Penguins are flightless seabirds that live almost exclusively below the equator. Some penguins, like the African and Northern rockhopper, are found in warmer climates, although most – including emperor, adélie, chinstrap, and gentoo penguins – reside in and around Antarctica. The African penguin is the only species native to Africa and lives only in South Africa and Namibia. Boulders Beach in Simonstown is home to a colony of African penguins. Although there are 18 species of penguin which vary broadly in shape and size, all have black bodies and white bellies. No penguin species can fly, but their stiff flippers, webbed feet and sleek shape make them excellent swimmers. Unfortunately, roughly two-thirds of penguin species are listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List.
Fun facts about penguins
- African penguins mate for life. 80 – 90% of all African penguin couples will stay together for their entire lives.
- Penguins have nictitating membranes – third eyelids that keep the saltwater out of their eyes while swimming.
- The black spots on African penguins’ chests and bellies are unique to each individual, like freckles on humans.
- South Africa and Namibia are the only countries with wild African penguin colonies.
- African penguins used to be called jackass penguins because they make a braying sound like a donkey.
- Penguins can see ultraviolet light.
- Penguins never need to drink fresh water – they swallow seawater and sneeze out the excess salt.
- The Northern rockhopper penguin has spines on its tongue and the top of its mouth, which keeps the food going in one direction.
What is a penguin?There are 18 species of penguin which vary broadly in shape and size, although all have black bodies and white bellies. No penguin species can fly, but their stiff flippers, webbed feet, and sleek shapes make them excellent swimmers. Some species can reach speeds of 24 kilometres per hour. Penguins’ tightly packed, oily feathers are the perfect waterproof solution for swimming. They undergo an annual moult after the breeding season, during which all their feathers are replaced with new ones. On land, penguins stand upright and tend to waddle, hop, or run with their bodies sloping forward. Polar penguins can travel long distances by “tobogganing” or sliding across the ice on their bellies. Penguins are fiercely loyal and commonly have one partner for life – they even have special contact calls for their partners and chicks.
Habitats and LifestylesPenguins live in a variety of habitats. Arguably the most well-known are emperor penguins, which are found on the icy slopes of Antarctica, huddling together in the thousands to conserve warmth. African penguins are commonly found off the coasts of South Africa and Namibia. However, 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. Northern rockhopper penguins are found on rocky, inaccessible islands in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. They are renowned for their incredible jumping ability. All penguin species are carnivores, feeding on fishes, squid, crabs, krill, and other seafood.
ReproductionMost penguin species practice similar parental care. Many penguin couples lay two eggs, of which only one typically hatches. All penguin parents take turns incubating the eggs. After hatching, penguins regurgitate foraged food into their chicks’ mouths, allowing them to double in weight within a week. In most penguin species, the males protect their chicks while females forage for food. Other species alternate the duties of foraging and protection. Penguin chicks often huddle together in “crèches” while parents are foraging for food. From about two to three months old, the chicks’ downy feathers are replaced with juvenile plumage. At this point, the chicks are ready to fledge and are left to fend for themselves. African penguin juveniles typically spend a year away from their colony, after which they return to moult into their adult plumage. Once attaining adult plumage, penguins can breed, although they usually wait until they reach the age of four.
Shipwrecked?Rockhopper penguins occur on islands thousands of kilometres south of South Africa. However, they are often found stranded on our coastline. 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. Once you enter South African waters, having these birds in your possession is illegal. Worried about being fined, the fishermen sometimes toss the birds overboard. Passers-by find the stranded birds and take them to SANCCOB. Once the penguins have been rehabilitated and nursed to health, they are integrated into the existing rockhopper penguin colony here at the Two Oceans Aquarium.
Happy at homeOur African penguins are third-generation captive penguins, meaning that the whole colony was hatched and reared in captivity. Because they've never been exposed to the wild, they lack some vital survival behaviours - they won't be able to catch their own food, and their immune systems are different from wild birds. The chicks are released back into the wild by SANCCOB. It is currently illegal to release these captive-bred penguins into the wild in South Africa. Wild rockhopper penguin colonies are found in a range of locations, each with its own population genetics and microbiology. Some of our rockhoppers were stranded and rescued from around our coast. When they entered South African waters, they may have been exposed to parasites and diseases that aren't found in their colony, which could threaten the wild populations should they be released.
At their current rate of decline, African penguins will be functionally extinct in the wild within 20 years. Functional extinction occurs when there are such low numbers of penguins that genetic diversity and resilience are impossible, leading to the inability to rebuild the species. By 2035, some colonies which have thrived on the South African coastline for hundreds of years will be no more. African penguins are an indicator species, a sentinel of the health of our ocean ecosystems. The health of the penguin colonies is a direct reflection of the health of their habitat, which in today’s climate is rapidly declining. African penguins are a cornerstone of South African tourism, with the colony in Boulders Beach generating over R300 million in 2018 and benefitting 48 local businesses. Since 1979, when the first count of the major South African colonies was conducted, the breeding population has declined from ~55 200 to ~10 000 breeding pairs in 2022. Without immediate action, a future without African penguins in the wild is certain.