The Penguins in South Africa...

Most people like penguins. The penguins look cute and the way they waddle amuses people. However, it’s surprising how confused people look when you ask where penguins live. Many folk say where it’s cold and icy. If you ask the same people what the greatest predator threat is to penguins they’ll perhaps suggest the polar bear. Yes, Christmas cards and animated films like Happy Feet have a lot to answer for!


Two penguins walking to the left
Two Penguins. Photo Copyright Jon Isaacs 2021

There are eighteen species of penguins, and whilst it’s true that some species do indeed inhabit cold and icy terrains in the Southern hemisphere, none live in the cold extremes of the Arctic, so the chances of meeting a polar bear are zero. Six species however live in warmer climates, ranging from South Africa to New Zealand and even Australia. The penguin which lives the furthest north and into the tropics is the Galapagos penguin. This penguin survives the high temperatures by leaning forward to shade its feet and spreading the webs to dissipate heat. A lower density of feathers and the ability to pant also help to keep it cool. Three of the other species: Magellenic, African and Humboldt lack feathers around the face and lower legs which helps reduce temperature. The Fairy penguin is the smallest of all penguin species and has less fat. Interestingly, the penguins which inhabit the snowy wastes of Antarctica, like the King, are the largest species, whereas the warm climate penguins are generally the smallest.


Photo of a site sign for Boulders beech in South Africa
Boulders Beech sign. Photo Copyright Jon Isaacs 2021

The only penguin I’ve been able to see in the wild, (If you can call a South African suburb wild!) is the African or Jackass penguin. In 1910 the South African penguin numbered 1.5 million birds and spread around much of the coast of southern Africa. However, due to intensive fishing and habitat destruction (The same old sorry story!) the numbers crashed and soon there were only isolated pockets surviving. In 1982 a pair decided to nest on Boulders Beach near Simon's Town. The population rapidly increased, helped by a ban on commercial trawling and improving marine pollution in the area. Soon the population reached a healthy 3000. Unfortunately, there was a cruel twist when an iron ore carrier, MV Treasure, sunk near Cape Town in 2000 spilling 1300 tons of crude which affected half of the penguin's breeding and fishing grounds. Added to a lesser spill in 1994 it is calculated that over 30,000 African penguins were lost. Currently, the African penguin’s status is endangered, caused again by pollution, fishing and the movement of prey migrations caused probably by global warming.


Penguins nesting in the sand at Boulder's Beech
Nesting Penguins at Boulder's Beech. Photo Copyright Jon Isaacs 2021

My introduction to the African penguin came via a sedate drive into the False Bay and Foxy beach area of Cape Town one boiling August afternoon. Having parked the car, we were amused by signs asking us to beware of penguins which came out from behind or under parked cars, materialized from below bushes, and generally wandered around as though they owned the place. Because they caused so much damage in peoples’ gardens and were a menace when jaywalking on the roads, a nature reserve, to try and stop them moving away from the beach, had been created. We headed for the interpretive centre by Foxy beach and having paid our entrance fees, wandered down over the boardwalks in search of penguins. Our timing wasn’t great as some of the penguins were out on fishing trips. However, there were enough around from fat youngsters at the entrance of burrows to couples who brayed lovingly at each other. The boardwalk moved through the dunes until we came down to the beach and sea. Penguins could be seen spread apart, some in fashioned hollows, others feeding chicks, and the occasional one wandering to or from the sea. It was a happy hour of watching penguin behaviour. Most didn’t seem put out by the tourists within feet of them, or even the Chinese coach load who seemed unable to take a photo of a penguin unless they were in it. I left with the hope that this small species of penguin would triumph over adversity and be around for people to enjoy for many centuries to come.


World penguin day April 25th 2021




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