Travellers of the wind and the curse of nurdles

This is the story about near-magical seabirds that criss-cross the globe, and small, lentil-sized blobs of plastic called nurdles. It is both astounding and worrying, writes DON PINNOCK.


Photo of a Wandering Albatross by Don Pinnock

We live on the lesser part of the planet. Two-thirds of Earth is vast, featureless and, for most people, pretty frightening plains of undulating water. Poking through this liquid skin are islands where millions of seabirds nest – as far away from humans and other predators as they can getSafest are rocky outcrops in the icy high latitudes of the polar regions. Birds like shearwaters, albatrosses, fulmars, kittiwakes, gannets, gillemots and puffins, spend much of their life far from land. But eggs need a safe, stable nest, so the lonely islands are essentially temporary breeding colonies. For this purpose seabirds construct nests or dig burrows where they lay, warm and – when they hatch – feed their scrawny, hungry young. To protect the chicks from raiding gulls and skuas, a breeding pair (many seabird species mate for life) will take turns to go fishing or sit in the nest.

Anybody who’s seen a colony with sometimes hundreds of thousands of nests just beyond pecking distance of each other and heard its mind-numbing cacophony will unfailingly wonder how each bird finds its way back to its nest.

This question became the lifelong pursuit of Gabrielle Nevitt, a professor at the University of California who first visited the Antarctic islands in 1991.

Seabirds like shearwaters belong to a family known at tube-noses because of a pair of exterior nostrils moulded to the upper side of their bills. It was originally thought this oversized snoot helped to disperse salt swallowed while grabbing fish, but Nevitt wondered if it might be meant for what noses are for: smelling.

She soaked absorbent tampons in a variety of fishy-smelling oils and attached them to kites which she flew from the back of a research ship – scientists are inventive people. The kites attracted crowds of petrels and albatrosses. She was ecstatic.

Sniffing around seabird rookeries, she came up with a plausible theory for their homing abilities: each pair and its nest had a particular smell, an aural barcode, and the birds had a phenomenal ability to detect it. The parts of tube-nose brains dealing with smell, it turns out, have six times as many smelling cells as mice with comparable brain size.

But smelly nests didn’t solve a much bigger puzzle. How do seabirds – which range forhundreds of thousands of kilometres and can spend years at sea without coming near land – unerringly find their way back to their nest when they need to breed?

The answer came following a chance meeting with Tim Bates, a chemist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He was investigating a gas called dimethyl sulphide (DMS) emitted by phytoplankton, the microscopic plants that live on the surface of the ocean.

When damaged, they emit the gas which, it seems, could provide aerosols around which clouds gather. Spraying DMS over large tracts of ocean could create cloud cover to counter global warming, but that’s another story.

Nevitt took off in another direction. Krill, the major food source for many seabirds, eat phytoplankton, producing clouds of DMS. Could shearwaters smell DMS?

Bates had sea maps of DMS concentrations. These coincided with krill concentrations and that’s where seabirds concentrate. Birds like albatrosses and fulmars, which hunt fish exclusively, were also zooming in because fish eat krill and follow krill concentrations. Nevitt had a proverbial ah-ha moment.

Seabirds, we now know, navigate the vast oceans by smell. Nevitt found they could smell one molecule of DMS at a concentration of less than one part per 10-billion.

DMS is undoubtedly not the only thing seabirds can smell. Turbulent coastal waters, upwellings around underwater seamounts, ocean currents all have their characteristic smell if you have the nose for it.

As chicks roam further and further, they build up smell maps that eventually allow them to range across two thirds of the planet and know precisely where they are. When wandering albatrosses leave their natal nest, they may not return to land for four or five years. The open oceans are their home. But at breeding time they never misplace their personal nest. In his book The Seabird’s cry, Adam Nicolson tracks their path in a long but delightful sentence:

“What may be featureless to us, a waste of undifferentiated ocean, is for them rich with distinction and variety, a fissured and wrinkled landscape, dense in patches, thin in others, a rolling olfactory prairie of the desired and the desirable, mottled and unreliable, speckled with life, streaky with pleasures and dangers, marbled and flecked, its riches often hidden and always mobile, but filled with places that are pregnant with life and possibility.”

