From 11 June to 11 July 2010, South Africa was being watched by the world – the FIFA World Cup, the largest sporting event on the globe, was being hosted right here in Africa for the very first time. But another, smaller (and cuter) African miracle was also taking place...

When reigning champions Italy were humiliated by underdog Slovakia and sent home on the “darkest day of Italian football”, two African penguins at the Two Oceans Aquarium worked day and night to look after their little egg.

When Ghana defeated the United States and became the only African side to enter the quarterfinals, little Alan sat and cared for her egg, hoping to hear a tiny heartbeat.

When Andrés Iniesta scored the final goal of the tournament, and Spain became the 2010 world champions, black-footed Neptune built up his own strength so that he could keep vigil and guard his egg.

Then, on 25 July 2010, two weeks after the last vuvuzela echoed across Soccer City, a tiny penguin hatched and took his first breath at the Two Oceans Aquarium. Ayoba had arrived.

Image courtesy of Martine VIljoen.

We thought it would be ideal to give him the name “Ayoba”. His name is a South African slang word, an expression of approval or appreciation of good dancing. Today, it also means cool, sweet, agreed, OK, alright!

A penguin with personality

Ayoba is a handsome male penguin that is very affectionate and enjoys being the centre of attention. He can be a very inquisitive penguin, always keeping staff guessing as to what his next move is going to be. He is quiet, but curious, and loves taking walks around the Aquarium, shadowing staff and meeting new people and animals. 

It is easy to recognise Ayoba amongst the other African penguins - he has a dark stripe across his neck, a feature very unusual in African penguins, but common in closely related Magallenic penguins. African penguins typically only have the one dark chest-stripe, curving up from one foot, under their neck and then down to their other foot.

Ayoba ponders the meaning of life and lunch. Source: @awesomeamina1\Instagram

He also has a stubborn streak, and visibly sulks if he doesn’t get his way. He readily rewards staff with attention and cuddles, calmly keeping them company if he approves of their behaviour. He certainly has our aquarists well trained! 

“Nothing brightens your day like seeing that little handsome guy running over and giving you that coy sideways glance of his, asking you to come over for a cuddle,” says Two Oceans Aquarium Volunteer Catherine Barley. “It’s impossible to resist saying hello to him.”

Ayoba loves to make himself at home in any part of the Aquarium he can escape to. This is the waddle of a penguin who thinks he owns the corridor.

Penguin of the people

Ayoba hasn’t picked a mate yet, but he is very friendly and gets along well with all the other African penguins. When he hatched in 2010, we thought we would finally have a partner for Zuki, our single female African penguin ambassador. Sadly, Ayoba missed out when a “fly” young penguin called Nonu joined the Aquarium and immediately caught Zuki’s eye.

Ayoba has his own little corner of the Penguin Exhibit, brought to you by Old Mutual Finance, that he protects, only allowing one other penguin, Annuli, to enter. Annuli is a very young male penguin who constantly follows Ayoba around, but there are days when Ayoba is feeling grumpy and even Annuli gets chased away from his corner.

When is a penguin not a penguin? When he's a little hoarse. This display song is Ayoba's way of trying to attract a mate to his corner of the beach. Video by Katie Zenz.

“He loves one-on-one sessions with the humans, but he is naughty,” says Two Oceans Aquarium Aquarist II and resident penguin caregiver Shanet Rutgers. “There is one place in the exhibit that he loves going to, where he can take shelter in a small cave. It is challenging for humans to get into the cave but quite easy for penguins to fit into it. He does it because he knows he’ll have our full attention.”

Image courtesy of Katie Zenz.

“Even though these are two completely different species from two different continents, the northern rockhopper and African penguin, they treat each other exactly the same as they would treat one of their kind. Let us learn from them... love, embrace and respect all the differences of all others!” – Katie Zenz, Two Oceans Aquarium Intern

Sometimes Ayoba’s misbehaviour gets him into trouble and he gets himself into a scuffle with the other African penguins. When this happens, we take him from the African penguin beach and put him in a pen on the northern rockhopper penguins’ beach so that he can mellow out a bit.

