Booking a tour with Cape Tours is one of the very best ways to see the best of what Africa has to offer, and there are some sights that can only be found in this incredible place like the African penguins at Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town. This endangered species is the only one of the 17 breeds around the world who call Africa home, and have been on the endangered list since May of 2010. They have gone from having millions of birds in the 1930’s to only 1200 breeding pairs today. This comes from a loss of habitat, egg predation by seabirds, and guano scraping of nest-sites as well as less fish to feed from thanks to climate change and over-fishing. There is also competition for nesting sites thanks to the encroachments which lead the birds to nest in areas open to the harsh elements which affects the amount of chicks that get raised to maturity.
Their scientific name is Spheniscus Demersus which, translated, means plunging small wedge, after the shape they make when swimming. The African penguin was once referred to as the jackass penguin thanks to the sound it makes, but has since reverted to being called the African penguin to differentiate it from other jackass penguins in South America. Its closest relatives are the Humboldt and Magellanic penguins in South America, as well as the Galapagos penguins off the coast of Ecuador who also enjoy the warmer climates and are built to suit it. These birds live on average 10-11 years but can reach the ripe old age of 24 years in good conditions.
While Simon’s Town is not the only place one can see penguins, it is probably the most famous of the sites. There are 27 in total that a person can see them from, one being Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. The largest colony is on St Croix island near Port Elizabeth which has 50,000 birds, then Dassen Island off Yzerfontein which has around 30,000 birds. Dyer Island is next near Gansbaai with 20,000, but Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town has the most on the mainland with around 2500 birds. This quaint sea town is also home to a military base, and majestic ships can be seen in the harbor. The town bustles with activity even on off-season and little shops dot the streets selling all manner of items to bring home. The restaurants in the area specialize in fish dishes, and are a sure win while there.
The penguins who make up the Boulders colony got their start in 1983, when a pair was spotted on Foxy Beach, still a very active site for the birds to be seen. In 1985 they began to breed and lay eggs and the colony has continued to grow. Some of the birds migrated from nearby Dyer Island to join the colony which helped it to grow. The birds were initially a nuisance to the inhabitants of Simon’s Town, as they invaded gardens and destroyed undergrowth for nesting spots but they were also extremely noisy and messy. The area has now been taken over by Cape Peninsula National Park, which has put up fences to keep the birds inside and safer, as well as efforts to build up the plant life that gets destroyed by nesting. There have been boardwalks erected along the entire nature walk to the beach, where penguins can be found nesting with their chicks right by the gate.
Getting up close and personal with the birds has never been easier, but beware your fingers and nose, they do nip quite hard and their beaks are like razor blades. The birds used to nest in guano (old bird droppings, hardened and several meters thick) but thanks to people stealing it for fertilizer in the past, they adapted to digging shallow burrows to nest within, and they use the same nest year after year. They do it to protect the chicks from the harsh summer sun, something that the penguins living in cold climes do not do, there’s no need for it there. Both penguin parents will share nest duties and feeding duties. One will stay behind at the nest with the eggs or chicks for up to two and a half days without any food or water while the hunting partner is out at sea often swimming ten miles out to get food. The parents feed through regurgitation of partially digested fish, and keep a close watch on their chicks for 2 months until they leave the nest. Once a penguin goes out to sea for the first time, it’s like a rite of passage. They don’t return home until it is time to breed during their 4th year of life and some never return at all thanks to predation or hazards of the open sea.
There are many conservation efforts that are ongoing to help protect these penguins, one of which is SANCCOB (the Southern African National Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) which, as their name implies, serves a lot more than just the penguins. They’re a rescue and rehabilitation outfit that operates in Table View that has largely been funded only by membership fees and donations from the public. They stand as the most successful sea bird rehabilitation center in the world. They’ve done countless oil slick cleanups to save birds, cleaning the affected birds and helping them get back on their feet in a safe environment. Oil spills affect the birds the worst of all the different things they are in danger from, but luckily those tragedies don’t happen too often.
Going to Simon’s Town means a trip unlike any other, where you can stroll along the endless shops and gaze out at a tourmaline colored sea, or choose to dine at any number of amazing seafood restaurants. The beach for penguin viewing is rarely crowded and makes a person feel as though they are alone and have a private viewing of the birds for themselves. The birds are unafraid of people largely, and are very curious – they make great photo subjects and they seem to know it. The best time to go see them is from February until August during breeding season when most are ashore. November and December are molting season, and September/October they’re out at sea feeding up for the moult when they’ll lose over half their body weight as they shed their feathers. If taking a Garden Route tour is in your books, consider seeing historic Simon’s Town and their penguins.