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Plight of the penguins

The African penguin is the only penguin species that occurs off the coast of Africa, and it is endemic to the coast of southern Africa, from Hollams Bird Island, near the central Namibian coast, to Algoa Bay off the coast of the Eastern Cape, South Africa. They occur mostly on islands along the coast, but there are two populations on the mainland in South Africa, at Betty’s Bay and Boulders Beach in the Cape Town area.

You might recognise this extraordinary bird from social media posts from visitors in South Africa. Many sun lovers flock to Boulders Beach to get a good view of the birds in their sanctuary at Boulders beach.

Male and female penguins look almost identical. It is very difficult to tell the gender of a penguin without doing a genetic test.

When Bartholomew Diaz and his crew first landed in southern Africa they became the first Europeans to see African Penguins. The Portuguese settlers were devout Catholics, and thus not allowed to eat meat on Fridays.

They were, however, allowed to eat fish, and made the decision to classify the flightless penguin as a fish, due to its love of swimming. This meant they had a ‘loophole’ allowing them to catch and consume penguin meat on a Friday without transgressing their religious beliefs.

African Penguins used to be known as ‘Jackass’ Penguins due to their distinctive donkey-like call. However, three other species of penguin have similar calls, and to avoid confusion, this species, which is only found on the continent, is now officially known as the African Penguin. It’s also a little more accurate a description of a wonderful creature that is far more than it’s quirky vocal tones.

African penguins are currently regarded as vulnerable to extinction. Oil spills are a major threat to their survival. In earlier times the killing of penguins and the collection of their eggs for food, had devastating effects on the population. For example, in the early 1930s some 13-million eggs were collected off Dassen Island alone!

Sadly, the African Penguin has been a species in decline since the industrial age began. Overfishing, habitat destruction, coastal development and a number of other human influences mean that a population which used to boast over 1 million pairs is now hovering at around 20 000 pairs. The good news, though, is that a number of populations are now thriving, thanks to conservation efforts, including the coastal colony at Stony Point in Betty’s Bay.

A word to all visitors, DON’T cross the demarcated boundary lines when visiting any of the sanctuaries including Boulders beach. Even though photos like the ones shown below are great souvenirs. You can inadvertently step on a clutch of eggs, scare breeding pairs into the water where hungry predators await, and disrupt normal life for a penguin, desperately trying to make its way in the world.

Be kind, be sensible and protect our environment, and all who live here.

Our Shark Project supports a wonderful Penguin rehabilitation programme in the Western Cape, and volunteers to this project can spend time with the projects helping them get ready for a return to their ocean world. Penguins are incredibly resilient creatures and do very well when rehabilitated. You can see the incredible journey of these penguins in Gansbaai in this beautiful movie created by our Shark Project (

Send us an email on to learn more about these creatures, and how you can be involved in their rehabilitation.

Vanessa Cloete (Product and Sales Manager)
The Good Hope Volunteer Team

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