Lambert's Bay Bird Island-Court CapeNature

The Cape gannet colony on Bird Island, Lambert’s Bay, is well worth a visit – especially with the opening of a new visitor centre. By Magriet Kruger

On a beautiful autumn day I head up the West Coast to Lambert’s Bay for the opening of a new visitor centre at Bird Island Nature Reserve. Bird Island is an elemental type of place. There’s the tang of salt spray in the air, the whistle of the wind, and the whirling and screeching of thousands of Cape gannets. Birders and wildlife photographers have long known that Bird Island offers a special experience. It’s one of only six Cape gannet colonies in the world and the only one that you can visit on foot. The bird hide makes it possible to get a close look at these striking birds and from the top floor you can get eye-catching images.

With the opening of improved facilities, visitors with a range of interests will find plenty to enjoy at Bird Island. There’s a permanent display on marine animals, a touch screen that tells you more about the island, an auditorium where short films are screened and a curio shop. A pool and viewing area have been built for the purpose of bringing African penguins back to the island.Kids will find a visit entertaining, too.

Little ones can try their hand at marine-themed puzzles or get into an oversized Cape cormorant nest, complete with a pair of eggs. There’s also a life-size replica of a southern right whale, showing exactly how massive these marine mammals are.

Bird-Island-Bird-Hide

The highlight for me is the ‘bone box’, an airy exhibition space that houses skeletal displays of a Cape fur seal, dusky dolphin, Cape gannet and Cuvier’s beaked whale. Artist Lachlan Matthews was responsible for re-articulating the skeletons and his installations manage to capture a sense of motion – it’s as if the seal has somehow swapped water for air but is swimming all the same.Not only are the displays beautiful but they tell fascinating stories.

The Cuvier’s beaked whale is the only complete skeleton of this species on display in South Africa. Working with the skeleton Lachlan discovered that the whale had broken ribs but these had healed in time. Were they the result of a fight with another whale or of a run-in with a fishing vessel? The injuries hint at a life we still know little about. The skeletal display of the dusky dolphin gave me pause.

Dolphins always look as if they’re smiling and even stripped to the bone it’s no different. But this dolphin had little to smile about. When he was preparing the skeleton, Lachlan discovered a ball of twine and rubbish in its stomach. I can only imagine how it would have affected the dolphin’s ability to feed. The twine’s been retained as part of the display, a poignant reminder of humankind’s toll on the planet.

The CapeNature tourism guides are a fountain of information and during my visit I learn a lot about Cape gannets. In summer, the island is like a stadium during a World Cup final – filled to bursting. That’s when an estimated 17,000 birds move in for the breeding season. The rest of the year the birds spend out at sea, but they need solid ground to lay eggs and hatch chicks.The view from the top floor of the hide is impressive. I look out at about 4,000 Cape gannets milling about, the rest already having flown off for winter. There are many youngsters in their dark brown plumage, trying to get a hang of flying. Soon they will leave the island for the open sea, there to spend the next two to three years before returning to Bird Island so the cycle can begin again.

Visitor information

  • Summer hours (1 October to 31 March) 07:00 to 19:00
  • Winter hours (1 April to 30 September) 07:30 to 18:00
  • To reach Bird Island, enter Lambert’s Bay harbour and walk across the causeway.
  • Conservation fee R40 adults, R20 kids, Wild Card members free