South Africa

St Croix Island

Norbert Klages1, Robert Crawford2 & Bruce Dyer2
1Port Elizabeth Museum & 2Marine and Coastal Management

  Cape Recife, aerial view
Photo Norbert Klages
The bare rock of St Croix crowded with hundreds of African Penguins

St Croix and its two sister islets of Jahleel Island and Brenton Rock lie approximately 22 km north-east of Port Elizabeth at 33°48'S, 25°46'E and 5 km from the mouth of the Coega River. These quartzitic outcrops of the Table Mountain Group, which rise to 53 m on St Croix (size: 12 ha), are nowadays almost entirely bare of soil. This was not always so.

Resulting from two hundred years of exploitation, all our islands are profoundly disturbed by man: humans have reshaped, often radically, the fauna and flora on the islands along the coast of southern Africa. St Croix is a striking example. Portuguese seafarers in 1575 saw the bottom part of the island 'brown with seawolves [seals] and the top white with birds'. In just four years during the 1820s, the seals were slaughtered to extinction. Unlike Bird Island, St Croix was to prove a poor source of guano but nevertheless, starting in 1885, all its soil accumulated over centuries was bagged and shipped off as fertilizer robbing the penguins of nesting material.

  Cape Recife, aerial view
Photo Norbert Klages
An old trying pot, testimony of a failed whaling venture on the island in 1890

Penguin egging was very popular on St Croix until well into the 1950s, thousands of African Penguin eggs being removed at a time. The unsustainable nature of this harvest became clear when Government Guano Island ornithologist Bob Rand counted only around 12 000 African Penguins in 1956. An aerial census undertaken by Graham Ross 15 years after the cessation of egging showed that the island population had bounced back to around 21 000 birds. A peak count of 63 000 penguins in 1993 by the authors of this contribution gained the island the status of the last stronghold of the species but the euphoria was soon replaced by consternation when the 1999 count documented the loss of 17 000 birds in six years. The irony of this decline is that it has occurred in the first marine reserve proclaimed in South Africa (in 1981; surrounding by 500 m St Croix and its two satellite islets of Jahleel and Brenton) and in a Provincial Nature Reserve (since 1987; encompassing all Algoa Bay breeding islands). What better example is needed to show that environmental legislation without conservation action is like a dog without teeth?

Cape Recife, aerial view
Photo Norbert Klages
Cape Cormorants nest on ledges of the steep slopes

Sizeable numbers of Cape Cormorants and Whitebreasted Cormorants, African Black Oystercatchers and Rock Pigeons breed on the Islands of the Cross. A few Grey Herons and Black-headed Herons build their nests on the top sections of Jahleel and St Croix. Kelp Gulls breed in small numbers (on St Croix and Jahleel) but they are frequently joined by more from elsewhere in search of food. In some years, a small breeding colony of Roseate Terns forms in the eastern corner of St Croix (about 20-30 nests). Mixed flocks of up to five species of tern Antarctic Tern, Caspian Tern, Common Tern, Sandwich Tern, Swift Tern) roost seasonally along the shoreline of the islands, mostly during daytime. Waders are scarce, except for Turnstones foraging in the washed-up macro-algae on the rocky shore.

None of the Islands of the Cross is manned; the buildings on St Croix, which once housed the staff of the Government Guano Islands and later a field laboratory of the University of Port Elizabeth, have fallen into disrepair and the surrounds of the large rainwater tank are now favourite hiding places for the islands endemic Pachydactylus gecko and Cordylus girdled lizard species.

But the woes of this litte archipelago are not yet over: a massive industrial development at Coega and a new harbour just 500 m from Jahleel Island are threatening to change this stretch of coastline forever. Just how little value do South Africans attach to their offshore islands!