Today we are going sightseeing and our first stop is Boulders Beach – home to a breeding colony of over 2,000 African penguins.
To be specific, we are actually visiting Foxy Beach, where most of the penguins are found. Both Boulders Beach and Foxy Beach are located in False Bay, just past Simon’s Town. They lie in a small cove, protected from the wind by giant granite boulders. Boulders Beach is a swimming beach with rock pools and is particularly popular with families due to its safe waters. Just a short walk along the bridal path is Foxy Beach, which is used exclusively by penguins. The penguins can be seen from viewing decks, accessible from a boardwalk. They are completely free to come and go as they please and are often spotted in the nearby Simon’s Town, resting underneath parked cars.
The beach forms part of the Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected Area and access is strictly controlled. We pay the entrance fee and then wander down the boardwalk, passing a sign that warns us not to feed the penguins as they may bite.
The view is beautiful. From the boardwalk we can see Glencairn Peak, Elsies Peak and Muizenberg Peak. Just north of where we are is where the Royal Navy established the headquarters of the South Atlantic Squadron, which was the most important naval base in the Southern Hemisphere until 1957, when it came under South African control. We can see Simon’s Bay, which was made the official winter anchorage for the Dutch East India Company’s ships in 1743. Straight out to sea is Noah’s Ark, a huge, flat-topped granite boulder on an even larger granite outcrop and a little further away is Roman Rock Lighthouse, which was designed by Alexander Gordon of the British Lighthouse Authority and built in the 1860s.
We spot two penguins, preening each other. Like most species of penguins, African penguins mate for life. There is little distinction between male and females, although the males are slightly larger and have longer bills. They will produce one or two eggs a year and will usually only separate if breeding has failed for some reason.
I stop to photograph these two penguins but soon realise that I have been left behind. I hurry along the boardwalk towards the beach, where I see hundreds of penguins on the sand and in the sea.
African penguins are also known as Jackass penguins, due to the donkey-like braying noise that they make. They are small, around 68 centimetres tall, and generally weigh between 2.1 and 3.7 kilograms. They are closely related to Galapagos penguins, Humbolt penguins and Magellanic penguins and are found only in South Africa and Namibia with a total of around 70,000 breeding pairs in the world.
Many of the penguins are moulting and a sign advises visitors that they are not sick, maltreated or malnourished – they are simply changing their coats. Old feathers are replaced during an annual moult. During this time the penguins lose their waterproofing and are confined to land for around 21 days. They also ‘fatten up’ before their moult as, unable to fish, this is a period of starvation. Generally they will gain about 30% more fat before the moulting period begins and lose around half of their weight by the time it ends.
We watch a few penguins waddle down to the shore. Like other species, the African penguin is clumsy on land but incredibly agile in the water, where it uses its vestigial wings as flippers. These birds can swim at speeds up to 24 kilometres per hour and their small, overlapped feathers provide excellent insulation. When they come back into the shore they slide up the beach on their bellies, using their feet and wings to propel them.
Further up the beach a few penguins are lying in man-made burrows, which protect eggs and chicks from predators. The African penguin is the only species to be found on the continent of Africa and is classed as an endangered species. In the 19th century there were several millions of African penguins and in the 1930s there were still over one million birds – now only around 179,000 remain. A loss of nesting places, due to guano removal, and a decrease in food, due to overfishing and pollution, have contributed to a steady decrease in population.
African penguins inhabit 27 sites, most of which are on inshore islands such as Robben Island. Only three sites are on the mainland and this is the most remarkable mainland colony. The main predators in this area are cats and dogs although, once in the water, they are also at risk of being attacked by fur seals and sharks.
We watch as the ‘urban penguins of the cape’ waddle up and down the beach. Although there is a fence between us and them, these beautiful, tuxedoed birds are known to come onto the boardwalk and seem completely unfazed by humans. Some even seem to pose as I point my camera at them!