Unique: Swimming with penguins [Boulders Beach, Cape Town]

Text: Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

Sheltered from the winds by gigantic 540-million-year-old granite rocks, Boulders Beach is a local’s favourite for its low waves and slightly warmer water temperatures compared to the frigid yet popular Camps Bay and Clifton beaches in the heart of Cape Town. There is something more that attracts beach goers to this picturesque shoreline: it is the only place in the world where one can swim with South Africa’s most unexpected residents: jackass penguins!

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Don’t get it wrong, these birds are very well behaved (if so are you: if you get too close, they will bite you for good measure). They just happen to bray like donkeys, hence their name. If you want to get more formal, just refer to them as Spheniscus demersus.

This colony of penguins took its residency on Boulders Beach in 1982 when two pairs started breeding on the beach. As they tend to be more vulnerable on land, there are only two other land colonies along the South African and Namibian coasts where these penguins can be found. Another 22 colonies live on small islands in the same waters where they are less prone to caracal attacks. The colony thrived, and today, an estimated 2,200 individuals live around Boulders Beach where they are well protected from marine attacks of sharks or killer whales. The evolution over the past forty years sounds thrilling, but numbers are far from the millions of individuals that were found around the peninsula in the 1910’s. In only a few years, their numbers plummeted as the African Penguins suffered from commercial fishing, habitat destruction and marine pollution. If awareness has been raised and most of the colonies are protected, the latter is still a very concerning threat: back in 2000 an oil tanker sunk between Dassen Island and Robben Island off the Capetonian coast resulting in a terrible oil spill. Thanks to thousands of volunteers, 19,000 breeding birds that got oiled were cared for, while another 19,500 un-oiled birds were captured to be released near Port Elizabeth, allowing for the clean-up of their habitats just in time before the penguins made the 1-to-3-week long swim back covering more than 800 kilometres. Today however there are fewer than 19,000 breeding pairs left in Southern Africa making these endangered birds live at the verge of extinction.

So why swimming with them?

A 40-minute drive away from Cape Town, Boulders Beach where the African Penguins have taken their residency is declared a National Park. A freely accessible boardwalk allows you to observe the penguins from a distance. Your entrance fee into the small park allows you to observe them from up-close, and even to go to the beach where you have to share your patch of sand with them, while contributing to their protection and conservation.

Getting so close, one can observe their behaviour really well: the miserable-looking moulting penguin (read below), the tanning ones, the pairs grooming each other affectionately, the penguin going for a swim looking so clumsy on land, then floating for a short while like a duck and diving in and disappearing so fast like a fish! From the Foxy Beach boardwalk, it is common to see couples of penguins protecting their eggs by chasing away Kelp Gulls.

But, please…

… Please, don’t be that person though! It is magical to be able to get so close and to sometimes see a penguin swimming next to you with such grace, walking on the beach, or climbing up and hanging out on a boulder. Respect them, and respect a safe distance (for you to not get beaten, but mostly for them to not feel too pressurized by our presence), especially when close to nesting areas.

Some geeky penguin facts to love them even more!

  • African Penguins can’t fly but they surely can swim! They hunt in groups for squids, anchovies and sardines and can travel up to 80 kilometres away to fish while diving down 110 meters and reaching a speed of 19 kilometres per hour!
  • They can stay submerged for up to two minutes.
  • Penguins live up to 27 years old and breed in pairs, staying monogamous.
  • Both parents take turns to incubate their eggs and feed their young ones.
  • They nest in open burrows, between February and August, and start breeding when they are about 4 years old.
  • They can’t swim for the first 30 days and are very vulnerable then.
  • African Penguins only start to lose their baby feathers at age 2.
  • Every year, a penguin renews its feathers in order to remain waterproof: it is the moulting. During this time, often in December, they cannot hunt and hence cannot eat. This is why they feast as much as they can to get very fat before then fasting for 3 to 4 weeks while renewing their waterproofness.
  • The pink gland above their eyes helps them cope with changing temperatures. When the temperature gets hotter, the body of the African Penguin sends more blood to these glands to be air cooled, causing the gland to turn a darker shade of pink.
  • They adapt well to any temperature and are therefore often held in zoos all around the word. We are not fans of zoos, but the African Penguin breeds well in captivity and the young ones can be released in the wild. With the specie on the verge of extinction, zoos can be part of the solution.

Make sure to visit Boulders Beach on your next visit to Cape Town and make it to the beach to live an extraordinary experience, swimming with these fascinating animals and observing them on land. Stay at a respectable distance, leave not trace, take nothing but pictures and make nothing but memories!

Travel tips:

  • Boulders Beach is rather small, and especially at high tide. Mornings tend to be less busy.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

6 thoughts on “Unique: Swimming with penguins [Boulders Beach, Cape Town]

  1. What a totally cool experience. I can certainly confirm your first geeky fact. I had the privilege of snorkeling with penguins in the Galapagos (different species I’m sure). They were like torpedoes. I’ve never seen anything like that.

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