Before my trip to South Africa, the only penguins I was familiar with were from the movie Penguins of Madagascar, except, these birds don’t exist in Madagascar, writes Winnie Rioba.
After paying the conservation fees at Table Mountain National Park, I quickly walk in. There is a boardwalk that stretches throughout the park with trees on either side of it creating the perfect backdrop for pictures. I have my first encounter only a few minutes later. My excitement is palpable…right in front of me is a real penguin casually waddling across the boardwalk! Before I can take it all in, I see dozens more. There are penguins everywhere, some in the surrounding bushes, and they all come to peer at us curiously before clumsily waddling back to the rest of the colony. They are so close that if I extend my hand over the fence, I can reach down and touch them.
There are several grass-lined burrows under the trees that serve as nesting grounds. Inside these, some penguins nest while others pass time by preening their feathers. They seem indifferent to our presence. I finally get to an elevated wooden platform with a fence that separates the boardwalk from the white sandy beach that the hosts the penguin colony. There are hundreds of them waddling on the beach, some swimming in the Atlantic Ocean and others jumping from rock to rock. No big deal! Other than the fact that they look outstanding in their “tuxedos”, a waddling penguin is probably the most endearing thing you will ever see.
While I get to see hundreds of penguins within the park, they are confined to a protected area where tourists are only allowed to take pictures and admire them from a distance. I can see some of them coupled up and separated from the crowd and I read that they usually have lifelong mates of whom they are very protective. It actually seems more like insecurity to me, but let’s just go with protective.
To swim with these adorable birds, head out to Boulders Beach which is right next door. Nothing prepared me for the magnificent landscape or how close I would be to the penguins. I watch them frolic in the sand and swim, sometimes intentionally tumbling with the waves. Boulder’s Beach is a slice of heaven but the royal blue water is extremely cold. I however brave the freezing temperatures to swim with these birds, and as I wade through the water, I decide to squeeze through the gaps in the boulders towards the more secluded parts with no tourists in sight to find dozens of penguins.
I try to get a little closer to a group with my GoPro camera for a close up selfie but one of the little fellows is not having it because it pecks my camera so hard that I almost drop it into the ocean. I notice that while these birds are friendly, they are very excitable and can be a little aggressive. There are warning signs that if you dare get too close, they will use their strong beaks to defend themselves if they feel threatened. You should swim with them while respecting their space.
My intention is to spend an hour swimming but I end up staying longer, playing about in the water with them while taking pictures. Luckily, I had packed some snacks and cold drinks so I have a solo mini picnic by the beach.
Tip: You will need sunscreen if you visit during the summer. The water is generally ice cold and a wetsuit is highly recommended, especially during the winter.
GENERAL FACTS ABOUT AFRICAN PENGUINS
- They are also known as “jackass penguins” since they sound like a braying donkey when they communicate. The first time you hear penguins calling to each other, you will be forgiven for wondering what donkeys are doing on a beach.
- The African penguin is the smallest compared to other species. They are on average about 65cm tall and weigh between 2 to 3.5 kg.
- Penguins have lifelong partners and the African penguin is no exception. You are bound to see some paired up away from the general colony.
- They have black spots and stripes on their chests and much like human fingerprints, each pattern is unique to each penguin.
- They survive on small fish and they are great swimmers. They can dive as deep as 130m and hold their breath underwater for 2.5 minutes.
- Penguins are flightless seabirds although they have flippers which are significant during swimming.
- African Penguins can live anywhere between 10 to 15 years although presently, most do not reach this life span as their population is decreasing.