The world-famous African Penguins of Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town

This morning, Amy from beautiful Flandrum Hill in Nova Scotia left a comment on a post I had written about the quaint village-like suburb of Simon’s Town. She wanted to know whether we had ever seen the penguins, which live on Boulders Beach at Simon’s Town.

I thus went through my photos to find a couple of nice pics for you all of the world-famous African Penguins of Boulders. When mom-in-law visited us from Namibia last year, we’d gone for a drive around the peninsula, and visited the penguin colony.

Penguins on the rocks

Boulders Beach is the best-known of the series of little beaches and inlets along the coastline just south of Simon’s Town. It is named after the clusters of large granite boulders that shelter these little beaches from the stormy seas and roaring winds.

A cluster of penguins on the granite boulders

These massive granite boulders date back more than 540 millions years, to the time “when molten granite formed the base of the overlaying Table Mountain sandstone”. Now that much of the sandstone has been eroded, the granite boulders have become exposed. Although you can see the penguins from Boulders Beach too, the best viewing (if you want to get really close to the penguins) is at Foxy Beach, a little further to the north, where a boardwalk has been built by the nature conservation authorities.

Page 1 of TMNP Boulders Brochure

The penguin colony here forms part of the Table Mountain National Park (TMNP), and the visitor centre thus charges an entrance fee.

Currently, it costs R35 per adult (pensioners do not receive a discount, which I think is rather unfair), and children from 2 to 11 years old have to pay R10 a head. (It seems that children from 12 to 18 years old are already regarded as adults, even though the age of majority in this country is 18. Very odd.)

Page 2 of TMNP Boulders Brochure

If you don’t feel like going into the Visitor Centre near Foxy Beach and paying for the privilege of seeing the penguins up close and personal, you can always follow the newly built boardwalk called Willis Walk instead (no relation to Bruce, I think).

Ambling along the shady boardwalk with hubby and mom-in-law who was visiting us from Namibia

The Willis Walk will take you southwards along a higher level of the slope, which is covered in dense bush for most of the way. From here you can look down towards the other little beaches until you reach Boulders Beach.

The main Boulders Beach

You are allowed to go swimming at Boulders, but requested to keep a respectful distance from the penguins. Please don’t try to pet them! Their beaks are razor sharp, and they can be a little temperamental and irritable, especially when they are breeding or nesting!

A penguin lookout point

The penguins who live here were originally known as Jackass Penguins (Spheniscus demersus), because their call is like the sound of a braying donkey. However, several species of South American penguin apparently make a similar sound, so our friendly chaps have been renamed African Penguins instead – because they are the only species of this kind that breeds in Africa.

Penguin posing obligingly for the camera

They are commonly found at Boulders Beach, Cape Point, Kommetjie, and Robben Island. The colony at Boulders Beach was started by two breeding pairs in 1982, and has gradually increased to more than 3,000 individuals. This is despite the fact that they have been attacked by dogs, cats and humans, and despite the fact that their eggs were frequently poached:

“As recently as the mid-twentieth century, penguin eggs were considered a delicacy and were still being collected for sale. Unfortunately, the practice was to smash eggs found a few days prior to gathering, to ensure that only fresh ones were sold. This added to the drastic decline of the penguin population around the Cape coast, a decline which was hastened by the removal of guano from islands for use as fertilizer, eliminating the burrowing material used by penguins. Penguins remain susceptible to pollution of their habitat by petrochemicals from spills, shipwrecks and cleaning of tankers while at sea.” (Wikipedia)

Honestly, it’s enough to make one despair for mankind.

Penguin among the nesting boxes

Penguins are monogamous and breed for life (awww!). Both partners take turns incubating the eggs and feeding the young – a fair division of labour. They regurgitate the fish they’ve caught, and shove the gooey mess into their nestlings’ open mouths. πŸ™‚

Two penguins tramping off into the bushes

Penguins can spend long periods of time in the water, diving and turning and twisting and surfing in the breakers with obvious delight. They can remain under water for 2 minutes. They travel at 2.5km/hr and even up to 7km/hr, which is amazing when you see how clumsy and waddly they are on land! (Info from this website)

Penguin trudging uphill - is he looking a tad dejected, or is that just my imagination?

Their diet consists of oil-rich pilchards, anchovy, and squid – facing stiff competition from fishermen and hungry Cape fur seals! Seals and sharks, and the occasional killer whale (Orca) are their main predators in the sea. On land, the kelp gulls like to steal their eggs and chicks! As do the mongoose. Er… Mongooses? … Um… Mongeese?

Ever so often, a penguin or two manages to squeeze underneath the boardwalk

Penguins do not have any blubber to protect them against the cold, which is how seals and whales keep warm, but their feathers are able to trap a layer of air, which keeps them warm and cosy. However, when they encounter an oil spill, their feathers stick together, and they lose their insulation. When the oil goes into their stomachs, they cannot eat and thus get sick. (Info from this website)

As their feathers and insulation layers are clearly important to them, it comes as no surprise that they spend a lot of time preening and cleaning themselves.

A fastidious penguin cleaning its tummy feathers

In addition to the penguins, you may also spot some rock rabbits – otherwise known as dassies, or, in Latin Procavia capensis.

A rock rabbit among the bushes

It is often said that, even though dassies may look like large rats without tails, they are in fact closer to the elephant and the dugong from an evolutionary standpoint. I’m not entirely sure whether I believe this – is it an urban myth?

Can you imagine this little furry thing is related to an elephant?