There is, of course, a problem. There always seems to be one where humans are concerned.

By now most people know about the vast gyres of plastic sea trash in most oceans. But the bottles, crates, nets and bags are just part of the problem. An almost bigger issue are small, lentil-sized colourful plastic pellets called nurdles.

Billions are made each year and those that don’t become products generally end up in the sea. Fish eat the nurdles and sea creatures and birds eat the plastic litter. This has been going on for half a century and is now a planet-wide disaster.

Sorry, it gets worse. Small pieces of plastic, as they decompose, emit clouds of DMS which attracts seabirds. In the plastic soup there are plenty of things that look like krill, cocpoods and fish. Seabird numbers are plummeting and now we know why.

When our descendants look back on the planet-wide plunder we call civilisation, they’ll wonder why we didn’t notice the danger of extruding trillions of tons of plastic junk on to the land and into the sea. Will there still some albatrosses and shearwaters around? We can but hope.       From the Daily Maverick

Seabirds at Risk


Cape Gannet collared by nylon

Here is a personal observation of problems facing our seabirds. This photo taken as we swallows returned by sea on MV Astor from Cape Town last April.  Cruising off the coast of Namibia, we were able to photograph this example of fishing line bird snare.

Kind regards

Richard and Tilana Hart

South Africa’s Penguins


If we don’t act now, South Africa’s penguins may become extinct. There are only two major penguin colonies in the country, on the West and East coasts of South Africa, with 600 kilometres separating them. Without anywhere else to go, a threat to either area could do serious damage to the population. In an attempt to bridge the gap between the locations and spread their breeding areas, Christina Hagen is working to establish artificial colonies on the South Coast…………..

To see the full story go to




A Letter to members of the Hermanus Botanical Society:

Dear Members,

A number of our HBS members have spoken and written to us asking for their letters of horror and strong opposition to the above “shebeen” to be circulated to you, and for you also to object.  See examples below from a member of our committee and a letter from one of our Honorary Life Members.

For those of you who didn’t attend the Ward 3 Public Meeting on 15th November 2017, where the issue was discussed, the Municipality has awarded a tender for the operation of a “shebeen” in the Fernkloof Nature Reserve at the entrance to Kammabaai beach over the holiday period. It began operating yesterday (see photos below) and apparently, the “shebeen” has been split between the entrance to Kammabaai beach and the lawn at the bottom of 6th Avenue, Voelklip.

HBS believes that in introducing this commercial venture, the Municipality is breaking several laws and contravening some its own Bylaws and Policies, for example; FAB wasn’t consulted, no public consultation; drinking in public; an activity not permitted in a proclaimed Nature Reserve; noise pollution over a wide area, etc.

If you are able to, please put your objection in writing by email, asking the Municipality to immediately remove this “shebeen” addressed to:

·       The Municipal Manager (

With copies (cc) to

·       Don Kearney, Area Manager (

·       Kari Brice, Ward 3 Councillor (

·       Rudolph Smith, Executive Mayor (

·       Dudley Coetzee, Deputy Mayor (

·       Roderick Williams, Director Community Services (

Kind regards,

Hermanus Botanical Society


Subject: Pop Up drinks and food lounge Voelklip /Kammabaai. 1/12/2017.

Dear Kari, Coenie, Don, Liezl and Penelope, 

Regarding the installation of a Pop Up bar and food outlet adjacent to Kammabaai family beach in Voelklip.

I wish to add my name to the growing number of concerned people who have and are still objecting to this unacceptable project by the municipality. 

The fact that the public, property owners and ratepayers have not been adequately consulted about this ill conceived plan, is totally unacceptable. 

