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History of St Croix and Bird Island

Bartholomeu Diaz was the first European to sail into Algoa Bay in 1488 on his quest to find the new sea route to the east. They landed on an island and erected a wooden cross which they named Ilheu da Cruz, today known as St Croix. A replica of the cross was erected in 1988 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of his voyage. He also named Bird Island Ilhas Chaos, which is the Portuguese for flat or level ground. The two smaller islets nearby St. Croix were named Jahleel and Brenton after the British Vice Admiral at the Cape who was stationed there from 1815 until 1821.


Ever since the arrival of the 1820 British Settlers the natural resources of the bay and islands have been ruthlessly exploited. Prior to the settlers, ships from various nations supplemented their rations with eggs and birds from the islands.


The first recorded shipwreck at Bird Island was the Doddington in 1755. Out of a crew of 270, only 23 managed to clamber onto the island and survived for 7 months on eggs, birds and some items that washed up. They constructed a boat and sailed to Delagoa Bay in Mozambique. Since then a further 22 ships have been wrecked on the low-lying islands. In 1891, a Canadian Brig sailed into the bay with a load of passengers, some of whom had the dreaded smallpox disease. They were quarantined on St Croix for three months and hence its alternative name of Hospital Island.


The two island groups are now the key components in the marine section of the Greater Addo Elephant National Park (AENP). About 60% of the total global population of the endangered African Penguins live on these two islands, 21 000 on St Croix and 5700 on Bird Island.


Besides the penguins there are many other creatures. There are 200 000 Cape gannets on Bird Island making this the largest gannetry on the planet. Historically seals bred on St Croix and Bird Islands but were exterminated by sealers. A population of 6000 now occurs on the nearly inaccessible Black Rocks near Bird Island. This is also a good place to see the seals’ predator, the Great White shark.  There is a healthy breeding population of African black oystercatchers on St Croix. Albatrosses are winter visitors to our bay. Most commonly observed are Indian Yellow-nosed, Shy and Black-browed.  White-breasted cormorants nest along the ridge on the summit of St Croix, Jahleel and Seal Islands. Cape cormorants nest on St Croix’s northern cliff face. Roseate terns breed on St Croix as well as Bird Island. Kelp gulls breed on St Croix, Jahleel, Bird and Seal Islands. Other non-breeding visitors to the bay include various species of terns, skuas, petrels, Sub-Antarctic skuas and shearwaters.


Numerous species of cetaceans also inhabit the bay at various times. Southern Right whales migrate to the warmer waters of Algoa Bay in order to mate and give birth. The earliest they enter is July and the latest they leave is November. Humpback whales pass us in early June on their way to their calving and mating grounds off East Africa. They swim back past with their newly born calves between November and early January. Bryde’s whales are the only baleen whales that spend most or even all of their time in warm water as their food source is available throughout the year. Indo-Pacific and common bottlenose dolphins, long-beaked common dolphins and humpback dolphins are present throughout most of the year. Sperm whales occur at the edge of the continental shelf which extends about 50km out to sea from the shores of Algoa Bay. Killer whales, false killer whales, pygmy sperm whales, pilot whales, risso’s dolphins and various species of beaked whales are rare visitors to the bay.

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