BIRD ISLAND NEAR PORT ELIZABETH IN THE EASTERN CAPE
68 kms from Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, lies the St. Croix Island Group. This group is made up of St. Croix Island and the two smaller islets of Brenton and Jahleel that are situated nearby. St. Croix has an area of 12 hectares and it is composed of Table Mountain Sandstone. It is about 165 million years old.
The Bird Island Group is located on the eastern edge of Algoa Bay and consists of Bird, Stag, Seal and Black Rocks. Bird Island, which covers an area of 10 hectares, is only 9 meters above sea level, has a lighthouse that has been manned since 1852.
History shows that between 1755 and 1978 there are 27 ships recorded that have been wrecked on the Bird Islands. When Bartolomeu Dias anchored in the lee of the largest island in 1488, he and his men clambered to the summit of this island and erected a wooden cross. He named it Island of the Cross. A replica of the cross was erected in 1988 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Diaz’s voyage.
To this day Bird Island boasts the largest Cape Gannet colony in the world and there are an estimated 70,000 occupied breeding sites. Gannets arrive en masse on the islands in early August to prepare for the forthcoming breeding season but they do not live very long, although a rare case was noted of a gannet living 20 years.
At one time the islands abounded in seals, fish, whales, shellfish, penguins, birds and birds’ eggs. In the 18oo’s the early settlers began to exploit the natural resources ruthlessly. For example, the Cape Almanac shows that a total of 2,800 seals were killed and their skins exported between 1831 and 1844. Some of these “wigs” or seals were as large as donkeys. In the year of 1837 there was a total of 17,000 pounds of ivory exported from Port Elizabeth.
The islands are very rich in white guano deposits and because of their high mineral content, the mining of guano became a very lucrative source of income. From 1844 a “white gold rush” began. At some places a depth of 15 foot or more was recorded for the guano and in London the “white gold” was fetching prices as high as 28 pounds per ton! The South African government subsequently took possession of the islands’ guano deposits.
The African Penguins, (once known as “Jackass Penguins”) have also been exploited very badly by egg collectors and the penguin population dropped from over a million to 570,00 in the 1950’s. The Eastern Cape is their last home with only 78,500 birds left in 1995. Today their greatest threat comes from pollution caused by the giant oil tankers that spill their oil into the ocean. A penguin covered in oil dies by suffocation. The Port Elizabeth Oceanarium maintains an animal hospital where sick and oiled penguins are rehabilitated but even so, the penguins remain very much a threatened species.
Today the islands have been declared a bird sanctuary and their numbers are steadily increasing again. The islands are marine protected areas and no one may come closer than 500mtres from The St. Croix Islands or within 25 sq. miles of the Bird Islands without a permit.
The area from Cannon Rocks to the Kouga Harbour has now been declared part of the Greater Addo Elephant National Park.
TEXT: Lloyd Edwards from "Scenes from Algoa Bay"
PHOTOGRAPH: Lloyd Edwards
Port Elizabeth hosted the first cricket test played in South Africa which was against England in 1889.
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3 October 2012 7:51