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Northern rockhopper penguin

Northern rockhopper penguin

Rockhopper penguins are the smallest of the crested penguin species. They live on rocky, inaccessible coasts in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. They are renowned for their incredible jumping ability. Rockhoppers lay two eggs and protect them aggressively. Parents take turns incubating 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 back food for the chick. The rockhopper penguins in the aquarium were found stranded on southern Cape beaches and rehabilitated by the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCOB) before being donated to the aquarium. Unfortunately, they cannot be released because of the risk of introducing diseases into wild populations.

Our rockhopper penguins

Shipwrecked penguins?

Rockhopper penguins occur on islands thousands of kilometres south of South Africa. How 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 land. 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.

Noisy birds

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 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: Northern rockhopper penguins breed on only seven islands in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Most of the population occurs on Gough Island and the Tristan da Cunha group of islands. 

Conservation Status: Endangered

Penguin Encounters

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