THE PENGUINS OF AFRICA
SWIMMING WITH PENGUINS?
Penguins are recognizable around the globe as one of the most iconic bird species. But seeing them in the wild is rather difficult since most of them live in distant, remote and hard-to-reach places. Also, certain species are very furtive and shy; some coming ashore only at night. But there is one species that can be seen with ease in two colonies near Cape Town. You can even swim with them! This post will help you make the most of your experience with the penguins of Africa.
PENGUINS IN AFRICA?
One would not normally think of Africa as a place to see penguins unless one believes that there actually are penguins of Madagascar (there are not). In fact it is quite easy: no lengthy expedition in rough southern seas is necessary. The only effort required is an easy short walk from the parking lot on to a well-constructed boardwalk that protects both the environment and the visitors. And it’s not just a few penguins: they are numerous and easy to photograph.
Foxy Beach (above left and bottom right); an African penguin sunning itself after a long summer day at sea (above right); some hardy swimmers off Boulders Beach (below left).
WHERE CAN I SEE THEM?
The most popular penguin colony is called Boulders Beach, located in Simon’s Town, just south of Cape Town on the eastern side of the cape. The viewing boardwalk is actually at the neighbouring Foxy Beach, which has the highest concentration of the little waddlers. Penguins are found throughout this area – under bushes, in back yards, in parking lots: they really get around.
The viewing area is run as part of Table Mountain National Park by SANParks, so if you are a member, your Wild Card gives you free admission (which we had). There are two parking lots in this residential area since the attraction can be quite busy, especially in November and December, when up to 5,000 visitors/day come to see the penguins.
Your admission ticket also allows you to visit Boulders Beach itself, a 5-10 minute walk to the left (north) from Foxy Beach. The water is very chilly (20˚C in summer, 14˚C in winter), but here you will have a unique opportunity to actually swim with penguins. This is the only place we know of where you can enjoy this memorable experience.
The other colony is called Stony Point and is located at the seaside village of Betty’s Bay, which is reached after a 1-1.5-hour drive east of Cape Town along the wonderfully scenic R44. Stony Point used to be a whaling station, but was closed down in 1930. The exposed wind-swept and wave-battered rocks host a higher number of penguins than Boulders Beach along with numerous cormorants nesting there as well. You can also expect very few other visitors compared to Foxy Beach.
DON’T STRESS THE PENGUINS!
Please remember that you are a visiting guest in their home. Show respect and give them space.
DO NOT TRY TO TOUCH THEM! They WILL bite (and it WILL hurt)!
Scenes from Stony Point: the breeding season lasts from February until August (top left); some of the colony (top right), the boardwalk (middle); a pair of penguins soaking up the late afternoon rays (bottom left); the cute and cuddly Rock hyrax – also known as a Dassie, which are easily seen around both colonies (bottom right).
WHAT TIME OF DAY IS BEST?
We recommend visiting both colonies and offer one piece of pertinent advice: Go late in the afternoon, around an hour or two before closing time. This helps you to avoid the midday tour crowds at Boulders Beach as well as providing the best angle of sunlight for photography.
But the primary reason to visit at that time is because penguins spend most of the day swimming offshore, hunting for sardines, anchovies, small squid and crustaceans . Then they return to shore later in the day, around 4 pm, to feed their chicks (in nesting season) and settle in for the evening. There will be penguins in the colony to be seen throughout the day, but the numbers will be much higher early or late in the day.
Above & below: On returning from a day of hunting in the sea, the adults are set upon by their chicks demanding food, regurgitated by the parent.
WHAT KIND OF PENGUINS ARE THESE?
The species in question is called the African penguin, though it is sometimes goes by a few other names: Black-Footed penguin, Cape penguin, South African penguin and Jackass penguin. The last name refers to the donkey-like braying call of this species, though some other species make a similar noise. They reside in colonies found along the coast and on 24 offshore islands of South Africa and Namibia.
Their offshore range in Namibia is the aptly-named Penguin Islands, stretching along a 355 km section of coast. The best place to see them in that country is to take a cruise for boat-based viewing to the islands off of Luderitz.
At Foxy Beach some artificial “homes” have been installed for the penguins.
They build their nests in burrows, under bushes and scrapes in the ground. Coastal colonies are susceptible to attack from predators such as cats (caracals, domestic cats and even leopards), genets and mongooses, along with kelp gulls. In the case of the Boulders Beach area, being barricaded by houses in walled properties actually provides a strong measure of protection. At Stony Point there are some houses as well as fences to protect the birds, though resident leopards do come down from the nearby hills on rare occasions and get through the fence for an easy meal. While out in the ocean, fur seals and sharks are their primary danger.
