The Boulders Boardwalk Beach Penguins by Liesl Noel

When thinking of Africa, penguins might not be what comes to mind right away, but there is an intriguing colony found in Simonstown, South Africa. While the ancient granite boulders of False Bay, another one of Cape Town’s many amazing beaches, protect ideal swimming spots from the wind and large waves, it is also where the local inhabitants – African penguins call home. These unique creatures star as the main attraction at Boulders Beach where they are all suited up in their tuxedos to strut their stuff and dominate the show, entertaining droves of spectators annually.

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Although the Ancient Greek scientific name, Spheniscus demersus, aptly means, ‘plunging wedge’, the penguins are more commonly referred to as ‘jackass’ penguins, due to the braying noises they make to communicate, which sounds similar to donkeys. The ‘tuxedos’ might seem like a fashion statement on land, but serve as protection in the water, known as countershading. The dark wings make it easy to hide from predators swimming above them and the white underside makes it hard for predators swimming below them to see them when looking up. African penguins mate for life and the pairs will return to the same breeding site every year to nest with a clutch of two eggs. Incubation duties to protect the eggs from predators are shared by both the male and female. Since temperatures on land and sea fluctuate throughout the year, African penguins need to be able to adapt. The penguins have two ways of staying warm and cool. Their feathers are waterproof, which not only helps them swim swiftly through the water, but also serves to insulate them in cold waters (and the water is cold). While on land, they’ll use the pink gland above their eyes to keep cool in hot weather. The penguin’s body will send more blood through the pink gland as a way of cooling the blood from the outside air. While African penguins may sway and waddle slowly on land, it’s a different story once they’re in the water, swimming at an average speed of 3mph, but when hunting, reaching speeds of up to 12mph, making them strong swimmers indeed. Their aquatic abilities help catch their prey, consists mostly of small fish, such as anchovies, crustaceans and squid, by being able to dive up to 400 feet deep and hold their breath for 2 and a half minutes.

The penguins first came to the area in 1983 from Dyer Island. At the time there was plenty to eat and the colony rapidly grew. Unfortunately, due to habitat destruction, commercial overfishing, pollution and oil spills, the penguin population has been in decline and is an endangered species. At the beginning of the 20th century there were about 3 million wild African penguins, which has sadly decreased to 19,000 breeding pairs in the wild. Great efforts have been made to reverse the drastic decline in numbers and a conservation programme put into place to protect and increase the population once again. The beach area falls under the Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected Area and is also supported by several agencies, such as the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) to ensure the species continues to thrive. Hence the small, but worthwhile conservation entrance fee. While the area has become a safe haven for the penguins and their nests, it’s not unusual to encounter a waddling character or two in the close by parking lot.

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While Boulders Beach is great for viewing the penguins, it’s just down the boardwalk at Foxy Beach that one can get a little closer, but beware, while the blinking eyes seem like an adorable wink, the cheeky critters are puckering up for a literal peck with their beaks. The razor-sharp beaks are used to protect their personal space. They are as curious as they are a curiosity. During the COVID lockdown in South Africa, the penguins ventured out, and were found waddling along the streets of Simonstown, wondering what had happened to their usual audience of people.

The penguins may be observed throughout the year, with summertime being the prime time to experience the most penguin action. During September and October there are fewer penguins on the beach as they spend much of their time feeding out at sea. The juvenile birds moulting on the beach in January provide for a real treat. Early morning and late afternoon are ideal times for snapshots, as the birds are at their most active.

African Penguin Facts

  1. Can dive up to 400 ft deep and hold breath for 2.5 minutes
  2. Pairs mate for life and will return to the same breeding site every year to nest
  3. Eggs are protected from predators by both males and females
  4. Penguins share their countershading technique with mammals like whales and dolphins, plus many species of fish, including great white sharks
  5. An average swimming speed of 3mph increases up to 12mph when hunting
  6. Prey consists mostly of small fish, such as anchovies, crustaceans and squid
  7. Razor-sharp beaks allow them to protect personal space – so don’t get too close!

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Liesl Noel is a gifted writer from South Africa. She’s spent years travelling the world with some of the world’s most influential people prior to becoming a proud mother, middle school language arts teacher and talented freelance writer.

This article was originally published in EXPLORE Magazine by Regent Seven Seas Cruises®. EXPLORE is a regular print publication of travel content covering art, culture, history, cuisine and more across every region of the world.