Rockhopper penguins are the smallest of the crested penguin species. They live on rocky, inaccessible coasts.
Due to their incredible jumping ability, they are recognised as “mountaineers” among penguins.
Rockhoppers lay two eggs and protect them aggressively. Parents take turns to incubate the eggs, of which only one normally hatches. For up to 26 days after the chick has hatched, the male protects it while the female forages and brings food back for the chick.
Rockhopper penguins are widespread in the sub-Antarctic and live and breed on Tristan, Marion and Prince Edward Islands. These penguins are not normally seen in South African waters – the closest populations to Cape Town live at least 2 000km away!
The rockhopper penguins in this display were found stranded on southern Cape beaches and were rehabilitated by the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (Sanccob) before being donated to the Aquarium. They cannot be released because of the risk of introducing diseases into wild populations.
Our rockhopper penguins
Teddy arrived at the Aquarium in 1999. We think that he was kept on board a fishing vessel as his feet were wired together when he was found. As a result, he still limps and suffers from arthritis. When the penguins are moved between exhibits, someone either carries Teddy or he travels on a special penguin trolley to ease the pressure on his feet. Teddy has a small black beauty spot on the right-hand side of his belly and also has big, flat feet.
Wallace was found near Cape Agulhas in January 2000 and was relocated to the Aquarium in June of that year. Wallace loves swimming and is almost always the first one in and the last one out of the water. Wallace is a female and she and Teddy are a pair. She has small spots on her feet.
Grommet was found in Kleinbaai near Hermanus in February 2000 and joined the Aquarium in June of that year. Grommet always announces his arrival on the beach through loud calling. All the other penguins then join in and it sounds like a noisy penguin choir. Look out for the many large spots on Grommet’s feet.
Roxy arrived at the Aquarium in 2003. She is an inquisitive penguin and likes to explore new things. She has a large nick out of her right flipper. This nick was probably caused by a wire that was tied around her flipper when she was kept on board a fishing vessel. Roxy and Grommet are a pair. You will very rarely see them apart.
Bubbles was found near Cape Agulhas in January 2006. He was very small and skinny. He was transferred to the Aquarium after a month of tender loving care. He now maintains a healthy weight of between 2.5 and 3kg. Bubbles can be recognised by his long beak and scruffy crest feathers.
Nikki was found near Jeffrey’s Bay in 2004. He had no visible injuries and was in perfect health, but was moulting. Unfortunately he could not be returned to his natural environment in case he picked up a transmittable disease (such as avian malaria) that is found around our coast. Nikki has a small nick out of his left flipper.
Hopper was found near Tsitsikamma in December 2002. He had a torn ligament in his left foot. After an operation and it being braced for six weeks, the injury healed completely. The only evidence remaining of Hopper’s injury is a black scar on his foot and his peculiar foot-dragging way of walking.
On 7 October 2014, as we held our breath while the acrylic windows were installed in our new exhibit, a new breath of life joined our northern rockhopper penguin colony. The penguin chick was named Clax in honour of the company that manufactured and installed the windows. Clax is Roxy and Grommet's chick.
Rockhopper penguins occur on islands thousands of kilometres south of South Africa. How, then, did these small birds end-up stranded on our coast?
The best explanation is that the penguins were caught by fishermen on large fishing vessels and kept on board as pets, to use as food or to sell on dry laand. Having these birds in your possession, once you enter South African waters, is illegal. Worried about being fined, the fishermen sometimes toss the birds overboard. Passersby find the stranded birds and take them to Sanccob. Once the penguins have been rehabilitated and nursed back to health, they are integrated into the existing rockhopper penguin colony here at the Two Oceans Aquarium.
Nests, eggs, and chicks
Rockhopper penguins build nests of pebbles or twigs on very high, rocky hills.
A penguin couple may spend a whole month fighting and nest building before laying two eggs, of which only one will hatch. The male and female take turns incubating the eggs and eating.
When the chick hatches, the male stops eating, as it is his job to protect the chick from the cold and any enemies. The female brings food to the chick, but not to the male. When the chick leaves the nest, it will join a “crèche” of other chicks the same age.
At 10 weeks old the chicks are ready to be on their own and go to sea for food.
A suitable name
Rockhopper penguins are so named because they hop up and down steep slopes to go to their nests.
Penguins that are too young to have chicks hang around and get in the way at the rookery. They are called “hoodlums”.
Rockhopper penguins will attack humans who get too close.
Rockhopper colonies are often relatively small compared to other penguin species, but what they lack in size they make up for in noise. Fierce competition for nesting materials, mating partners, and territory all contribute to the cacophony of sound at these sites.
These birds also communicate by head shaking, head and flipper waving, bowing, gesturing and preening.
A special tongue
The rockhopper penguin has a special tongue. It has spines on its tongue and the top of its mouth, which keep food going in one direction, down the throat.
Standing height: 47 to 60cm
Weight: 2.4 to 4.2 kg
Breeding grounds: Sub-Antarctic Islands, from Heard and MacDonald Islands in the East to the Falkland Islands in the West, as well as islands in the southern Indian Ocean and the Atlantic.
Would you like to meet our rockhopper penguins up close? You can! Visit our Penguin Encounters page for more info.
Can hop up steep slopes
The roof of its mouth and tongue are covered in spines
Builds its nest from pebbles or twigs on high hills