A pop up bar and food outlet in this beautiful area close to the Fernkloof Nature Reserve is simply madness and will certainly cause social and other problems in the area. 

There are municipal signs there that state that drinking is not allowed, so how is this going to be controlled and or compromised?  

Can I have an assurance please that the structures are not on the Fernkloof Nature Reserve? 

I am sure that if this structure was planned and constructed in your neighbourhood, it would not happen!  This kind of activity is anathema and I hope this will be stopped immediately. This is certainly a disaster waiting to happen there.

Kari I request please that you as my Ward 3 Councillour object most strongly to this antisocial and unwelcome project.

Thanking you, 

Linda Griffiths 

Hermanus Botanical Society & FAB


Dear Mr Groenewald,

I wish to draw your attention to the UNACCEPTABLE SITUATION at Kammabaai. This is a matter which needs your urgent attention.

My letter to the Ward 3 Councillor Kari Brice explains my deep concern. The rates that we pay certainly do NOT warrant this sort of activity ever.

I would appreciate an explanation from you as the Town Manager. 

Kind regards

Margaret de Villiers

Tangled and drowned: new study shows that penguins are threatened by fishing nets


The following article is from BirdLife SA

Researchers from across the world have collaborated to produce the first global review of penguin bycatch, published in the scientific journal Endangered Species Research.

Penguins are among the world’s most loved birds, in spite of the fact most people will never get to see one in the wild. Indeed, the opportunities to do so are diminishing, with 10 of the 18 penguin species threatened with extinction. After albatrosses, they are the most threatened group of seabirds and, like albatrosses, bycatch is thought to be a serious threat to some species.

Bycatch, or the accidental capture of non-target animals in fisheries, is a threat to an array of marine life, including dolphins, turtles and seabirds. To date, however, there has been no global assessment of this threat to penguins. This first global review of penguin bycatch highlights that 14 penguin species have been recorded as bycatch in fisheries, and that gillnets – and to a lesser extent trawls – are the fishing gears of most concern for penguins. Both are widespread fishing gears, and gillnets in particular – walls of fine nylon mesh used to catch fish by the gills – are the gear of choice for many small-scale fishers the world over.

Diving birds like penguins, unable to see the fine mesh underwater, are particularly vulnerable to gillnets, becoming entangled as they dive. The effect of bycatch is of greatest concern for three species: Humboldt and Magellanic Penguins, both found in South America, and Yellow-eyed Penguins, an endangered species found only in New Zealand.

“This work provides a clear focus for reducing the impact of bycatch on penguins – across the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of South America, and perhaps most urgently, in New Zealand for the endemic Yellow-eyed Penguin,” said Rory Crawford, Gillnet Programme Manager for BirdLife International, and co-ordinator of the review. “This has been a major collaborative effort from the penguin research community, but the hard work starts now. There needs to be direct engagement with the fishing industry and management authorities to tackle this problem.”

“Our own African Penguins have been caught in gillnets in the past, but luckily the government acted quickly and put in place gillnet bans around penguin breeding colonies,” said Christina Hagen, the Pamela Isdell Fellow of Penguin Conservation at BirdLife South Africa. “But we don’t know if this continues to be a problem, and urge anyone with sightings or information to please contact us.”

“In the past 20 years, Yellow-eyed Penguins have declined by 76% at previous population strongholds. Preventing their deaths in New Zealand inshore gillnet fisheries is a major priority to save them”, added Ursula Ellenberg, the New Zealand Penguin scientist who initiated the global review.

The impact of penguin bycatch across South America will require collaboration across international borders: “Magellanic penguins are being caught along their migratory route – from trawl fisheries next to their Argentinean breeding grounds to gillnet fisheries off southern Brazil in the non-breeding period,” said Esteban Frere, South America Coordinator for the BirdLife Marine Programme, who first conducted research into the bycatch of this species 20 years ago. “Further studies on-board vessels are required to assess the severity of the problem and identify solutions.”

