed from Cape waters, where the last two species are common and the Yellow-nosed is the one to search for. The albatross-sized Southern Giant Petrel is rather rare with only singletons being irregularly recorded. Like elsewhere in South African waters, the White-chinned Petrel is the most abundant of the procellariform seabirds, present in many hundreds at trawlers and ubiquitous in the open ocean. The distinctively patterned Pintado Petrel is fairly common and the Sooty Shearwater is usually seen. The diminutive Wilsons Storm Petrel, a bird essentially identical in size, shape and plumage pattern to the Little Swift, is best chanced upon when rough seas get them moving around. One of the best pelagic ticks available is the Flesh-footed Shearwater, singletons of which can be found at trawlers and sometimes in the open ocean. This species is fairly regularly recorded off KwaZulu-Natal but is a decided rarity further south. Almost as exciting is the Great-winged Petrel, easily overlooked for a White-chinned Petrel, which often remains late into the summer when most of the other pelagic seabirds have already departed southwards. Another two uncommon species that offer a fair chance are Soft-plumaged Petrel and Antarctic Prion. All in all, about half of the regularly recorded pelagic seabirds present in South African waters are routinely seen off Durban. 

A mixture of bait fish, fish oil and popcorn (chum) is usually taken along on the trips and thrown overboard to attract most of these species to the boat under the right conditions. This can give mindblowing arms-length views of these ocean wanderers and Subantarctic Skuas, Yellow-nosed Albatrosses, White-chinned Petrels and Sooty Shearwaters will even take food directly from your outstretched hand.

Winter pelagic trips are regularly organised off Durban and normally four (some run by the Natal Bird Club) are planned for each year. If the demand warrants it, additional trips could be organised. These trips will be led by David Allan, the Curator of Birds at the Durban Natural Science Museum and a professional ornithologist with extensive birding experience in southern Africa and elsewhere in the world. Anyone interested in booking a place on a trip should contact David Allan at tel. 031-7025396 or

Pelagic birding group

Trawler and mixed flock of seabirds

Indian Yellownosed Albatross

Whitechinned Petrel

Sooty Shearwater

Pintado (Cape) Petrel

Subantarctic Skua

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