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Some Penguins can Surfski

Some Penguins can Surfski
Some penguins can surfski. Yes, there’s much to be learned from the famous tuxedo-clad colonists of Simon’s Town…

Words: Marianne Heron

Pictures: David Morgan

untitled-shoot-124For me, a regular dose of penguin viewing is one of the big attractions of living in Simon’s Town. If I was already captivated by these famous tuxedo-clad colonisers at Boulders Beach, managed by Table Mountain National Park, after reading The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell I was completely hooked.

The book is a memoir of the bond that developed between young Michell and the penguin he rescued from an oil spill when on his way to take up a teaching post in Argentina. The penguin refuses to leave Michell’s side and so he ends up smuggling the bird – named Juan Salvador – into school with him. There Juan becomes a keen rugby supporter, a swimming coach to a shy boy and endears himself to all as the school’s mascot.

The book finished, I headed for Boulders and environs, filled with new-found penguin enthusiasm to observe Juan’s relatives early one morning. Now it’s easy to anthropomorphise creatures and attribute human characteristics to their behaviour but, having watched our local African Penguins (aka Jackass Penguins or Spheniscus demersus) going about their business, I really believe those penguins could teach us some lessons.

Some of the penguins were taking a bath in a shallow tidal pool just beyond Boulders, six or so at a time, wriggling their tails and vigorously flapping their flippers. It might seem counterintuitive for a creature that swims 20 to 40 kilometres out to sea, in pursuit of fishy prey, to spend time bathing.

“They are getting ready,” explained Renée Leeuwner, assistant communications and sustainability manager at Cape Town’s Two Oceans Aquarium. “They need to be sure that their feathers are waterproof. If they aren’t, the water goes through to their skin and they get cold and they can’t fish.”


Readied, the penguins waited for their companions to finish ablutions, then waddled off in a line to go fishing. Were they working as a team? “Like most prey, penguins operate on the principal of safety in numbers, and there are lots of fur seals out there,” said Renée. And sharks too.

Penguins are not just dressed in black and white suits for dinner, it’s their protective coloration to foil predators. It’s much harder to spot penguins against the dark ocean floor from above or to spot their white shirtfronts against the light from below.

Other penguins were busy preening. They were extraordinarily methodical, running their beaks across their feathers line by line and occasionally putting their beaks under their tail feathers. “Preening is so important,” explains Renée. “Feathers have barbules designed to interlock and protect them against wet and cold.”

Penguins have a preen gland above their tails and use their own oil supply to waterproof their personal ‘wetsuits’. But if the birds are fouled by an oil spill the barbules become tangled and ineffective, and the penguins can’t fish and will die.


It was the breeding season when we were there and some penguin pairs around me were billing and cooing or, rather, braying and beaking and preening each other fondly. “This is part of bonding,” points out Renée. Penguins mate for life, reaching sexual maturity from four years of age, and returning to their natal colony each year to nest.

Parents take turns incubating their clutch of two eggs laid in a burrow or a sheltered nesting site for about 40 days, before their large, white eggs hatch. Then they share parenting, one adult minding the chicks while the other forages for about three weeks. After that the chicks stay in a communal crèche until they moult their down, grow juvenile feathers and go to sea on their own. They moult to adult plumage a year later.

It’s possible to tell penguins apart as each has a unique pattern of black spots on their breasts, but not easy to tell the sexes apart unless they are, er, mating, when it’s definitely man on top.

During their annual moult (the penguin equivalent of an extremely long and bad hair day) they diet. Unable to go to sea for about 21 days, they have to prepare themselves for this fish-free period by doing some serious fattening up beforehand.

“They gain about 30 per cent of their body weight before their moult, and look like Michelin Men,” says Nicky Stander, rehabilitation manager at SANCCOB, (South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) where she gains an intimate knowledge of penguin behaviour. “They usually weigh around 2.8kg but can go up to as much as 5kg. And yes, they do get very grumpy. Unlike other birds, who lose a few feathers at a time, penguins have a catastrophic moult, losing all their feathers at once and then the new feathers push through their swollen flesh and it’s very itchy. It’s the most stressful period in a penguin’s life.”

It is very important that they do moult. “If penguins don’t get enough food they may suffer an arrested moult and their old feathers become brittle and the birds will be stranded,” explains Nicky.

To add to their problems, penguins have synchronised moults. Once a certain number have started losing their feathers they all do, a bit like catching the ’flu. If this happens before the chicks are fledged, they will starve as the parents can’t feed them.

But to the rescue comes SANCCOB with its Chick Bolstering Project that hand-rears rescued chicks and puts penguins with arrested moults on a special feeding plan.

The pink gland that an African Penguin has above each eye is among the African Penguin’s unusual features. In fact they’re ingenious thermoregulators – when the penguin gets hot, increased blood supply is sent to the glands to be air cooled.

And these creatures have another ingenious trick up their sleeve. When they return from the sea, they tap their beaks on a rock (no, this isn’t the penguin equivalent of knocking on wood) to dislodge salt from their beaks.

