Thursday 15th February, 2001
Mercury Island, Namibia
Writer : 
Brady Gilchrist

Last night we made the passage from Lüderitz to Mercury Island, a place about 8 hectares in size. The passage was smooth for the most part with a few good bumps here and there, enough to rearrange some of the books in our cabin and the contents of the fridge. When I arrived on the bridge at 0400 Birgit was very excited and ushered me to the bow. There in the moonlight were four dolphins playfully riding our bow wave as we made 9 knots through the Southern Atlantic. Dolphins always bring a smile to your face. In a wide open vista of black water there is the brilliance of life to be found everywhere. I glanced towards the sky and saw the stars. With the sea around us, the dolphins in our bow wave and a billion suns above our heads you can't help but think what a wondrous island in the cosmos we inhabit. The watch was as it should be, uneventful. A thick fog started to roll in around 0530. Michael took over watch at 0600.

I awoke this morning to the sound of the engine changing speed, the mechanical announcement of our arrival. In my cabin I have a porthole which is just above the waterline. If you look out of it while at sea you will catch glimpses of both the world above and the depths below. This morning as I lay in my bunk and glanced out I came face to face with a dolphin looking back.

Mercury Island is like New York City for birds with an intense population of gannets, cormorants and penguins. The island is menacing, it looks like a rock thrust from the ocean depths by an angry Neptune. It is grey and tan. For the most part the island has been hollowed out by the sea and you see giant caves. The name comes from quicksilver, because when the sea pounds, the entire island shakes. All around you see wildlife; seals, dolphins and sea birds by the thousands. Everywhere flying, swimming, sitting, eating, nesting, mating ... living. The sounds travel clearly over the water to our anchorage one hundred metres offshore. We see the remains of an old pier, a house, terraces and weather station on the highest peak. The movement strikes your visual sense, the sound strikes your aural sense and then comes the smell. A powerful smell, sickly sweet, but not unpleasant, attention getting, but easily forgotten. It is the smell of life, the guano for which these bird islands are famous. In the distance we can see Joan James and Rian Jones, the caretakers of this place. They are guardians and researchers, people living here for 5 years to protect seabirds and to enhance our understanding. We lower the dingy and Michael and Norma head off with fresh vegetables, mail and other essentials to say hello.

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Joan helps Rian to weigh the penguin.

1000h Michael, Birgit, Norma and I enter the dingy and head to the treacherous coastline to explore. As we approach, STARSHIP slowly recedes behind us in the fog, taking on the appearance of a ghost ship. The smell becomes stronger, much stronger, it starts to penetrate. Waiting for our arrival are Rian and Joan, we shake hands, exchange hellos and start to explore their world. The first stop is the house, a place which is both home and research station. A rock and brick structure built into the side of the hill. There are no flat spaces here, only steep hills, no vegetation only the occasional rock face covered with algae from the sea. The home is comfortable, with paintings of wildlife, collections of books about wildlife and a character that invites. Life here is isolated. They receive supplies once every 6 months and water is delivered every year. They can shower once a week and if an oil spill threatens the penguins they will use water for cleansing and go without showers for as long as required. These are people dedicated to conservation, study and ensuring the continued existence of a number of valuable species. This is an isolated place that is inaccessible and dangerous. Three above-ground graves just 20 metres from the house are testament to that. The outside world comes in through a broadcast radio and a marine communications radio. Through their stewardship, weak seabird populations have become strong again.

The island is home to 16 000 penguins, 1200 gannets and 5 000 cormorants. Some of the species are endangered. They protect the island for the birds, keeping predators such as seals away. They conduct important scientific studies. Including a breeding study which provides information on the mortality rates for young penguins. They band, they observe and they catalog the diets of the birds. In many ways the penguins act as an environmental monitor. Determining what they eat can yield important information about the health of the local fishery. Everything is interdependent. Through commercial fishing the pilchard stocks were nearly wiped out. This fish was a staple for many of the seabirds and their populations were dramatically affected. The seabirds have adapted to now hunt gobie. A penguin can range as much as 80km a day in search of food.

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Residents and ratepayers of Mercury Island.

We start climbing the steep rocky surface in bare feet because the guano can be slippery. It feels strange beneath your feet, spongy but comfortable. The guano provides soft traction on the steep surface. We climb past nesting penguins. They will not run because they are guarding their nests. The rule is to stay outside of snapping distance, because they will bite. They appear so curious about us, following us with their eyes and go about their business. We pass many pairs. Penguins mate for life. Many of the nests have eggs in them with one parent standing guard while the other is at sea fishing. The life of a penguin is hard, they must feed and always be vigilant for their young. The collective sound of the colony is like an armada of small boats with tiny outboard engines.

We watch as Rian and Joan corralled a juvenile penguin to take measurements which will be added to the database of information about this species - the African or Jackass Penguin. I’m starting to see the importance of collecting as much data as possible for later interpretation. I’ve also been struck by how many questions remain about the natural world. I think it is a western misconception that we actually think we have a clue. Recently we have met so many scientists who are striving to answer basic questions. The questions are so important but the resources are not available to fund or create new ways of study. Understanding the world around us seems to be a less than popular pursuit from a financial perspective.

Many of the species here will spend most of their time at sea, using this place to reproduce. It struck me as we were leaving how important this place is - hundreds of birds passed STARSHIP as we headed back to sea, they were heading home to a safe place. Protecting bio-diversity is an important undertaking for our planet. It occured to me at that moment just how lucky we are to have people like Joan and Rian. This is their life work. This is their passion. We are also fortunate that the Namibian government funds such projects. We should all show gratitude for this dedication whereever we find it.

We invited Joan and Rian back to STARSHIP for lunch and more chatting. After a great meal we wanted to do our part to help them in their efforts. We gave Joan and Rian a new computer. James is configuring it now and it will be sent back on the next supply ship.

In a world that can make you cynical, it reaffirms your belief in good when you see dedication to such noble undertakings. The life they have chosen suits them and the learning will benefit all of us. Thanks for sharing your world with us. We won’t forget it.

Fair winds, calm seas


Wilderness Safaris -
Oilspill Information at the University of Cape Town -
International Foundations for animal welfare -