From my vantage point on one of the wonky wooden benches furnishing the “Penguin Walk” in Simon’s Town, I look out over the tranquil turquoise waters of beautiful False Bay. I feel the warmth of the African sun as it begins to thaw out the chilly numbness that descended some months ago and release the last of winter’s icy clutches. While a definite coolness can still be felt in the fresh sea breeze, summer is returning to our golden continent. I close my eyes and allow my remaining senses to soak up the atmosphere… it is short-lived! The overpowering smell of penguin guano is the obvious frontrunner in sense-domination. The pungent smell greets you at the gate like an abrupt slap in the face; the tendrils of the stench teasing your gag reflex, making your eyes water and singeing your nose-hairs. Believe it or not, after a few minutes of bemused distraction you will have unwittingly become accustomed to the pong and as such allowed yourself to indulge in the other, more pleasant, sensations.
I gradually become aware of the fact that my surroundings are bustling with activity. A Cape grey mongoose (Galerella pulverulenta) scurries about in between the burrows, spraying sand in an artistic arc as it rootles around for unattended eggs. A Cape fur seal (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus) can be seen offshore playing with its food as it tosses an octopus high in the air while the deep thrup-thrup of an Oryx chopper is carried across the water as South African navy personnel are turfed into the sea as part of their manoeuvers. And then there are the penguins. The slap of their feet on the wet sand as they make their way down the beach; the profuse sneezing heard emanating from burrows in the coastal thickets, it sounds like a bout of seasonal hay-fever has descended on the colony. A cacophony of braying adults and squeaking chicks rise up and resonate off the walls of the mountainous amphitheatre, this is the Boulders Penguin Colony.
Boulders is a cluster of inlets nestled between the thickets of coastal Strandveld and the temperate waters of False Bay, a mosaic of substrates constituting the boundary where the mountain falls to the sea. Giant granite boulders shelter these tiny coves from the unforgiving south-easter, the prevailing summer wind well known for howling down the slopes of the Kogelberg and channelling across the bay transforming the tranquil, albeit sometimes choppy, waters into a raging “Hurricane Alley”. This moody environment is located in the naval village of Simon’s Town on the eastern shores of the Cape Peninsula, a gnarled finger of land pointing southward into the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and is home to the charismatic and African penguin (Spheniscus demersus). These birds are the only species of penguin to breed along the coast of Africa and are endemic to the Benguela Current Upwelling System, an ecosystem extending from southern Angola in the north to Algoa Bay in the east (Kemper 2006; Crawford et al. 2007).
Ranked as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, the global number of these penguins was drastically reduced from approximately 1.5 million in 1910 to as little at 150 000 by the end of the century (Kemper et al. 2007). This alarming decline was driven by the excessive harvesting of eggs and guano resulting in the species very nearly succumbing to extinction. The global population was recorded in 2009 at just over 25 000 breeding pairs located on four mainland and 25 island sites in both Namibia and South Africa (Kemper et al. 2007; Crawford et al. 2011). Seven of these island sites now support 80 % of the global African penguin population with seals having eliminated ten island colonies through predation and competition for shore space (Kemper et al. 2007; Branch et al. 2010). According to the 2012 stats from the Department of Environmental Affairs, 18 683 breeding pairs are what remain along the South African coast.
The more recent declines have been as a result of a combination of contributing factors including fluctuations in environmental conditions, reduction in prey biomass introduced through the heavy fishing pressure of commercial fisheries, increased competition for food with Cape fur seals and oil spills; the largest and most destructive being the 1994 and 2000 spills from MV Apollo Sea and MV Treasure (Crawford et al. 2007; Branch et al. 2010; Pichegru et al. 2012). In combination, these two disasters killed 30 000 penguins along our coast and drastically impacted the breeding success of surviving individuals (Crawford et al. 2006). In addition the eastward shift in their pelagic prey species, sardine (Sardinops sagax) and anchovy (Engraulis capensis), and the subsequent disparity in the distributions of prey and penguin breeding localities has been blamed for their latest decline (Crawford et al. 2006; Crawford et al. 2011). The survival and breeding success of the penguins are closely tied to the abundance and availability of these fishes within 20-30 km of their breeding sites (Pichegru et al. 2012).
The importance of prey availability in close proximity to breeding sites was emphasised in 2009 when a study (Pichegru et al.) was carried out at St Croix Island, the world’s largest African penguin colony, and Bird Island in Algoa Bay on the East Coast of South Africa. A small no-take zone was created in the waters surrounding St Croix Island by closing an area with a radius of 20 km to purse-seine fishing while allowing the practice to continue in the waters off Bird Island, 50 km away. The foraging behaviour of adults raising chicks was monitored at both sites before and after the closure revealing that within three months, the birds shifted their core foraging area to within the boundaries of protection. Pichegru et al. (2009) suggests that their results give significant credence to the notion that purse-seine fisheries negatively impact penguin foraging behaviour to such a degree that even relatively small no-take zones can be of an advantage to a struggling population.