When Ayoba misbehaves, he is sent to "Marion Island" to live with the rockhoppers. Have you seen a penguin sulking before?

But, being the charismatic penguin that he is, Ayoba has quickly befriended the rockhoppers too. He has no problem waddling along with them, something quite unusual for an African penguin to do.

Ayoba waddles along with his new rockhopper friends after being evicted from the African penguin beach for misbehaviour. Video by Martine Viljoen.

Life as a penguin ambassador

During Ayoba’s first few months being raised at both the Two Oceans Aquarium and at the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), it became clear that he was different. Whereas other penguins can become aggressive towards humans as they grow up, Ayoba’s inquisitiveness and friendly personality never went away.

Ayoba gets a fish cake for his first birthday, after returning to the Aquarium from SANCCOB.

In fact, it was when he started escaping from the Penguin Exhibit during the morning cleanups and following our staff into the Aquarium’s corridors, offices and hearts, that we realised he would be the perfect ambassador for his critically endangered species.

“Ayoba is a very adorable little penguin,” says Two Oceans Aquarium Intern Katie Zenz. “You can always find him striking a pose at the edge of the beach, or courting one of our visitors or aquarists. His soft coat and cute little walk makes him so loveable. The thought of this handsome boy will always make me smile.”

Ayoba, and his hijinks, have made a lasting impression on our staff and volunteers who have been fortunate enough to work with him.

Ayoba has been at the forefront of his colony for the past several years – if you stop to take a photo at the Penguin Exhibit and see a penguin posing for the photo, it is likely Ayoba. When it is feeding time, the penguin that puts on the best show for the children watching is Ayoba. And for all the volunteers that pass through the Aquarium, Ayoba is one of the animals that makes the greatest impact.

Ayoba and his colony are ambassadors for their species, giving the public a chance to interact with them and fall in love, without disturbing a natural colony. This clip is from Ayoba's 3rd birthday party (and also a little reminder that Ayoba is all about the bachelor lifestyle).

In October 2010, the government began compiling a biodiversity management plan, with the goal of establishing an enforceable act for the management and conservation of African penguins in their natural environment.

One aspect of this was to understand the reproductive biology of the species, and to establish techniques for collection and cryopreservation of their sperm in order to have a reserve allowing for the in vitro fertilisation of wild penguins in the future, if necessary.

Through his ambassadorial charm, Ayoba convinced spermatology researcher Siya Mafunda to take part in the Penguin Promises Waddle for a Week in 2017.

Under the leadership of PhD candidate Siyambulela Mafunda, our little Ayoba became the first African penguin to ever donate sperm. He has played a major role in the establishment of this project, and in conserving the gene pool of his species.

Every person that Ayoba can inspire to donate to African penguin conservation, or simply to think responsibly about the fish that they eat or the plastic waste they create, is a win for his species. Thank you, Ayoba.

Help Ayoba save his friends

You don’t need to be a penguin to be ayoba. With fewer than 30 000 breeding pairs of African penguins left in the wild, it is crucial that we all do our part to save these bundles of joy. Here are a few things you can do:

  • Support SANCCOB or the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary (APSS) – amazing organisations doing great work to save our wild penguins.
  • Have a Penguin Experience at the Two Oceans Aquarium, and part of your fee will go towards conservation.
  • Make a Penguin Promise to live a lifestyle that minimises your impact on the ocean. Here are a few simple examples of things you can do:
    • Use energy-efficient light bulbs
    • Separate household garbage for easy recycling
    • Use water-saving showerheads
    • Buy local rather than carbon-heavy imported goods
    • Say “no” to plastic drinking straws
    • Eat less meat
    • Do not litter, and to pick up litter where you see it
    • Eat only sustainable seafood (by adhering to the colour-coded SASSI consumer guide)
    • Ban single-use plastic from your home
blog comments powered by Disqus