Penguins ingest saltwater when they catch fish, and a special desalination gland (the supra orbital gland) above each eye socket removes the salt from their system. The salt is then excreted through the beak, sometimes making penguins look as though they have runny noses.

Given Juan Salvador’s behaviour, I wonder about the IQ of a penguin.

“I think they are quite intelligent,” says Nicky. “They quickly learn how the routine works at SANCCOB. They have such distinct personalities.”

Penguins being cared for short-term at SANCCOB’s rehabilitation centre are given numbers, and those staying long-term have names. “They learn to respond to them, and to different noises and actions. Like when we blow bubbles for them, they chase after them.”

While some birds learn to accept fish they are offered, some have to be force fed. Captivity is stressful for birds and SANCCOB’s aim is to restore them to the wild as soon as possible.

“It is very unusual for penguins to become attached to humans,” says Dr Stephen van der Spuy, executive director SANCCOB.

“It happens with one or two rescued penguins a year, especially with the younger ones, but you don’t want to tame them. Luckily they don’t imprint as easily as some animals, like the wattle crane, where if you wear a ‘crane’ costume the crane will think you are its mate.”

The occasional Juan Salvador does turn up, like the penguin that was so anxious for human contact it climbed onto a surfski but, even these, says Stephen, will all ‘wild up’ over time.

The sobering truth is that African Penguins may cease to exist. “We’re looking at extinction in the next 10 to 15 years,” says Renée. There are not enough breeding pairs to sustain the population.”


Jackass Penguins are unique to Southern Africa and colonies are found on the south and west coasts from Namibia to Algoa Bay, with the main breeding colonies at Boulders, Stoney Point near Betty’s Bay, and Robben Island.

SANCCOB reported 19 284 breeding pairs in South Africa in 2015 (25 000 pairs including Namibia), which is a small increase on the 18 683 reported in 2012, but a speck in the ocean compared to the 1.5million population estimated in 1910. So what’s behind the drastic decline?

From back then it was our hunting for eggs and guano that saw penguin numbers decline, but the contemporary threat is a lack of prey fish. “Basically there is no food as fish stocks have reduced dramatically,” explains Stephen. “If the fish stocks aren’t nearby the penguins are in trouble.”

untitled-shoot-110Penguins need oily fish, feeding mainly on pilchards and anchovies, and overfishing and climate change have seen a decline in their abundance.

The survival rate of penguin chicks varies between 29 to 42 per cent depending on location, according to Nicky. “Predators like mongooses, kelp gulls, otters, caracal and dogs account for some of the losses, the other factor is lack of food. Most of the time parents will only manage to raise one chick, as they are having to swim further and further from shore to find fish. Sometimes they are away for two days at a time and by the time they get back the chicks are too weak.”

Adult penguins survive for about 10 years in the wild but can live for up to 30 years in captivity (just shows what tough lives they lead).

SANCCOB are fighting back and, each year, rescue 1 000 to 1 500 penguins, in two main initiatives. “We are making a difference,” says Nicky. One is the Chick Bolstering Project, the other their 24 hour rescue service, where seabirds (about 2 500 per year, of which around 1 500 are penguins) are brought in to be treated and rehabilitated.

Members of the public can notify SANCCOB about birds in distress. Colony managers also might spot birds in need or there could be an emergency like an oil spill, although this has become less of a problem recently.

At Boulders, the penguin colony that began with just two breeding pairs in 1982, multiplied before suffering loss.

“In 2007/8, there was a problem due to a natural phenomenon, when shoals that the penguins depended on moved away, and food was less plentiful. The following year the shoals came back of their own accord,” says SANParks tourism manager at Boulders Penguin Colony, Vuyokazi Xabanisa. The colony has been on the increase and, at the last 2015 count, there were 2 500 penguins that attract an average 2 500 visitors per day.

The reason for the increase is partly due to the reduction in pelagic fishing in False Bay and, explains Vuyokazi, is partly thanks to penguin monitors on patrol. For instance, if chicks get distressed from the heat, the monitors will move them into the shade or spray them with water to cool them down.

Every day monitors do a sweep of the population and check on nests. Other initiatives include the installation of nesting boxes, and restoring and monitoring Burger’s Walk between Boulders and Windmill Beach, a joint initiative between the Cape Town City Council and SANCCOB, that is extremely popular with the local community. And of course the penguins.


Make a Penguin Promise
  • One way of helping save the penguins is to make a Penguin Promise – publicised by the Penguin Promises Waddle Walk each year in April. Submit your Penguin Promise to the campaign at [email protected] Other ways to help are by volunteering with SANCCOB, donating funds to the organisation or notifying them of penguins in distress.
  • Your undertaking is to change behaviour patterns and make a difference. Use shopping bags rather than plastic ones, refuse plastic straws, eat only sustainable seafood and use water sparingly.
  • SANCCOB > 021 557 6155, 078 638 3731 (a/h), [email protected]
  • Boulders Beach > 021 786 2329
While out and about, head over to Simons Town and enjoy a bite to eat at the Salty Sea Dog.

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