Gough Island: The Seabird Capital of the Atlantic
Passengers onboard the Plancius have recently enjoyed a memorable visit to one of the world’s great islands: Gough Island in the South Atlantic. Gough is a mysterious and remote island, uninhabited apart from a small party of meteorologists and sometimes biologists. Set in the midst of the Roaring Forties it is bashed by the westerly winds and swells most days. Due to its great remoteness and the challenging weather conditions it is only visited by a tiny number of vessels each year; those on board the Plancius were incredibly fortunate to see the island and even more fortunate to experience it on a sunny day with light winds!
Like most of the islands in the central Atlantic it is volcanic in origin and the lay of the land is nothing short of mind-blowing. Steep cliffs several hundred meters high frame the island and steep mountains and valleys create an intense scene. The island receives a great deal of rain and had obviously done so recently as during our visit great torrents of peat-stained waterfalls were falling hundreds of meters off the cliffs.
m/v Plancius at Gough Island | © Alexey German-Oceanwide Expeditions
Breeding seabirds paradise
Gough is not well known but is perhaps most famous for its breeding seabirds. It benefits from being situated very near the subtropical convergence an area where cool temperate waters and warm subtropical waters mix and it therefore is attractive to both warm and cold water loving birds. Nowhere else in the world does the polar Antarctic Tern and the tropical Brown Noddy nest side by side. But it is the incredible array of tubenoses – those true seabirds known as the Procellariformes– for which the island is particularly important.
Rich feeding grounds
The seas surrounding Gough are some of the richest feeding grounds anywhere in the ocean. On three days at sea in the vicinity of Gough Island the folks on board were able to tally in excess of 20 species of tubenoses – a remarkable feat that would certainly not be possible in any other part of the Atlantic! This included visitors from places as far away as South Georgia (Black-browed Albatross, Cape Petrel, Antarctic Prion), the New Zealand region (Shy Albatross), and the Indian Ocean (White-headed Petrel). However it was the local breeders that captured our attention. Gough and the nearby Tristan group hold the world’s only breeding colonies of Tristan Albatross, Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross, Atlantic Petrel and Spectacled Petrel and it was the vast quantity of these birds close to the vessel that really got the birder’s hearts pumping!
Yellow-nosed Albatross | © Vidar Bakken-Oceanwide Expeditions
Other tubenoses for which there are globally important numbers include Sooty Albatross, Great-winged Petrel, Kerguelen Petrel, Soft-plumaged Petrel, Grey Petrel, Great Shearwater, Sub-antarcticLittleShearwater, Broad-billed Prion and White-bellied Storm-Petrel. Such is the state of knowledge of the island’s seabirds that researchers have recently announced that in addition to the Broad-billed Prion there is a second, possibly undescribed prion breeding on the island in huge numbers! We did our best to detect this prion at sea however it is best separated on bill measurements and breeding biology so we’re not really sure if we did see it!
Feeding frenzy of hundreds of birds
April 9 was our allotted day at Gough Island and we had the whole day in the vicinity of the island. Landings are not allowed for conservation reasons so we would enjoy the island from the ship and the zodiacs. We spent the morning circumnavigating the spectacular island as we waited for the swells of a previous day’s storm to drop out. In addition to the spectacular scenery and myriads of seabirds we also found a large pod of Dusky Dolphins that were accompanied by a feeding frenzy of hundreds of birds creating great excitement on board!
After lunch the swells hadindeed dropped out and everyone was soon in the zodiacs for a close-up look at Quest Bay on the lee (east) side of the island. This gave us a chance to get up close to the “punk penguin” that is the Northern Rockhopper Penguin. These superb penguins have much longer yellow crests than their southern cousins and can only be found on a handful of remote and rarely visited islands in the South Atlantic and South Indian Ocean. So not only are they one of the best looking penguins they are also arguably the most difficult to see in the world! Equally interesting were the throngs of Sub-antarctic Fur Seals which covered the rocky shores in huge numbers. The male has a striking color pattern with a lovely blond face and chest set off against a black body. These seals share a similar range to the Northern Rockhoppers and are therefore also rarely encountered!
Northern Rockhoppers | © Erwin Vermeulen-Oceanwide Expeditions
Gough Moorhen and Gough Bunting
The island holds two landbird endemics – distinct species evolved from South American ancestors and found nowhere else in the world. These were thereforetop priorities for the birders to see! Fortunately on this day both species would prove particularly cooperative and we were able to admire several Gough Moorhen foraging out in the open and also several Gough Bunting, which is in fact the only member of its genus (Rowettia).
With all the island highlights in the bag we could enjoy the remainder of the zodiac cruise in the sunshine admiring the spectacular scenery. We were keenly aware, however, that all is not well in paradise. The introduced House Mouse is abundant on the island and has greatly affected invertebrates and even seabirds to the point where they are known to kill Tristan Albatross on the nest. The RSPB is backing a campaign to eradicate the mice but due to the remoteness of the island and the difficult terrain it is a very challenging project.
Eventually it was time to return to Plancius and as our Antarctica cruise sailed north the sea was literally covered in seabirds that were massing up before returning to their burrows for the night. It was hard to leave – it had been a perfect day on Gough Island.