There is something special about a light-mantled sooty albatross. Yes, you are right, all albatrosses are special. But the light-mantled is especially special. Even Professor Peter Ryan, guru of gurus on all things ornithological, thinks it is special. He has seen more albatrosses than the Ancient Mariner.

“Only two people I know have seen one in southern Africa,” he said; it is that impressive.

Well, make that more than 1,002 now.

This tale has four components: BirdLife South Africa’s Annual General Meeting, albatrosses in general, the light-mantled, and South Africa’s extraordinary achievement.

A decade ago, BirdLife SA struggled to get 100 people to its AGM. So, because nobody wants to go to an AGM, the name was changed to Flock, and at Flock 2011 the number of participants doubled.

This year, the AGM was held at sea. Flock at Sea 2017 attracted an astonishing 1,969 birders.

The good ship Sinfonia was jammed to the rafters with cameras, bird books, lenses, tripods, experts, ornithologists, birdwatchers and twitchers, the last being birders who like to keep lists of birds they have identified.

She set off south from Cape Town at the end of April, and for four days and nights wandered about the ocean searching for albatrosses, prions, shearwaters, storm petrels, et al.

The ship steamed into a very productive patch of birds just as the AGM was about to start, and like children called for ice cream, birders abandoned the AGM for the decks, where shouts of “Indian yellow-nosed albatross on the port side!” and “Wilson’s storm petrel at three o’clock off the back” disturbed the dry reading of the financials.

Some on the Sinfonia had just booked the ‘Cruise to Nowhere,’ not realizing the boat would be colonized by birders. Like the crew, they looked on bemusedly as people rushed from port to starboard, bow to aft, binoculars at the ready, from dawn to past dusk.

Nobody was to be seen in the casino on board, despite seductive pleading from the croupiers. Even the shops were deserted. But the back of the boat was crowded, and BirdLife’s experts were there to help those who couldn’t tell a sooty from a shearwater. At nights the bars were filled with tales of birds seen and birds missed.

Strangely, the shy albatross was the most common albatross seen, then the wandering and Indian yellow-nosed. In all, seven albatross species were seen. Also seven petrels, two prions, three storm petrels, and a couple of skuas. Besides birds we saw seals, sharks, striped and Heaviside’s dolphins, Bryde’s whale and long-finned pilot whale.

Wandering albatrosses are amazing. The egg takes 80 days, a long time, to hatch. After another nine months to fledge, the chick waddles to the edge of the cliff on a remote island, stretches its wings somewhere between 2.8 to 3.6 meters (think of two six-foot tall people end to end), hops off the cliff for a maiden flight, and returns to dry land four to five years later. It has flown many times around the world by then, yet returns unerringly to its natal island. Albatrosses can fly without a wingbeat for 100 kilometers, and can smell prey on the sea from 200 kilometers away.

After its first return to the island the sub-adult bird takes several years to choose a mate, but does not breed. Only after a pair has been together for a few years, between the age of eight and 12, is the marriage consummated.

The oldest albatross we know of, named Wisdom, is my age, 68. We don’t really know how long they live. The wandering albatross is the largest and most impressive of the family Diomedes, which I think means two nostrils.

Ken Newman labelled the light-mantled sooty albatross a “rare vagrant”, and added: “very rare in Cape waters.” Many of the Flock 2017 bunch saw 10 or 20 or even 30 ‘lifers’ to add to their life list. I saw nine.

Oh, I am so pleased you asked. Yes, I did see the light-mantled. Fabulous. Not that I wish to name drop or brag…

South Africa has the extraordinary distinction of having cut the number of birds caught by fishing trawlers and long-liners, from about 6,000 annually a few years ago to only 100 last year. BirdLife SA has now been given substantial funding to teach other nations how to do it.

All those who went flocking this year contributed to the bycatch environmental success. Around $19,000 (R250,000) from the trip will go towards teaching trawlers to prevent seabird bycatch. So this four-night trip was truly ‘sometime in Africa’ that was really worthwhile. – Written by Peter Sullivan