CAPE TOWN, June 18 — Most visitors to Cape Town either head north to enjoy Table Mountain or south to Cape Point, depending on whether they want to feel at the top of the world or at the end of the Earth.
Yet there’s another piece of paradise midway between both natural landmarks, one that is home to some of the cutest creatures on land or in water: penguins!
Specifically these are African penguins. Though an endangered species, they flourish here, in a protected sanctuary at Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town. There are only 26,000 breeding pairs of African penguins left in the world. At Boulders Beach, there is a thriving colony of several thousand birds — quite a sight to witness first hand.
The waters are calm and quite warm, rich with fish. The beach is sandy and the granite boulders that give the beach its name are 540 million years old. More importantly, these giant boulders protect the penguin colony from the sea and wind, making it perfect for nesting.
If there is a sea of fish out in the ocean waiting to be caught, wait till it’s early in the morning or late in the afternoon. That’s when the penguins come ashore and it becomes a veritable “sea” of black and white covering the entire beach.
When you hear the mating calls of these African Penguins, you’ll quickly understand why they used to be known as jackass penguins. Their loud and in-your-face braying reminds you more of a donkey (hence the jackass moniker) than the adorable birds in front of you.
Though it may all seem like a whole lot of noise, each call is distinctive and after mating, each bird will recognise its partner’s call from across the beach.
While African penguins do breed throughout the year, the main nesting season runs from February to August. The birds prefer the shady and leafy bush, digging into the sandy burrows.
Conservationists here at Boulders Beach have also provided numbered plastic containers within the protected area to encourage penguins to nest safely.
African penguins mate for life and the dedicated partners will take turns to incubate their eggs. Later, after the chicks have hatched, the parents continue alternating going out to sea to catch fish — mostly pilchards and anchovies — and staying at the nest to feed and protect their young.
The sight of penguins out at sea can be an amusing one, but perhaps not so to the men on the fishing boats out for the same haul.
Besides the penguins and humans, Cape fur seals are also in the water hunting for fish. Commonly known as the “dogs of the ocean”, Cape fur seals have become opportunistic feeders due to dwindling fish stocks from overfishing.
Therefore, they will happily prey on penguins which makes the “supply runs” by penguin parents wrought with danger.
Mostly you will see these Cape fur seals basking on rocks, enjoying the warmth of the sun. One will be larger than the rest — the dominant male with his harem of females that can number as many as 50.
They look playful — and indeed they are, especially in water — but the penguins know they’re not to be messed up with lest a supper of penguin flippers end up on the menu!
There are other seabirds that prey on fish, too, of course. Cape shags (also known as Cape cormorrants) “sunbathe” on rocks when they are not swooping into the waters with an instinctive grace.
More menacing and troublesome are the seagulls, as they are more than keen on adding a snack of unguarded eggs or newborn chicks to their diet.
Besides aerial strikes from seagulls, the penguin chicks are also in danger from attacks on land from a dark grey, slender, almost snake-like mammal.
The Cape grey mongoose is a small predator, reaching only about 60 centimetres in length as adults, but it is a fearsome enemy when you’re a tiny chick.
While it feeds mostly on insects and small rodents, it won’t say no to a treat of young African penguins either.
Less dangerous to the penguin colony is the herbivorous rock hyrax. If you hear a litany of unidentifiable grunts and snorts, wails and nervous twitters — that’s the “song” of the rock hyrax.
Resembling a stout guinea pig, it’s actually not a rodent but more closely related to the African elephant! (Look closely and you might spot a pair of tusk-like incisors...)
Besides the penguins, shags and seagulls, another bird you’re likely to spot at Boulders Beach is the Egyptian goose, “grazing” amongst the sandy brush.
Its distinct dark patches around its eyes and apricot-hued breast makes it a favoured ornamental bird in the gardens of aristocracy.
Here in the wild, it’s simply another winged creature enjoying the warm weather. You’re unlikely to see its eggs, however, as Egyptian geese nest in large holes in trees and not the ground.
By and large, African penguins aren’t too concerned with their neighbours though. They’re more interested in each other. Some penguins waddle after each other in a row like an avian version of el Payaso del Rodeo, the Mexican line dance.
One can almost hear the percussive hum of a pair of maracas following these determined yet playful tuxedo-ed fellows.
Mostly the colony engage in their day-to-day activities from the incessant fishing and feeding to simply preening to keep its feathers sea-worthy. Now and then a solitary bird may turn towards you, as if asking “Are you looking at me?”, before ambling over in curiosity.
Your new penguin pal may then peck at your shoelaces or perhaps pose for a picture. As inquisitive as we are about them, maybe our feathered friends find our presence a rummy thing too. Maybe they’re simply inviting us to join their party?
Boulders Beach Penguin Colony
Kleintuin Rd, Simon’s Town, Cape Town, South Africa
Open daily: Dec-Jan 7am-7:30pm; Feb-Mar 8am-6:30pm; Apr-Sep 8am-5pm; Oct-Nov 8am-6:30pm
Tel: +27 21 786 2329
Entrance fee: Adults R70 (RM23) and children R35 (RM11.50)