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In the Shadow of Eden

There is no finer sheet of land locked water in the world than Saldanha Bay. Its anchorage is bold and clean, and spacious enough to accommodate the largest of fleets….The country around was wild and picturesque in appearance. The substratum being of solid rock, and nature having played some strange freaks when chaos was being returned to order. Rocky precipices and palisades meet the beholder at every turn, and immense boulders of granite lie scattered on the coast and over the hills as if giants had been amusing themselves at a game of marbles: A few farmhouses are in sight from the ship, surrounded by patches of cultivation but the rest of the landscape is a barren waste of straggling rocks and coarse grass…

These are the words of Captain Semmes, Captain of the Alabama, a Confederate warship, as he sailed  into Saldanha Bay on the 29th July 1863. These words were in strong contrast with those of Jan Van Riebeeck, who found the area barren and uninteresting. However, Jan van Riebeeck soon found that the islands along the coast provided a bounty of penguin eggs, seal meat and seal skins, and that the bay could provide enough fish to feed the slaves and soldiers at the Cape. He soon began sending ships to Saldanha Bay regularly to collect provisions.

The islands around Saldanha Bay have become less interesting to the visitors and inhabitants of this beautiful part of the coastline. They have, however, a rich and interesting history. Marcus Island, Malgas Island, Jutten Island and Vondeling Island have, for centuries, been used for gathering guano, produced by thousands of sea birds which nest and breed on the islands every year. The islands were covered in a thick layer of guano, in some places up to 23m thick. By the 1930’s the people of Europe had discovered that guano was a wonderful fertilizer.

The guano deposits along the coast of Peru had already been exploited and other sources of guano had to be located. This was the beginning of the Guano Rush. The islands off the south-west coast of Namibia, particularly Ichaboe Island, were the first to experience the Guano Rush. This continued until the rich deposits of guano were discovered on the islands off Saldanha Bay. The first shipment of guano was transported to the Cape in 1666 by the Gecroonde Haring. By August 1854 there were over 300 ships loading guano in Saldanha Bay! Malgas Island was reported to have had a layer of guano approximately 10 m deep. Arguments broke out over how much guano each ship could collect, so a flagstaff was erected in the middle of Malgas Island. Lines were drawn from this point, dividing the island into sections, rather like that of cutting a cake. The crew of each ship received a section from which they could remove guano. While they were removing the guano from Malgas Island, they uncovered a body. It was the body of a French sealer, L’ecluse. The body was perfectly preserved because of the high ammonia content of the guano.


Life on these islands was great. Malgas Island was reported to have been the scene of great social activities. Ladies of the Night arrived to reap their share of the profits. “Grog Shops” were opened and alcohol was sold freely. Some of these businesses had very fancy names such as “London Docks”. Many brawls broke out, and at one stage a British warship was sent to keep order on the islands. At this time, guano was sold at 6 pounds per ton in Europe, which made the guano a very valuable commodity. The Cape Colony imposed a tax levy on guano which had been removed from the islands, and the amount recovered in taxes was nearly 200 000 pounds! Today these islands are home to many sea birds such as Gannets, Cape Cormorants, Bank Cormorants, Crowned Cormorants, Penguins, Kelp Gulls, Terns, African Black Oystercatchers and Pelican. Some of these birds have been listed as endangered species because their numbers have declined in recent years.

Unfortunately the islands are once again being plundered, not by the human race, but by the Great White Pelican. This time the islands are not being stripped of the guano, but they are being robbed of the young chicks that have become food for hungry pelicans. They are predating on the thousands of young chicks that hatch each year, and by using clever tactics, have cleared the islands of chicks.The islands are being monitored during the breeding season, and plans to outwit the clever Pelican are in place. Monitoring began during the breeding season of 2007 and it was a great success. The program is being repeated again this year, hopefully with the same good results.


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