Since 1982 when a colony of African penguins, an endangered species, first arrived at Boulders Beach and liked the look of it for breeding, these enchanting and comical flightless birds have been a tourist draw card and a source of much human pleasure in their antics and behaviours. They have been breeding very well at Boulders and this beach forms part of the Table Mountain National Park, providing, quite literally, safe harbour for these birds. Not only can you relax on the beach, swim in the bay, including side by side with penguins, get incredibly close to them on the sand and enjoy watching them; you can also go for a nature walk along the specially constructed boardwalks and see their breeding areas and their young, reading informative notice boards all the way and learning more about them.
So it was that our post-marathon group spent a very happy few hours enjoying the penguins, braving the chilly water and soaking up some sun. This experience never gets old, it’s worth doing on every trip to Cape Town. Children are totally delighted by the penguins which have such universal appeal so this makes the perfect family outing in Cape Town, especially as it’s so sheltered and there are no dangerous breakers to worry about.
The African penguin is monogamous, and we saw plenty of love-bird penguins affectionately grooming their life partners while enjoying our Boulders day. There is of course an entry fee, this being a SAN National Park, but one hardly resents paying, much work has been done here to keep the penguins safe and to encourage breeding to be repeated here year after year. In fact, the penguins could not have chosen a better spot than Cape Town, which is a city with a very strong conservation focus and lobby!
It really is quite amazing to have an entire colony of penguins living happily right inside a built up suburban area. There are even road signs here, to warn motorists to be watchful for penguins! This is one of very few sites where this vulnerable bird can be enjoyed and observed at close range, wandering freely in a protected natural environment. From just two breeding pairs in 1982, the colony has grown to over 3 000 today, and is still increasing. There are plenty of pilchards and anchovies in these waters, an important part of their diet. The attractive granite boulders dotted all about and providing shade and shelter for bathers and penguins alike, are an amazing 540 million years old.
African Penguins have distinctive black and white colouring which is wonderful camouflage, the white hiding them from underwater predators looking upwards and the black, from predators looking down onto the water. They breed in colonies with couples returning year after year to the same site. Nesting in South Africa is at its height from March to May.
At the turn of the last century, there were an estimated 4 million African penguins. By 2000, only 200 000 remained. In 2010, this had dropped to just 55 000. Commercial fishing has forced them to hunt further and further from shore, and they have to eat less nutritious prey, as their preferred prey is now scarce. Global climate change is also affecting their food supply. As recently as the mid-twentieth century, penguin eggs were considered a delicacy.
Habitat pollution a major challenge for penguins
Penguins often perish as a result of habitat pollution by petrochemicals from spills, shipwrecks and cleaning of tankers at sea.
In 2000, an iron ore tanker sank between Robben and Dassen Islands, releasing 1 300 tons of fuel oil, causing a massive coastal bird crisis and oiling 19 000 adult penguins at the height of their breeding season. The oiled birds were brought to an old warehouse in Cape Town for rehabilitation, and an additional 19 500 penguins, as yet safe from the spill, were removed before they became oiled, and released 800 kilometres east of Cape Town, allowing time to clean up the oil before they could swim home. Tens of thousands of volunteers descended on Cape Town to help with the rescue and clean-up operation, which took over three months and was the largest animal rescue event in history. Over 91% of the penguins were successfully rehabilitated and released.