We love showing our visitors the penguins on the popular Cape Peninsula tour. For cuteness they rate pretty high, almost as much as the baby baboons we often see on the route. Cape Town has a penguin colony at Boulders Beach in Simonstown, and there is also one across the bay at Stony Point, Betty’s Bay.
Formal dress only
The tuxedo that these flightless birds exhibit is in fact carefully designed for ocean wear. Predators looking up from the depths can easily miss seeing their white bellies against the bright daylight. Seen from above their black jackets blend in with the darkness of the deeper ocean, giving them excellent camouflage. The babies are not quite so glamorous, but make up for it in cuteness with their fluffy brown feathers. The chicks moult a few times before becoming juveniles. Then behaving just like rebellious teenagers, they go out to sea and stay out for more than a year. (Researchers are still not clear as to where they travel to). On their return they moult again and don their adult feathers. For the rest of their lives they will moult each year, over a three week period. Without their waterproof feathers they aren’t able to go to sea to fish, so become very thin and bedraggled.
Another novel characteristic is the built-in water purification system that penguins have. The salt water glands in their heads filter salt out of the sea water, and the salt crystals are sneezed out by the penguins. With the drought in Cape Town we humans thought we were being innovative installing de-salinisation plants and here our penguin friends have them built in!
No divorce courts in penguin country
Penguins are monogamous. With a life span of more than 20 years this means the couples are together for a long time. They also share the chick rearing duties, taking turns to incubate the eggs and later staying with the chicks, while the other parent goes fishing or foraging for nesting materials.
Not all their habits are quite so delightful though. The African penguin makes a loud and very unmusical braying sound. When a crowd of them get going the noise is dreadful. We’ve been kept awake on several occasions by their cacophony.
Their personal hygiene also does not rate too highly! The smell can be quite appalling. Along with the noise, this is one of the reasons that the locals are not too fond of them nesting in their gardens, which often happens!
Percy, Peter, and Pamela
We humans pose the biggest threat to penguins. Oil spills are one of the main causes of penguin deaths. In 2000 nearly 20,000 birds were oiled, but the citizens of Cape Town came to the rescue. Volunteers from all over helped to clean the birds,ready to return to the ocean, but the water was still oily. It was then decided to transport the penguins to Port Elizabeth 700 kilometres up the coast for release giving time for the oil to clear before they got home.Three of the penguins were fitted with trackers – Percy, Peter and Pamela. Cape Town then held it’s breath, tracking their long swim back home, but it all ended well. Percy and Peter arrived back in Cape Town two weeks later, and there was much distress about Pam not showing up. Fortunately her tracker had malfunctioned and a signal was picked up a week later.
If you would like to see the penguins, book the Cape Peninsula tour with us!