Boulders Beach, Simons Town, Cape Town, South Africa.
Endearing little bodies dot the beach. Some groom each another industriously; others cluster together, eyes closed to the wind and stinging sand. Every now and then a startling bray punctuates the constant swish of the sea. This donkey-like call is responsible for the name of these Jackass penguins, now called African Penguins. ‘Please don’t take too many photographs,’ our guide smiles, ‘they’re not at their prettiest.’ It’s October – molting season – which accounts for the tufty fluff sprouting from between their otherwise smooth feathers.
Waterproofing is consequently impaired, so we don’t get to see any penguins in the water. Which is a pity, because that’s their native element. Awkward on land, they swim with the grace of flight. Lighting fast too. “Black Angus”, leader of a small band of rescued birds, was released in May 2009 from a Cape Town beach, before heading home to Mercury Island. This is situated off the coast of Namibia, 1019 kilometres away. His journey took a total of 18 days, through icy Atlantic currents, not to mention the perils of Great White Sharks. The feisty fellow and his followers were rehabilitated at SANCCOB (The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds), a process that took four weeks and plenty of sardines.
Since its establishment in 1968, SANCCOB has treated over 85 000 sea birds, especially from the devastating effects of oil spills. The worst such event to impact the coastline of South Africa took place in June 2000, after the sinking of the MV Treasure, which threatened over 41% of the African Penguin species. Dyan deNapoli, also known as ‘The Penguin Lady’, was one of 12 000 international and local volunteers, who cleaned and cared for the approximately 40 000 penguins that fought for their lives. Dyan has just launched her book The Great Penguin Rescue, which documents the phenomenal story.
The plight of African Penguins is so severe that they have recently been reclassified as endangered. A range of possible reasons for their decline – apart from oil pollution – includes the harvesting of penguin eggs for human consumption, commercial fishing of their food supply, and large-scale collection of their guano in the 19th century (for fertilizer). Without the compacted heaps of these droppings, the birds are often left without burrows, which means no-where to protect their young or shelter from the sun. Heat build-up sends the parents out to sea to cool off, making their offspring even more vulnerable.
Such scenarios have contributed to ravaging the population; to the extent that it was reported on Carte Blanche in March 2009 that if their numbers continued to decline as they were, there would be none left (save in captivity) in 15 years. Here’s a link to their article: African Penguins. One intervention is the introduction of man-made burrows (or nest boxes), such as these at Boulders Beach:
What a loss to future generations if their beach trips were devoid of these charismatic little characters and their antics. To play a simple part in helping to save the species, you can purchase a nesting box through the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, here: www.dict.org.za or visit SANCCOB’s website here: www.sanccob.co.za. For as little as R50 you can feed a penguin for five days. Why not?