African penguins are endemic to the coastlines of South Africa and Namibia. They commonly breed on islands, but South Africa is home to two land-based colonies: one on Boulders Beach near Simonstown and the other on Stony Point near Betty’s Bay. Male and female African penguins look nearly identical, and it is very difficult to tell the gender of a penguin without doing a genetic test. This species is currently regarded as vulnerable to extinction. Oil spills are a major threat to their survival. In the 1800s to 1900s, the killing of penguins and the collection of their eggs for food had devastating effects on the population. For example, in the early 1930s, some 13 million eggs were collected off Dassen Island alone!
Oil spills can kill
All birds have waterproof feathers, but on penguins, these feathers are short, broad and tightly spaced to keep water away from their skin. Tufts of down feathers on the feather shafts help to insulate the penguin’s body against the cold. See how the water runs naturally off our penguins when they leave the pool.
When penguins in the wild are covered in oil from an oil spill, their feathers are no longer waterproof. They can’t swim anymore because they get too cold. This means they can’t hunt for food and so they and their chicks die of starvation.
In the year 2000, a ship carrying iron ore, the MV Treasure, sank off Melkbosstrand on the West Coast. Thousands of litres of oil spilt into the ocean and threatened the lives of African penguins living on Robben and Dassen Islands near Cape Town.
Interesting facts from the MV Treasure oil spill in 2000
- 18 516 oiled penguins were rescued by SANCOBB (Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) from Robben Island and Dassen Island
- 3 350 penguin chicks were rescued and reared by people
- Due to a mammoth effort, only about 1 957 oiled penguins died
- To protect them from the oil, 19 506 un-oiled penguins were captured and taken further up the South African coast. These penguins swam over 778km back to Robben Island, including the now famous penguins – Peter, Pamela and Percy – who were fitted with satellite transmitters by the Avian Demography Unit (ADU) at the University of Cape Town. Their trip was mapped on the ADU’s website and followed by admirers from around the world
Some African penguins displayed in the Penguin Exhibit are third-generation captive-bred birds from the World of Birds in Hout Bay. Others are rescued birds that were donated to the Aquarium by uShaka Marine World in Durban.
African penguins lay two eggs at a time. Both parents take turns to incubate the eggs and feed the chicks.
It takes between 38 and 42 days for the eggs to hatch.
Newly-hatched chicks are blind and completely helpless. For the first 30 days of the chicks’ lives, the penguin parents protect and feed them around the clock.
The parents regurgitate fat- and nutrient-rich food for the chicks. This helps them to grow quickly and even double their weight within a week.
When the parent birds go to sea to hunt for food, the chicks will huddle together in crèches, waiting on their return.
Blues or juvenile
From about two to three months old, the chicks’ downy feathers are replaced with the blue-grey plumage of the juveniles.
After the chicks have moulted into their juvenile colours they are ready to fledge and the parents leave them to fend for themselves. The juveniles go out to sea and can spend a year away from the colony. Once ready, they return to moult into their adult plumage.