PENGUINS IN PERIL
The greatest threat to their continued existence is the fact that their food sources are dwindling in their primary breeding area owing to overfishing and climate change. The result of this is that their numbers have decreased by over 60% in the last 15 years and they are listed as endangered by the IUCN.
The African penguins use the same breeding site that they were born at. The problem is that the colonies remain in place while the schools of anchovy and sardine that they rely on for food are moving eastward. Blame climate change.
TIME TO MOVE, BIRDBRAIN!
So the fish have shifted out of reach into the 600 km gap between the smaller easternmost (healthy) population in Algoa Bay, near Port Elizabeth and the other South African colonies around Cape Town. This gap has no existing colonies, probably because there are no islands, so conservation efforts are underway to try to establish protected mainland colonies. This is done by releasing hand-reared rescued chicks into designated start-up colonies located where fish stocks are strong. Hopefully they will hatch new generations that will imprint on those protected locations and return to foster self-sustaining colonies with growing bird numbers.
MORE PENGUIN PERIL
A separate threat that exists is any viral outbreak. In 2019 almost 500 penguins died in a bird flu (H5N8) outbreak on three islands near Luderitz that hold 96% of Namibia’s penguin population. The virus was probably brought a bird (gannet, tern or another penguin) from Cape Town, where an outbreak occurred in 2018. Oil spills are an additional grave threat.
The prospects for their continued existence around Cape Town and further up the western coast into Namibia look bleak unless the depleted fish stocks somehow begin to bounce back. The Namibian government halted the country’s commercial sardine fishery for three years in 2017, but any effect has yet to be seen. Without sardines, the marine eco-system along the coast of southwestern Africa will face a catastrophe. This will affect much more than just the penguins, which is a depressing prediction.
Coming out of the frigid sea, it is only natural to shake off the water and open yourself up to soak in the warming rays of the sun.
MORE TO SEE & DO NEAR BOULDERS BEACH
We visited both colonies on each of our two trips to Cape Town and found the experience different at each site. As one of the most scenic cities on planet with countless things to do and see (and eat!) in the area, we have a few recommendations as optional add-ons.
An afternoon trip to Boulders Beach goes well following a visit to Cape Point, which is only another 30 minutes to the south by car. This popular National Park offers some wildlife (we saw ostrich, zebra, tortoises, and a rhebok) along with fabulous views. It also takes you to the furthest south-eastern point on the African continent. Note: the Cape of Good Hope is NOT the southernmost point, which is actually Cape Agulhas, further to the east, around 3 hours by car from Cape Town.
If coming down from Cape Town, the west coast route involves the spectacular Chapman’s Peak Drive, winding above the sea from Camp’s Bay and through Hout Bay until Noordhoek Beach. It must be one of the most scenic coastal drives on the planet. Driving this road after a late afternoon visit to Boulders Beach is highly recommended. Watching the sun plunge into the Atlantic Ocean as you drive along this stunning route is an fantastic experience.
If coming from Cape Town on the east side, the surfing beach of Muizenberg is worth a stop en route. It’s along the way, around 30 minutes north of Boulders Beach.
Muizenberg Beach (top left) and the Chapman’s Peak Drive, with the lower picture showing the section heading towards Hout Bay from the south
MORE TO SEE & DO NEAR STONY POINT
A visit to Stony Point can be combined with a number of options in that area, including the seaside village of Hermanus further east, for great restaurants and seasonal whale-watching. You can see whales by boat, kayak or just from the shore, since the southern right whales tend to stay close to shore during their winter calving season (June through October). Be warned that Hermanus tends to get very crowded on weekends and holidays, so go during the week.
Another fabulous option nearby is to visit wineries in the Elgin Valley. This wine region is cooler (higher elevation and sea breezes) and less busy than Stellenbosch or Franschoek. Almenkerk and Oak Valley were our favourites, but we barely scratched the surface on our few visits to the valley. It’s especially renowned for whites, with some wineries in other areas grow their grapes for white wine in the Elgin Valley.
Apple and pear orchards also fill the valley; Appletiser, our bubbly apple/grape/pear juice of choice comes from here. Also, on our numerous visits to the area we would never fail to stop off at the Peregrine Farm Stall / Red Tractor Café for exceptional meals and goodies. Their brownies and fresh-pressed apple juice were divine.
Views along the R44 from Gordon’s Bay to Betty’s Bay
OPENING HOURS & ADMISSION FEES
- Dec-Jan: 07:00 – 19:30, Feb-Mar: 8:00 – 18:30, Apr-Sept: 08:00 – 17:00, Oct-Nov: 8:00- 18:30
- International Visitors: R160 for adults, R80 for children
- 07:30 – 17:00
- International Visitors: R20 for adults, R10 for children
Stony Point penguin colony (left); a curious penguin at Foxy Beach (right). Penguins see well underwater, but are short-sighted on land.