On a cold Monday morning a tiny, fuzzy and tired bundle of love arrived at Cape Town International Airport - a juvenile rockhopper penguin that washed up on the Eastern Cape coast had landed, and was soon to be introduced to its new forever-home at the Two Oceans Aquarium.

This young rockhopper was found by members of the public near East London and underwent initial rehabilitation at the East London Aquarium. Once stabilised, the Two Oceans Aquarium, East London Aquarium and SANCCOB teamed up to get the needed permits to transport this young bird to Cape Town so that it could find a home in the rockhopper penguin colony at the Two Oceans Aquarium.

It finally made this journey on 28 June 2019, and the very excited duo of Penguin Keeper Shanet Rutgers and Penguin Husbandry Intern Martine Viljoen made their way to the airport to collect this precious cargo.

With the young rockhopper collected, the pair transported it to SANCCOB. SANCCOB and the Two Oceans Aquarium have a long history of working together, and their help is always indispensable when it comes to caring for new arrivals at the Aquarium and here, SANCCOB's excellent team of veterinary staff an volunteers took it upon themselves to fatten up this malnourished little bird, and give it a full panel of health screenings.

The young rockhopper spent a month in SANCCOB's Intensive Care Unit where a bone infection was identified in both of the penguin's feet. Luckily, treatment was able to begin early and despite having a really odd gait, this rocky is now in excellent health. 

Excitedly, Shanet and Martine returned to SANCCOB to collect their new "child" and bring it safely to the Aquarium to introduce it to its new penguin (and human) family!

The young rocky needed a name - and we left it to members of the public and our staff to select one. More than 180 suggestions were put forward, and a clear favourite emerged - meet "EL" (short for East London, and a nod to all the Stranger Things fans that voted)!

Young EL is still nervously getting to know the other penguins, although spirits are high and we have no doubt that this bird will soon be the most popular youngster on the beach. EL is already making friends with her new human family, and uses every opportunity to run off and explore the Aquarium (although we can always lure her back with some delicious squid).

We'll be releasing new "Rockhopper Tales" updates regularly - so be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel to see EL's first swim, the friends EL makes and the penguin mischief EL gets up to!

Why is EL here? Why wasn't EL released?

Northern rockhopper penguins are native to several sub-Antarctic islands thousands of kilometres from the South African mainland, and it is unlikely that a penguin this young, still with part of its chick "fluff" and not fully coated in waterproof feathers, could have survived the swim. What is more likely, is that this penguin was poached by fishermen nearer to its colony and kept on the boat as entertainment, then thrown overboard when the boat neared South African waters to avoid being fined by the authorities.

A northern rockhopper penguin in its natural habitat on Inaccessible Island, near Tristan da Cunha. Although remote, the waters around these islands boast large fisheries, particularly rock lobster. Credit: Brian Gratwicke (CC BY 2.0)

It is difficult to prove that poaching and unethical fishermen are responsible for the stranding of these rockhopper penguins, but we do know for a fact that some of them have been in the hands of poachers. For example, Teddy the golden oldie of our rockhoppers was rescued with his feet tightly bound together by wire. Could EL's foot injuries also be the result of being bound up? We'll never know.

Veteran penguin Teddy still undergoes regular treatments for foot injuries he received when bound by poachers decades ago. Credit: Shanet Rutgers.

The nearest northern rockhopper penguin colonies to the Cape are those on Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island - both more than 2 500km away. But, this distance is not the reason this young penguin cannot be returned home. We cannot be certain which colony she is from, so releasing her into the wild means we could potentially contaminate the gene pool of the wild colonies. It could also mean that pathogens not found around these islands, but which are present in South Africa's coastal waters could be introduced, further endangering the wild penguins. This, unfortunately, is the fate of all sub-Antarctic penguins that reach the South African coast.

However, EL can still have a fulfilling life here at the Two Oceans Aquarium, where she is able to live amongst the largest colony of northern rockhopper penguins in South Africa, be cared for by our team of professionals, loved by thousands of visitors and help contribute to veterinary and biological research.

Most importantly, EL can now be an ambassador for the ocean - we hope this story makes you fall in love with the seas and the life they contain just a little bit more.

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