The review recommends a number of actions to tackle the problem, including the presence of fisheries observers or video monitoring on vessels to monitor bycatch, as well as research into mitigation measures to make nets more visible to penguins. While this research is conducted, spatial and temporal management of fisheries will need to be considered to reduce the impact on the most threatened populations.

While much work is still to be done to reduce penguin bycatch, inspiration can be taken from other fisheries. The BirdLife Albatross Task Force, a team of instructors working directly on fishing vessels to implement simple measures to reduce albatross bycatch, has succeeded in reducing bycatch in a South African trawl fishery by over 90%. It is hoped that similar success can be achieved for penguins.

For further information please contact:

Rory Crawford, Programme Manager – Gillnets
BirdLife International Marine Programme
Tel: +44 (0)141 331 9801
Mobile: +44 (0)7739 921 489
Christina Hagen, Pamela Isdell Fellow of Penguin Conservation BirdLife South Africa Tel: +27 (0)21 4197347

The journal article can be downloaded here:

The review represents the collaborative work of 29 co-authors from across the globe, drawing in expertise from environmental NGOs, academia and government fisheries departments.

Species and threat statuses (listed by BirdLife International for the IUCN Red List) of three species most threatened by bycatch:

 Yellow-eyed Penguin Megadyptes antipodes (Endangered).
 Humboldt Penguin Spheniscus humboldti (Vulnerable).
 Magellanic Penguin Spheniscus magellanicus (Near-Threatened).
More information about BirdLife and the Albatross Task Force can be found at

Please Prevent Fernkloof being turned into a Theme Park

Many readers are no doubt aware of the current proposals for the so-called upgrades to the Fernkloof Nature Reserve (FNR).  These can be viewed at the following website:

The public is urged to lodge objections, as this development is likely to cause huge damage to the FNR.  These can be sent to

My own response (which has been registered) was;

As a member of the Hermanus Botanical Society and a keen walker, amateur botanist, photographer and birder, I wish to state my strong objection to the plans presented for the further development of Fernkloof Nature Reserve.

This reserve is world-renowned for its dedication to preserving the integrity of our natural heritage and serves as a window into the fascinating flora and fauna of the region.  All it requires in terms of future development is the retention and upkeep of its wonderful network of paths, which allow the public to wander freely and enjoy and discover nature at its best.  Trying to convert it to some form of theme park is abhorrent to all nature lovers and the idea of cableways and cafes reflects a mindset which is completely at odds with the original Fernkloof ideals.

I cannot stress strongly enough the antipathy which your proposals generate within the community of Hermanus nature lovers, be they birders, botanists, zoologists or whatever, and I urge you and your colleagues who are responsible for this new plan to think again and withdraw your proposals, in favour of retaining the present state of FNR, but with better attention to the maintenance of the paths so that more people are able to enjoy our wonderful heritage in safety and comfort.

K R Hazell

Beach Breeding Birds


A request from Anton Odendal:

Dear all,

Hope this finds you all well.

We have just launched our first project resulting from the BirdLife Overberg workshop presented earlier this month. It will be appreciated if all of you who find African Black Oystercatchers and White-fronted Plovers that are breeding or raising chicks along the Overstrand beaches report it with an email to Kindly also provide the GPS coordinates of the nest sites and ensure that the birds are not disturbed – do not go within 30 yards from the nests and keep dogs on leashes.

Also consider forwarding this to all like-minded people or organisations that might be in a position to assist with this.

We have posted an article with illustrations on what we are trying to achieve with this project at the link below. Kindly read this and assist us as far as you can.

Kind regards.


Today is International Vulture Day

IVAD - 2 September 2017 (002)

“These endangered birds are to thank for our clean natural environment and preventing the spread of diseases. Nature’s clean-up crew has also played a hand in the anti-poaching movement by alerting rangers to poaching activity; pretty cool right? So think twice before calling someone a vulture; this compliment should be kept for the environmentally-conscious and nature loving among us.”

Mark Anderson  BLSA