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No Place for Wets – Addo Elephant National Park.

Text and pictures: Dale Morris. Article from the January 2012 issue of Country Life Magazine.

A visit to Addo Elephant National Park means coming face to face with gannets, penguins and seals rather than elephants, lions and leopards.

Bird Island belongs to the birds. Even though there are people living on it (and an operational lighthouse), the birds have the right of way.

Henvik Visser, chief of SANParks’ Algoa Bay Marine Protection Unit, deftly guided the little inflatable upon which I was sitting straight into the submerged rocks of Bird Island – rocks which then adroitly ripped a hole in its hull.

“Don’t stress about your stuff, Dale,” Henvik shouted in response to my panicked reaction. “The sharks will get you long before you have to worry about any insurance claims.”

“I don’t want to die,” I whimpered.

Hendrik Visser aboard one of Addo's patrol vesselsBut, perhaps more importantly, I didn’t want my photographic equipment to die either – at least not before I’d got some nice shots of the world’s largest gannet colony. And so I was holding my camera and lenses above my head. Noisy seals laughed at my predicament from a nearby rock.touri

Henvik gave me a withering look. “I’m only joking,” he said.

Earlier that day, Henvik, a team of marine rangers and I had departed from Port Elizabeth in an ultramodern, new SANParks anti-poaching patrol boat, which is used to chase down naughty people and prevent them from engaging in criminal activities (such as abalone poaching) within Addo’s Marine Protected Area.

Regrettably, though, it was too big to use in the shallows around Algoa Bay’s islands so we’d had to travel the last few hundred metres in the now sinking rubber duck. Fortunately its valiant little outboard motor got us onto dry land in the nick of time.

An old guano-collecting station on one of Algoa Bay islandsNearby dolphins did a little victory pirouette and the seals cheered and honked and clapped their flippers in applause. At least, that’s how I saw it…

My destination for the rest of the day (and possibly longer if a puncture repair kit failed to show up) was the charming and appropriately named Bird Island, the largest of the seven islands protected by Addo Elephant National Park. Upon its rocky shores sits a towering red and white lighthouse under whose shadow nest the gannets I had come to photograph.

“There can be more than 300 000 of them during the breeding season,” Henvik told me as we walked along designated paths between great throngs of the birds. “And that’s just one of the reasons why it’s so important that SANParks is here to watch the place.”

Forty-five percent of Africa's African Penguins live on the protected islands in Algoa

Milling around the staff admin areas and waddling among the gannets were also hordes of African (formerly Jackass) Penguins. “Around 45% of all of Africa’s African Penguins breed on these islands,” continued Henvik.

I could hardly hear what he was saying over the din of the braying birds, but I got the gist of it.

Addo hosts the most easterly seal colony in AfricaWithout these islands and, perhaps more importantly, the cadre of SANParks staff stationed in the bay, Algoa’s gannets, penguins and other marine wildlife would likely disappear “Poachers used to come ashore whenever they liked,” Henvik informed me as we made or way towards the lighthouse, “and not only did they steal abalone from the shallows, they also shot at the seals and disturbed the nesting birds.”

Since 2005 though (when SANParks assumed responsibility for the bay’s conservation) there has been a permanent presence of nine well-equipped and dedicated staff in the bay, all of whom are engaged in defending its wildlife.

“Well, here we are,” said Henvik as we reached the front of the lighthouse. “This is probably the best place on the island for taking photos. Enjoy yourself, but don’t stray off the path. We don’t want you stepping on any gannet chicks.”

He then left me under the watchful eye of a young staff member who, for some reason, was looking rather anxiously towards the sky.

The gannets of Bird Island are often engaged in courtship behaviour“Don’t you like it here?” I asked as I set about taking a series of photographs of courting and copulating gannets. “Surely it’s an utterly fantastic place to live?”

Male birds had begun clambering atop their mates, most of which were arching their necks and calling out to the sky in apparent fits of ecstasy

“It’s the end of a long tour of duty,” the young man told me glumly as more and more gannets started mating, “and I’m rather looking forward to seeing my girlfriend again.”

He then went on to explain that there was a big storm on its way – a storm that could easily see all of us stranded on the island until it passed …

“I hope they get that dinghy fixed,” said the young man. “The last time this happened we were stuck here for another week.”

I thought about my own ‘bird’ (and nestlings) back home, and wondered at the extraordinary level of commitment of this young man – and all the other staff – stationed in Algoa Bay.

Living on an exclusive island is all good and well when there are beach bars, sunshine and bikini-clad girls to ogle (whilst the wife is looking at hunk/ surfers, of course), but Bird Island is nothing like that. There are no trees, no beaches, no bars, lots of ghastly weather a pervasive aroma of fish and no girls whatsoever Man cannot live on gannets alone – even keen birders such as myself.

Addo's sleek and fast anti-poaching patrol boatFortunately, an hour or so later Henvik returned and announced that he’d fixed the rubber duck and it was now time for us to leave. The storm was almost upon us.

On the way back to PE I asked Henvik about the possibilities for tourism on the island. After all, it’s a fantastic place to visit and has quite good infrastructure in terms of buildings, a desalinisation plant and generator electricity. The lighthouse (which is still 100% operational) would make an absolutely stunning little hotel. But apparently the fragility of the ecosystem combined with the unpredictability of the bay’s weather makes it just not feasible.

“At least, not until we’ve completed numerous impact studies and discovered a way of beaming people onto and off the island ahead of weather fronts,” said Henvik.

From time to time Addo Elephant National Park organises one-off trips to the islands (keep an eye on their web page for announcements), but even these are rare simply because the weather and sea conditions can, and usually do, put a damper on things.

Eastern Cape - Algoa BayCommercial dolphin and whale-watching tours which depart from Port Elizabeth are also an option. OK, they don’t go as far as Bird Island, but at least you get to see some dolphins, seals and penguins.

I was very privileged to have an opportunity to visit the Algoa Bay islands, if only for a day, but what I saw there in that short time lifted my spirits.

In a world where we are bombarded with so many pessimistic stories about the state of the Bahle Puwe, Lennox Mjuza and Simphiwe Ngubane are part of the Adfdo marine teamenvironment, it was encouraging to see such huge amalgamations of well-protected wildlife (seabirds, penguins, seals, dolphins and, of course, shellfish in the shallows).

I was also inspired by the men, such as Henvik and his team, who daily put themselves in discomfort and danger to ensure these creatures’ survival.

If I ever get the chance to go back to the islands, though, I’ll be taking my wife with me – just in case another of those storms pulls in.

Addo Elephant National Park

More info on the town of Addo More info on the Greater Addo area

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