African Penguins

From the desk of Van the PENGUIN Man
Specialist Tourist Guide: 5113


The African Penguin is endemic to South African waters. They are found on 24 islands around Southern Africa, from Namibia to St. Croy island at Port Elizabeth but nowhere else in the world.

There are three mainland colonies; Simon's Town, Betty's Bay and Namibia. The African Penguin is a cause for concern as it is listed in the Red Data Book as an endangered species. There were once more than 1.2 million in number in 1930 but by the end of 1980's there were less than 200,000.

To many, the Jackass, blackfooted or African Penguin Spheniscus Demerus is a cute little bird, beloved of cartoonists and refrigerator advertisements.

Without the penguin however, South Africa as we know it would be quite different. In the early days of the establishment of the fort at Cape Town, the penguins killed at Robben-Island colony in Table Bay kept the Dutch from starving. Since the settlement was originally founded to provide provisions to passing ships of the Dutch East India Company, the company would probably not have bothered with attempting to re-establish that, that could not even feed itself.

While the settlement survived, the penguin colony at Robben-Island did not, being reduced from a million to none in just a few decades.


Penguins are clumsy on land but in the water they are expert divers with great speed and agility. Penguins are expert swimmers. They use their flippers with more skill in under water, water mobility then their rivals, the seal and dolphin. In a sense, it can be said that they exchanged the ability of "flying in the air" to "flying under water." Penguins swim at an average speed of about 7km/h to about 24km/h and for 2 and a half minutes under water before they need to come up for air.


The difference between the sexes is noticeably the size of the beak. The male has a longer and broader beak than that of the female.
The throat are separated from the crown and nape by a sharply defined white line, the black continues over the back and flippers down the tail. The breast and belly are white with black spots (their finger prints). A sharply defined black line forms a "horse shoe" or inverted crescent on the chest which extends down both sides of the chest and belly to the lower abdomen.

Chicks are covered in a soft gray downy plumage, until they are about 3 months old and Juveniles have black upper plumage and plain under plumage.


The greatest threat however, is the danger of oil pollution from tankers illegally cleaning their tanks as they round the Cape to the Middle east, or by sinking ships,

The oil destroys the insulating ability of the feathers and the birds eventually die of exposure. In 1968, two accidents involving oil tankers caused the deaths of approximately 25,000 penguins. During the 1994 Apollo sea disaster. l0 000 penguins were oiled. Cape Nature Conservation and SANCCOB managed to rescue, clean and rinse 4,500 penguins, which were later released. About 3,000 of these were from Dassen Island and it appears that more than 1,200 of these oiled penguins have returned to this island. This may be one of the world's most successful oiled sea-bird rescue operations.WRECK_ds.JPG (20593 bytes)
From the early 1970's SANCCOB (South African National Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) started releasing rehabilitated penguins on Robben Island, mostly victims of oil spills that had been cleaned. In 1983 after almost 3,000 penguins had been released on the Island, they began breeding again. Only nine breeding pairs were counted in that year but the numbers increased rapidly and in 1990 a maximum count of 1,238 active nest sites was obtained. Moult counts indicated that the island was home to about 3,800 penguins, this means that in a relatively short period the island has become the worlds seventh most important breeding locality for African Penguins. There is uncertainty about the extent the release of rehabilitated birds played in reestablishing the island as a breeding colony. Very few birds that breed on the island have been handled by SANCCOB. However regular presence of penguins on and around the island may have attracted birds from elsewhere. The rate of increase is so rapid that continued immigration of penguins to the island takes place.

Sightings of banded birds indicate that they arrive from as far afield as Malgas, Dassen and Dyer Islands as well as from Stony Point. Penguins on Robben Island are now readily visible and have proved popular with tourists, more than 27,000 people viewed the penguins in 1989. A section of the island, which contains about 70% of the penguin breeding population is soon to be declared a nature reserve for seabirds. In view of these positive trends the 21st century may prove to be a new highlight in the history of the African Penguin. Boulders Beach itself has 2,600 penguins.


Penguins breed throughout the year, with each pair producing one clutch annually. Nests are lined with feathers or any material that is suitable.
One or two white eggs are laid, the size being approx. 7.2cm x 5.56cm and weigh about 107grm.
Both parents take turns to sit on the eggs and the incubation period is 38 to 42 days.
Penguins start to breed from between three to four years of age.

Penguins moult once a year, before moulting, penguins build up their fat reserves to last for this entire moulting period (three weeks).

The Jackass penguin (as the African penguin is known) derives its name from the call it makes - a loud braying similar to that of a donkey.

An average diving depth of 35m to 100m can be obtained and last for the duration of between 71 and 195 seconds.



Their food consist of anchovy sardines, squid and sancord (an eel like fish. ) Chicks consume an average of 25kg of fish until they reach fledging stage.

Adults consume an average of 540grm, of fish a day.

Their Chicks are fed regurgitated food by their parents until they can go to sea themselves. During breeding time, the penguin's hunting range is 3,945km. Non-breeders can hunt as far as 102km away. Parents teach their voung to swim at the age of about 3 months.

As recently as 1980, biologists thought they understood the problems facing the penguins in South Africa. Egging and direct human exploitation were illegal and minimal. Oiling was an occasional problem but rehabilitation efforts were highly successful for penguins that reached cleaning facilities.