The Boulders colony was established in 1982 with just two breeding pairs swelling to approximately 2 200 individuals by 2003. This increase is thought to be attributed to both immigration from nearby Dyer island and the reduction in pelagic trawling throughout False Bay, commercial purse-seine fishing was banned in the bay in the early 1980s (Hutchings 2000; Branch et al. 2010). Penguins are territorial “central-place foragers”, a behaviour where an animal continually returns to a central spot (most likely a nest) between foraging trips, and as such require a nearby food source as well as ample space on the correct terrain on which to nest (Crawford et al. 2011).
Although urban in nature and not as isolated from daily anthropogenic influences as island sites; the calm fishing waters and vegetation-protected sandy inlets of Boulders in theory should provide an ideal habitat for these penguins. The opposite however is true as a trend of slowed population growth over the past few years has been observed in this colony. In an attempt to restrict the inland spread of breeding penguins, a fence was erected along the inland boundary of the reserve in 1996 thus physically inhibiting the population growth of a then threatened species (Peterson et al. 2006). While commercial purse-seine netting is banned in False Bay; the target species have a patchy distribution and are highly migratory, moving outside of the protected bay waters and throughout the greater Benguela System. This, in conjunction with the fact that Boulders is located off the main migration route and therefore bypassed by sardine and anchovy heading to and from their Agulhas Bank spawning grounds, results in lower food availability within False Bay. This becomes apparent in the foraging dynamics observed during a 2006 study. The Boulders penguins exhibited a greater foraging effort, travelling further and foraging longer, than their island counterparts from the west coast (Peterson et al. 2006).
While the recovery of the African penguin population appears bleak at first glance, substantial conservation and rehabilitation efforts have been carried out and continue to be put into place in an effort to mitigate the negative effects of overfishing and habitat loss. The largest contributor to the safe-guarding of our penguins is the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds. Since its establishment in 1968 SANCCOB has successfully rehabilitated and released more than 90 000 penguins and coastal birds. A staggering statistic in itself but added to the fact that prior to its formation the fate of just about every oiled penguin was death, emphasising the substantial difference that this organisation is making to the preservation of our coastal avifauna (DeNapoli 2011). In an outstanding display of human compassion and dedication, the rehabilitation of 40 000 African penguins in the wake of the catastrophic 2000 MV Treasure oil spill remains the largest animal rescue event in history. Tens of thousands of concerned citizens volunteered over twelve weeks to capture, relocate, rehabilitate and release the affected birds; 91 % of which were successfully returned to the wild. As part of this colossal operation, a pre-emptive evacuation was carried out on Dassen Island to relocate adults in danger of oiling to Algoa Bay. These penguins then swam the
1 200 km return journey, within 21 days, to be greeted by the much improved and cleaner waters of their restored home range (Branch et al. 2010; DeNapoli 2011).
The ongoing monitoring of population trends in response to the impacts of fishing pressures and climate change, the establishment of marine protected areas and captive breeding populations, the maintenance of suitable breeding habitat, the elimination of feral cats on the island sites, the provision of artificial nests and the hand-rearing and release of abandoned chicks are some of the other conservation efforts taking place along our coasts (Crawford et al. 2006). If you would like to get involved and make a difference, SANCCOB run internships and volunteer programs tailored to both local and international helpers.
Explore. Dream. Discover.
If you come across a distressed coastal bird in the greater Cape Town area please contact SANCCOB on 021 557 6155 or after hours on 078 638 3731. You can also contact the SANParks office at Boulders on 021 786 2329.
The TMNP Boulders Penguin Colony is open in both summer and winter (Gate Times).
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KEMPER J, UNDERHILL LG, CRAWFORD RJM & KIRKMAN SP. 2007. Revision of the Conservation Status of Seabirds and Seals Breeding in the Benguela Ecosystem. In: KIRKMAN SP. (ed.) Final Report of the BCLME (Benguela Current Large Marine Ecosystem).
PETERSEN SL, RYAN PG & GREMILLET D. 2006. Is Food Availability Limiting African Penguins Spheniscus demersus at Boulders? A Comparison of Foraging Effort at Mainland and Island Colonies. Ibis 148: 14-26.
PICHEGRU L, RYAN PG, LE BOHEC C, VAN DER LINGEN CD, NAVARRO R, PETERSEN S, LEWIS S, VAN DER WESTHUIZEN J & GRÉMILLET D. 2009 Overlap Between Vulnerable Top Predators and Fisheries in the Benguela Upwelling System: Implications for Marine Protected Areas. Marine Ecology Progress Series 391: 199-208.
PICHEGRU L, GRÉMILLET D, CRAWFORD RJM & RYAN PG. 2012. Marine No-Take Zone Rapidly Benefits Endangered Penguin. Biology Letters 6(4): 498-501.
South African National Parks: Boulders Penguin Colony Information Leaflet.