What’s black and white and brays like a donkey? The South African penguins of Boulders Beach that’s who.
Known as Jackass penguins because of their vocal prowess, these Cape Town penguins are an exclusive group of birds. This penguin clan has taken a rather unique journey ending up in a South African neighborhood within the suburbs of Boulders Beach, Cape Town.
Penguins in Africa? How did that happen?
The first penguins in Africa arrived on the continent some 20 million years ago when modern ocean currents stabilized, creating the South Atlantic Gyre, an enormous counterclockwise circulation between South America and Africa.
Rivaling the bravest and most adventurous explorers, the ancestors of the South African penguins journeyed thousands of miles. Traveling on the ocean currents from Antarctica and South America along the southern leg of the South Atlantic Gyre to arrive to the southwest coast of Africa.
Over the millennia, at least four distinct penguin species lived in Africa, with the African penguin remaining as the sole descendant left on the continent.
The 24 inch tall African penguins are dwarfed in size by their Antarctic neighbors, the Emperor penguins which stand 48 inches tall. Yet the penguins of South Africa tower above their Australian cousins, the 13 inch Fairy penguins.
The vast majority of the African penguins live on 24 islands along the coasts of Namibia and South Africa. This allows them to avoid key land predators such as jackals, hyenas and leopards. Viewing the African penguin habitat is difficult… except for one particular location.
Welcome to the city of Cape Town
In 1983 an interesting sighting took place. A lone pair African Penguins waddled up onto Boulders Beach, after swimming from the main colony on Dyer Island, some 100 km (60 miles) away.
Not only did they decide to stick around, they had a baby. In following years more and more penguins joined them and today the colony boasts a population of around 3000 tuxedo clad urban dwellers.
Role reversal for these South African penguins?
But why did the Jackass penguins stay? Boulders Beach is not on an island. It’s in the suburbs of Cape Town. People are staring.
Two words – ‘food’ and ‘safety’
It turns out commercial fishing restrictions in the area has resulted in an abundant food source for the Cape Town penguins. What penguin chick wouldn’t love a steady diet of anchovies and sardines?
The urbanization of the Boulders Beach, Cape Town area substantially reduced the number of predators that would typically gobble up one of these waddling wonders.
In addition, significant efforts have been made to provide a safe environment for the penguin colony to thrive.
Artificial nesting boxes improve survival rates of the chicks. An excellent boardwalk system above the beach allows great viewing without physically disturbing the penguins’ urban community.
These South African penguins, therefore, do not see humans as a threat. They go about their regular routines with little regard to their admirers on the boardwalk.
Basically human disruption of the natural environment has played a key role in the initiation and survival of the African penguins of Boulders Beach. Now that’s what I call role reversal. Go figure!
For a guaranteed smile, click on the African penguin video clip below for a look at the waddlers of Boulders Beach, Cape Town.
What unique wonders of nature have you discovered in the city?