Dolphins swim in the background as this Cape Gannet pursues its prey.
Off the coast of South Africa, the water is a beautiful, clear blue. Dolphins swim past playfully, and a huge shoal of silver sardines glitters in the sun as a bird glides by, pursuing the sardines like a feathery torpedo. Wait a minute… a bird 25 feet (eight meters) underwater? But it’s not a trick; the creature in question is a Cape Gannet, and this species doesn't mind getting very wet to catch its prey.
Cape Gannets hit the water like avian torpedoes.
“Photographing diving cape gannets is one of the most incredible things I've done so far in my life,” says photographer Alexander Safonov. “Seeing hunting birds which normally belong to the air element deep underwater is a surreal sight. Sun rays, bubble trails, scales, chaotically moving bait fish – all contributes to the dramatic spectacle orchestrated and choreographed by nature itself.”
A Cape Gannet snaps up a fish before it realizes it’s even being chased.
Cape Gannets are large, regal-looking birds with a striking black-and-white coloring. The dark lines around their pale beaks and faces look as though an artist traced them, and the black feathers of their wings and tails are truly eye-catching against their white bodies. White, that is, except for their gold-tinted heads and necks. It’s easy to see why people enjoy photographing these magnificent birds.
A Cape Gannet in ‘flight’ among the bubble clouds
Cape Gannets are picky when it comes to deciding where to raise their young, and there are only six islands on which they lay their eggs. Three of these islands are off the coast of Namibia, and the other three off the coast of South Africa. Cape Gannets can fly great distances, and young birds travel as far as Tanzania, Mozambique, Nigeria, Ghana, and beyond. Juvenile birds will sometimes follow shoals of sardines – their favorite food – for over 4,000 miles (6,800 km). They have even been spotted in Western Australia!
Cape Gannets spot their targets from the air like a squadron of bombers.
As you can see from looking at these photographs, Cape Gannets are awesome fishers. For one, they can spot their prey from almost 100 feet (30 m) up in the air. Large flocks scour the sea together – sometimes in groups of up to 1,000 – searching for shoals of fish. Then, once the birds spot their fishy meals, they plunge through the air like heavy arrows raining down. Their wings are flexed back against their bodies, and their tails and feet are pointed, making them look like Olympic high divers.
Cape Gannets show off their aerodynamic plunging.
The predatory gannets bomb the water at speeds approaching an incredible 75 miles (120 km) per hour. Luckily, they have no external nostrils for water to force its way into – because at those speeds, a whoosh of water up the nose would really sting! As mentioned earlier, these birds can reach depths of up to 25 feet (eight meters), driven only by their own momentum. Cape Gannets can then stay under the water for three to seven seconds – just long enough for them to snatch their slippery snacks in their sharp bills and gulp them down before surfacing again.
The fish-seeking missiles go to work.
Cape Gannets spend at least a couple of years at sea when they’re young, before returning to their island breeding grounds. Here, the male birds claim a section as their territory and try to attract females to this ‘patch’ through their calls (a loud ‘kara-kara-kara-kara’) and head-bobbing displays. If a female is enticed, she joins in with some head bobbing of her own, and there will also be a bit of beak fencing between the two. The pair will then build a nest together and take turns incubating the single egg they produce (although very occasionally it’s two eggs).
Cape Gannets are as beautiful and graceful in the air as they are underwater.
Once the chick has hatched, both parents continue to take care of it, feeding the baby bird with regurgitated sardines and anchovies. Before it can fly, the chick is unable to get away from predators, and so this is the most dangerous part of its lifecycle. The baby birds will walk and swim after their parents, making them convenient targets for hungry seals. Also, should there be a shortage of fish, parents will not risk longer flights to find sufficient food for their chicks to have enough to eat; instead, they prefer to save themselves with an eye to having more chicks later on.
Trails of tiny bubbles follow the diving birds.
Sadly, Cape Gannets are now threatened and in very real danger of extinction. And, like far too many of Earth’s animal species, humans are the main cause for this state of affairs. We share the Gannets’ love of seafood but have much larger appetites, which means there aren’t as many fish left to feed these beautiful birds. The Namibian population, in particular, is suffering from overfishing of sardines and anchovies, but even in South Africa the population of the birds is shrinking.
Spoilt for choice!
The drop in fish numbers also increases Cape Gannets’ likelihood of becoming prey. Predators, such as seals and pelicans, are turning to Cape Gannet chicks (particularly in South Africa) to supplement their diets when they can’t find enough fish.
“Pelicans are originally protected birds too,” says biologist Ralf Mullers. “Now one protected bird species needs to be protected against another one. On Malgas [a breeding island] you can see entire colonies of gannets being destroyed by pelicans – they can even swallow chicks weighing almost two kilos [4.4lbs].”
A brief respite between dives
On top of reducing the Cape Gannets’ food supply, we’ve polluted their fishing and breeding grounds as well. In 1993, an oil spill left about 5,000 Cape Gannets covered in the toxic substance. And Cape Gannet eggs have also been found with traces of pollutants like DDTs and PBCs. Furthermore, the birds drown thanks to longline fishing, and guano mining is disrupting their breeding islands as well. So with all this, it’s no wonder the number of breeding pairs has dropped 20 percent in three generations.
Gliding through the water
Steps are being taken to try and save this wonderful and unique bird. As mentioned, Cape Gannets are now protected, and their breeding islands are all recognized as Important Bird Areas (IBAs). What's more, although seal attacks forced Cape Gannets to abandon one of the islands they inhabit (Lambert’s Bay) in 2005, decoys have been used to draw the birds back. Efforts are also being made to keep the seals away from the site as well as the other breeding islands.
There’s nowhere to hide in this crowd
Looking through these photographs, we think you’ll agree that Cape Gannets are truly remarkable birds. We just hope conservation efforts are successful and that we are able to watch their astonishing plunge-diving skills for many decades to come.