South Africa’s Penquins
By T Dietz
South Africa. A semi-arid land with plateaus, coast and inland plains, and desert. Not a topography you’d guess to find penguins – but indeed it is. We found our team of intrepid explorers in Cape Town South Africa during the Southern Hemisphere winter – July. Upon arriving in Cape Town from Dubai we would have a couple of days to explore the harbor city before heading up to Krueger. Our first full day in Cape Town had us heading to Western Cape province and Boulders Beach part of the Table Mountain National Park. Boulders is home to a colony of African penguins (Spheniscus demersus, Linnaeus 1758) or jackass penguins, due to the donkey-like braying sound they make.
The Boulders penguin colony established itself there in the early 1980s by two breeding pairs. African penguins are closely related to three other penguin species, magellanic (Spheniscus magellanicus, Forster 1781), Humboldt (S. humboldti, Meyen 1834), and the Galapagos (S. mendiculus, Sundevall 1871). The African species of penguin only reside in the waters around the south-west coast of Africa. In addition to their black feet they are easily identified by their black face mask and the whitish-pink skin above their eyes. This area is highly vascularized and involved in thermal regulation by acting as a heat exchanger. The birds are also known as the “owls of the sea” due to their vision which can focus in and out of water and in low light conditions.
From an estimated population of 4 million in the early 19th century, there remains only about 50,000 of these endangered penguins and they face a high risk for extinction (estimated by 2030). This penguin species decline has been largely traced to declining fish food stocks caused by overfishing and global ocean temperature rise. (Data source: The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2017)
Upon arrival at Boulders we traveled a complex of boardwalks that led us down to the colony. Once down a few stairs you come upon numbered nesting boxes made of fiberglass. These burrow-shaped boxes are an attempt to better protect the rapidly declining population. African penguins are monogamous, breed year-round and they lay their eggs in burrows dug in sand or guano, scrapes, or under boulders or bushes. Many of the penguins have taken up residence in the boxes preferring them to their more natural method – and providing an added protection to their eggs.
There were lots of individual colony members on rocks and in the sand along the boardwalk. Within a few feet in most cases. They don’t mind nipping at fingers and its wise not to reach out as those beaks are designed to grab and gouge both fish and combatants. The penguins generally appeared to ignore us as they went about their business. As we reached the end of the boardwalk overlooking the beach we had a spectacular and close up view of the majority of the colony. There were plenty of animated interactions among the penguins and several entering and exiting the ocean with various animated displays.
African penguins have been known to remain at sea for up to four months. Juveniles will move up to 1200 miles away from their birthplace and interestingly travel west if born on the east side or north if born from the west or south. The penguins will generally return to their birth colony to breed themselves. (Data source: The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2017)
After our time with the penguins we headed further south about 30 minutes to the Cape Peninsula which includes Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, the most south-western point of the African continent. A beautiful rocky promontory that includes a powerful lighthouse that helps ships navigate around the cape. Along the southern and southwestern cape coast is where the Atlantic and Indian oceans collide.