Penguin conservation in South Africa has had to overcome a bewildering array of challenges – climate change, dwindling fish stocks, and lack of suitable habitat. But the most dramatic moment came in 2000, when an oil slick threatened the largest concentration of African penguins. South Africans sprang to the rescue.

Did you know?

African penguins used to be called jackass penguins because of their braying call.

If you squint your eyes only a little, it's easy to see African penguins as knee-high, rather formally dressed little people.

They are endearing creatures, and observing them up close and personal at Boulder's Beach near Cape Town, where a colony of over 3 000 birds are thriving, remains one of life's great joys.

But their numbers have been diminishing for decades. The African penguin is currently listed as threatened or likely to become endangered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Penguin conservation in South Africa has demanded some innovative thinking. Back in the winter of 2000, a ship carrying 1 300 tons of oil sank near Robben and Dassen islands – sanctuaries critical to the conservation of penguins. It had the makings of a real disaster.

Oiled penguins were rehabilitated by hundreds of volunteers at SANCCOB (the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds). Thousands of unoiled penguins were fenced in to stop them going into the polluted sea. But they couldn't be kept there indefinitely.

A cunning plan was hatched. More than 20 000 African penguins were taken to Port Elizabeth and they were released into the sea, nearly 1 000 km away from their traditional home.

Three penguins had transmitters fitted, and the South African public breathlessly followed their progress as they and the others swam back home, giving authorities 2 weeks' grace to clean up the islands' beaches.

Another heart-warming story is that of the penguin nests. Penguins prefer to nest in burrows or under bushes, protecting their eggs and young from heat and predation.

The Dyer Island Conservation Trust came up with the idea of artificial fibrecrete burrows for penguins. Once installed, penguins move in almost immediately and breed successfully – a real boost for penguin conservation in South Africa. 

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Simon's Town Tourism Information
Tel: +27 (0) 21 786 8440
Fax: +27 21 786 8459

How to get here

Boulders Beach, one of the best places to view African penguins in the wild, is within easy driving distance from Cape Town, around 30 minutes or so from the city centre.

Best time to visit

Any time is good but spring and early summer is when the chicks are hatching.

Around the area

Visit the nearby historic coastal town of Simon's Town, home to the South African Navy and a number of delightful museums.

How to get around

A boardwalk trail along the beach allows you to get up close and personal with the penguins.

What will it cost

R35 for adults; R10 for children under 12.

Length of stay

A few hours is ample time to explore the beach and see the penguins.

What to pack

Sunglasses and sunblock are musts. Don't forget the camera, African penguins are photogenic little beasts.

Where to stay

Try a quaint B&B or guest lodge in nearby Simon's Town, a historical coastal town with plenty to see and do.

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