The great concern was over commercial fishing. The penguins depend on the Cape Anchovy (Entrails Capensis) for 80% of its prey, yet the commercial fishery was believed to take up to 60% of the total anchovy population of South Africa some 600.000 tones. It appeared that penguins were suffering from a shortage of food. Penguins at the west coast breeding colonies were observed, for long periods away from their nests, so that mates were forced to desert. Growth rates of the young in the wild are much slower than those of captive birds, finally, the population was believed to have decreased sharply, based on estimates in 1956 and 1978 from 236,000 to 100,000 birds.

Penguins and fisheries appeared to be competing for food, with industry being the winner. Unless some means could be found to increase the food available for the west coast penguins their population was likely to continue to decrease. In 1983, Sea Fisheries Research Institute scientists, using sophisticated acoustic sampling devices on board the new research vessel, Africa, found a large anchovy population on the South coast.

The population was at least twice as large as previously thought, therefore the fishing industry was only taking 25% of the total, instead of the 60% previously believed.

Could the industry really be over-exploiting the South African anchovy under such conditions? If there was so much Anchovy why were penguins declining? To answer these questions, we need to review a bit of anchovy biology.
The Traditional view has been that adult anchovy spawn their eggs on the south coast, to the east of Cape Point and the eggs and Larvae are transported northwards around the point by fast moving "jet" current which eventually deposits them in a nursery" in the rich and relatively sheltered waters of St. Helena Bay. The young grow rapidly in these conditions and are nearly adult size by winter. They then move south to join the spawning population.

Until recently, the anchovy on the south coast were believed to range from one to four years old, only recently have scientists learned that anchovy grow more rapidly than previously believed, so that most anchovy are less than two years old. The population turns over more rapidly with young anchovy represcnting a much larger part of the population than previously believed. Why then has the number of Jackass penguins decreased so dramatically

Early in the 20th century large numbers of eggs were harvested for human use.
More recently penguins have to compete with commercial fisheries for food.

They have been victims of spills, displaced from breeding sites by a burgeoning seal population, and their Chicks have been preyed upon by feral cats introduced to some islands were they breed.

These factors have resulted in higher than normal mortality rates throughout the penguins life span from the eggs to chicks, through to immature birds and adults, as well as reduced reproductive output. Taking all these factors into consideration, the impact has been enormous.


The pink patch above the eye is the sweat gland, the darker it becomes the hotter the penguin feels. There is salt-water gland that is situated in the head; this purifies the salt water that the penguin drinks, they then sneeze out the salt crystals. A transparent film moves over the eyes the moment the penguin dives. The ears are protected by an oil which is secreted. The feathers which overlap one another are entirely waterproof. Penguin males weigh about 3.6 kg and females 3.1kg. They moult once a year between November and March, during this period of three weeks, they remain ashore, as they cannot swim, therefore they don't eat either.


The ability to withstand intense cold is one of the penguin's greatest assets. Most penguins have rather small feet, wings and heads, the relatively little surface area in comparison to the birds volume results in excellent heat conservation. In addition, many penguins have a thick layer of fat under the skin. Some species are better equipped for cold weather than others. The Emperor penguin which may weigh 27 to 30kg (60-701bs.) appears to be best equipped of all.


Natural enemies in the water are: Sharks, Seals, Octupi and kelp. Enemies on land are: Man, Cape Clawless Otter,Spotted Genet, Seagull and Mongoose. They have a protective camouflage for the sea, with a black back and white front. When an enemy approaches from below, it can not easily distinguish between the white belly and the colour of the sky. In converse, if the predator approaches from above, it will only see the darkness of the deep blue sea.


Always move slowly. Do not run, shout or make sudden gestures when close to the birds. Be gentle and you should be rewarded by a calm bird and a wonderful experience with nature. A sign of stress is the sideways movement of the head, they appear to be inquisitive but are actually adopting an aggressive attitude.



Today I would suggest that the penguin still has an important role to play in South Africa's future. It represents a "canary in the cage" monitoring the health of the marine environment.
If we can under stand the ecology of the Jackass penguin and successfully conserve its population, we will be well along the road to conserving the renewable riving resources of South Africa's coastal waters.


The Large Emperor Penguins dive as deep as 250m (820 ft) and can stay under water for as long as 20min. Adelies can dive down to 60m (over 190ft).
To help them keep warm, penguins have a thick waterproof plumage, beneath the outer feathers is a layer of down. This traps warm air next to the skin like a woolen vest. Penguins also have a layer of fat under the skin which helps keep out the cold. The Emperor penguin breeds in one of the world's most inhospitable regions during one of the coldest periods of the year, laying and incubating its eggs in temperatures as low as -62c(-80F).


Offer your services to SANCCOB as a volunteer to help clean and feed oiled or injured penguins and other sea-birds.
Take oiled sea-birds to SANCCOB. (Be careful of the sharp beaks and claws). If you are unable to transport the bird yourself, please contact any of the following:

Oily.jpg (26958 bytes)

S.A.N.C.C.O.B.------------------------(021) 557-6155/6
Mr. or Mrs. Campbell----------------(021) 557-5203
Mr. Waterrneyer----------------------(021) 557-9080
Mr. v.d. Merwe----------------- ------(021) 786-1707

S.A.A.N.C.O.B Address:
The Secretary,
P.O. Box 11-116
South Africa.

Lectures, guided tours by appointment
At Boulders Jackass Penguin Colony
Simon's Town.
Simon's Bay    South Africa
Cell Phones: 083-212-1275 or 082-921-5724

Back to Van's Home Page