A loose formation of four large birds flies low, keenly sketching the shape of the sea. They move along swiftly, their long, elastic wings beating in time, their bright white bodies contrasting sharply with the green-blue of the deep ocean. The flock has a unified, purposeful way about it, and its path converges with those of others, each cutting methodically through the wind-blown spray towards a common destination. Up ahead, the air over the sea is filled with birds, flying hastily in all directions, soaring and searching over the water, or plummeting as sharpened darts into the waves. Above the hungry rumbling of the surf a dissonant choir of nasal voices raucously declares the excitement of a gathering crowd. The incoming birds stream into a vortex of circling air-traffic enveloping a low, rocky island. The interior of the island is capped by a mottled icing of settled birds, tightly packed and draped over its slightly raised surface. The sights, sounds and smells generated by this spectacle are visceral and urgent. The overall effect is fertile, vital and chaotic.
Bird Island is a rocky bump located just offshore of Lambert’s Bay, a fishing village on the wild west coast of South Africa. The island is home to a breeding colony of Cape Gannets and is a declared provincial nature reserve. The gannets and other seabirds are a prominent feature of the town, and the colony, which is connected to the mainland by a protected causeway, does its bit to attract tourists and contribute to a sadly ailing local economy. Standing on the island watching the gannets in the early morning, I am struck by the juxtaposition of wildness and energy in the surging swells pounding the shore and the quiet resignation and fatigue of the harbour and the tatty commercial centre beyond. The birds are a fragile tentacle of wilderness, almost touching the village but so clearly part of the untamed vastness of the sea.
My visit coincides with the tail-end of the gannet breeding season, and most of the adult birds are busy feeding feathered, sooty-black youngsters, almost ready to spread their wings. The studiously commuting birds are either leaving on foraging trips or returning with crops full of fishy regurgitate. There is a rough-and-ready method to the madness of the colony. Arriving birds honk loudly and respond to plaintive replies from their chicks. Somehow, the two find one another as the adult crashes clumsily down into thronging mass of upturned, stabbing bills. This miraculous reunion plays out tens if not hundreds of times per minute across the island, followed again by a tireless stream of departures by dedicated parents, each of them flailing along a dusty runway before faltering back into the sky. Some of the provisioning birds actually fish in the harbour, quartering the spaces between the breakwater and the moored boats, searching for shoals nearing the surface. On spotting a target they stall and winnow briefly then arc down, sinuously morphing body shape to slip the air, flexing and then collapsing their wings as they hit the water and disappear into the murk.
After bobbing back to the surface, the hunters float for a while before heaving themselves back into the air and making for the island. Behind them as they fly past me there are Cape Cormorants nesting on rickety wooden platforms, already gular fluttering in the warming sun. And behind the cormorants are furtive signs that the human residents of Lambert’s Bay are slowly emerging to begin their own, relentless struggle for survival.