I recently embarked on a Japanese joint-venture voyage from Cape Town. On-board were six Japanese, 16 Indonesians and a South African. This motley crew was to become my only human connection for the next two months! The South African crew member, fluent in both Indonesian and Japanese, was to become my language bridge in this lingo pandemonium. His high tempo, effervescent Wikipedia attitude kept me entertained and I learned from him too.

Targeting Yellowfin and Bluefin tunas is not a small feat. The Japanese fishing master would stay up every night looking for sea-mounts, eddies and other factors to guide him to the good spots. He would often brag that it’s mostly “instinct” that he relies on to find the big fish. The sought-after bounty took us in a south-eastern direction and onto the high seas. 

Crew and seabird conservation intern, Makhudu Masotla, with the catch of the day.

Chaos on deck! That was my initial thought on the first morning of hauling; crew bouncing from pillar to post and shouting in a strange tongue! I was later to understand that this is the norm. In contrast to our local South African fishing vessels, the crew works in a rotational manner, each a jack of all stations.

Species accidentally caught on the longlines included thresher and hammerhead sharks, as well as a giant leatherback turtle (a lifer for me), which were hoisted up using a scoop in order to be de-hooked. All bycatch was de-hooked and released in the “best” condition possible. I assisted and showed the crew how best to carry out these operations to ensure the best chances of survival of the sharks.  But as the day wears on, de-hooking becomes a more lethargic and vexing activity. Fortunately, not a single seabird was caught on this trip. According to the fishing master fewer birds were around compared to previous years. Nonetheless, a bird scaring line was deployed and the longlines were set only at night, as required under South African permit conditions. 

A soaring Cape gannet looking for the next opportunity to feed on bait

My passion is birds and I would take every opportunity I got to admire the avifauna flying by. The assemblage of birds changed as we visited different fishing grounds, but there were a few constant companions. White-chinned petrels, Black-browed and the Yellow-nosed albatrosses are in perpetual sympatry, with the White-chinned petrels constantly being robbed of their meal.

My highlights for the trip were Atlantic and Soft-plumaged petrels, the dainty White-bellied storm-petrels and the impressive Great-winged petrels. A Cattle Egret and a Rock Pigeon found themselves probably a bit too far out to sea as well! The Cape Gannets are renowned for their diving abilities. It was hair-raising to see them dive into the fishing gear, gunning for left over bait on the hooks with a real risk of becoming caught.

Japanese crew member engrossed in a BirdLife magazine

There is an ironic twist in the work that we do here. Being a conservationist on a tuna vessel is a bit like being a vegetarian working at McDonalds. The cultural shock and language barriers are also hard to overcome.  While two months seems like a long time for me, most of the crew are regulars. Spending months at sea together, they become like a family. As the newbie it can get exasperating trying to break in, but my BirdLife brochures and magazines helped me integrate by sparking the crews' interest in birds. My hope is to inspire and instil the love of nature and seeing birds as more than just a thigh in a KFC meal. It is an interest nurtured by nature that I intend to sow throughout.

Makhudu Masotla / Seabird Conservation intern ATF South Africa