If you continue on past the other TMNP paying point at Boulders Beach, across a parking area, and through a surprisingly rickety little wooden gate, you will reach another beach. Here you can walk right down onto the boulders, and spend some time among the penguins.

The other beach - just south of Boulders

They are surprisingly tame, clearly accustomed to human visitors with flashing cameras, and allow you to get quite close. But NO TOUCHING! Remember: Razor-sharp beaks!

Three penguin buddies emerge from the shelter of some rocks and waddle down to the sea

Three African penguins became world famous after a bulk ore carrier, the Treasure, sank off the West Coast of South Africa in June 2000, causing a massive oil spill.

“On June 23, 2000 the damaged bulk ore carrier MV Treasure sank off the coast of South Africa between Dassen and Robben islands, which support the largest and third largest colonies of African Penguins (Spheniscus demersus), worldwide. The worldwide population of African penguins is numbered at less than 180,000 and dwindling. The ship spilled over 1,300 tons of bunker oil, which immediately oiled thousands of penguins on and around the islands.” (International Bird Rescue Research Centre)

Over 20,000 oiled penguins had to be rescued, cleaned, and rehabilitated. And almost 20,000 non-oiled penguins were captured and relocated to prevent them being oiled in the first place. It was a massive operation (see website of the Avian Demography Unit for more information).

A noisy penguin calling for help... or something

The three penguins who became so famous were named Peter, Percy and Pamela (see website of the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds [SANCCOB]). These three were chosen from the thousands of rescued penguins who had been relocated to Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. Once they had recovered, electronic transmitters were mounted on their backs.

They were released from Cape Recife and tracked with satellites as they made their way back along the South coast and around the Cape of Good Hope to Robben Island and Dassen Island, where they came from (interactive map).

A lonely looking penguin

In fact, two books have been written about Peter, Percy and Pamela. The one is called The Adventures of Peter the Penguin, written by Phil Whittington from the Avian Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town (2001) (which you can buy here). I’ve read it recently – it is very funny, but also full of interesting information about penguins, with the story told through the eyes of Peter. The other is a delightful children’s book called Peter, Pamela and Percy in the Big Spill (you can see some sample pages of this here), which you can buy from SANCCOB. They also sell a more factual book about the penguins, called simply The Penguins of Boulders (here).

I hope you enjoyed this little excursion to Boulders Beach?

14 thoughts on “The world-famous African Penguins of Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town

  1. We thought Boulder’s Beach was one of highlights of our trip to South Africa last year. If wasn’t for pesky things like regulations, laws and the like I am sure my wife would have brought one or two penguins home as well πŸ™‚

    • LOL. Maybe if you’d pinched two chicks? πŸ˜‰ I’m KIDDING!! I’m KIDDING!!!

      They are so entertaining, don’t you think? Real characters with funny personalities. Do they have penguins in Dublin? Or is the water too cold?

  2. Reggie, what an enjoyable excursion! Your photos are marvelous. I especially love the one of the downcast penguin trudging up the hill πŸ™‚ And I can’t believe how much research went into creating this post. It’s wonderful. I enjoyed every word and tidbit of information about these delightful creatures (and the rock rabbits!) Many thanks!

    • Awww, you’re welcome, Amy. I must say that I learnt quite a bit myself. I’m always so impressed at how much detail and information you include in your posts, so I felt compelled to reciprocate as much as I could. πŸ™‚ Perhaps one day Simon and you will have a chance to visit Simon’s Town (I love that!) and spend time getting to know the penguins a little. It’s definitely one of the unusual and enjoyable things to do in Cape Town.

  3. No penguins in Ireland. But I have a long term project to set up a clandestine colony off the west coast. In parallell with project to introduce polar bears to Antartica. I keep picturing the look on the faces on the research station scientists when the first one trundles over a snow drift, penguin in mouth…

    • HAHAHAHA!!! OMG!! You had me in stitches!!!

      Seriously, though, there must be good scientific reasons why there ain’t any polar bears in Antarctica… though, mind you, with the Arctic ice all melting away, maybe it’s time to rescue the survivors and ferry them south?

  4. Great post.

    It is astonishing how quickly the population has grown!

    I’m rather surprised that anyone would want to get up close to the penguins though – last time I was there I was rather overwhelmed by the smell. They are cute and comic from a distance and I love to watch their activity but oh my, the STINK!

    Your readers might want to note that entrance to Boulders is free with a Wild Card.

    • Ahh! Good point on the Wild Card – yes, I’ve actually been thinking of buying one of those – it’s definitely worthwhile if you want to visit Cape Point etc., which we really can’t afford if you have to pay the full price.

      And YES, the smell.

      Hm… perhaps I should’ve mentioned that. ;-D

  5. Its lovely to spend a day at the beach at Boulders, and the penguins walk over your towel and check you out! There can never be penguins in the northern hemishere or polar bears in the southern hemishpere, unless people carry them there. They cannot survive going through the waters of the tropics. Icy water is where they are happy. A colony of 24 Emperor or King penguins were taken to the arctic many years ago to see if they could survive there – they did survive but they never bred. So i dont think they were happy at all!

  6. It was told to us by a bird lecturer Anna ? on a ship of Quark in the Antarctic the first time I went there – I remember she said that they took the 24 penquins to a remote island at the north of Norway and studied what would happen to them. they must all be dead by now anyway.

  7. Pingback: A close encounter with the penguins « The Fantastical Voyages of Flat Kathy

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