Since Ms Harold Custard’s arrival earlier this year, the Two Oceans Aquarium’s northern rockhopper penguin colony has grown to ten individuals. Eight of these rockhoppers are rescue cases, but two – Clax and Ms Custard – are hatchlings belonging to the penguin couple Grommet and Roxy.
On any given day, you can see these rockies either on their beach in the Penguin Exhibit, brought to you by Old Mutual Finance, or swimming in the I&J Children's Play Centre penguin pool, which can be viewed downstairs or upstairs next to the Touch Pool.
From Tuesdays to Sundays, we also offer the opportunity for a maximum of two people to sit and meet the rockies for about 30 minutes before the penguins make the march from their swimming pool back to their beach. These Penguin Experiences are more than just a chance to chill with the cutest birds on the planet. It’s also a learning experience that affords visitors one-on-one time with the rockies and our trained staff, who share information about and insight into the things that make these birds special, and the things that are threatening their survival.
Here are eight things you’ll learn during a Penguin Experience.
1. They’re one of several crested penguin species
That fabulous yellow “hair-do”? Not hair at all, but feathers. Northern rockhopper penguins belong to the genus Eudyptes, and all species within this genus are #blessed with outrageously great coiffure. All Eudyptes are black and white with yellow crests, red bills and eyes, and are found on Subantarctic islands in the world's southern oceans.
"Eudyptes" derives from the Greek and means "good diver". And that they are most certainly are.
2. They have that name for a reason
Not only are they excellent swimmers (as all penguins are), but due to their incredible jumping ability rockhoppers are recognised as “mountaineers” among penguins. During a Penguin Experience you’ll see first-hand how they got the name. The penguin pool has a range of rockwork at different levels onto which the rockies love to hop. That is, when they’re not hopping onto or off of your lap!
3. They’re smaller than you’d think
With such majestic poise, it’s easy to imagine that rockhopper penguins stand several feet tall. In fact, they only grow to about 50cm tall. That makes them the smallest of the crested penguins, shorter than their African penguin neighbours at the Aquarium, and the third-shortest penguin after the fairy and Galápagos penguins.
4. They are endangered
Rockhopper penguins are classified as Endangered by the IUCN owing to extremely fast population decreases over the last 30 years. The threats that are driving penguins to extinction are the same factors threatening all life on earth today. Changes in sea temperature (climate change), overfishing (and resultant competition for food), and accidental or illegal capture of these birds are all implicated in the decline of rockhopper populations. As such, they are a great flagship species to call on when talking about human-made environmental crises.
5. They’re far from home
Northern rockhopper penguins are found in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Their breeding range is restricted to only seven islands within this area. The majority of northern rockhopper penguins can be found on Gough Island and the Tristan da Cunha group of islands, which is more than 3 000km southwest of Cape Town.
The rockhopper penguins in this display were found stranded on southern Cape beaches and were rehabilitated by the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) before being donated to the Aquarium.
Our best guess 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.
6. They can’t be released
Unfortunately, these rockies cannot be released because of the risk of introducing diseases into wild populations.
7. They mate for life
According to a study done by the National Institute of Polar Research, rockhopper partners migrate independently and can be located on average between 600 and 2 500km apart during winter months, but reunite to breed at their shared nesting site every spring. The researchers said the rate of fidelity among rockhoppers is “very high” despite being so far apart for so long.
Rockhopper penguins live for up to 15 years in the wild, but they can live to more than twice that age in captivity. Teddy, for example, was brought to us in 1999 – that’s 18 years ago!
8. They cause quite a commotion
Rockhopper penguins love to vocalise, and owing to the fact that they are usually found in very large, densely populated colonies, these birds have evolved to be able to trumpet their calls loudly enough to be heard among the din of thousands of birds doing the same thing…
The other kind of commotion they cause is when they embark on their daily march through the Aquarium, back to the Penguin Exhibit from their swimming pool. This event causes great excitement among our visitors, who are asked to maintain a respectful distance while the rockies return to their beach.
Get close with a Penguin Experience next time you're at the Aquarium - R100 of the fee is donated to penguin-related conservation organisations.