Over the weekend, M-Net's The Wild Ones: Aquarium: An Aquatic Life gave some airtime to a few of our most adorable black and white friends - African penguins and northern rockhopper penguins. We took some time out to talk to Two Oceans Aquarium Aquarist and Penguin Keeper Shanet Rutgers, revealing some of the quirks, challenges and joys of working with these little waddlers daily. 

“Working with penguins, you're going to be a chef, you're going to be a beautician, you're going to be a doctor. You can be anything you need to be when it comes to these birds.” – Shanet Rutgers

Two Oceans Aquarium Aquarist/Penguin Keeper Shanet Rutgers.

How did your passion for penguins begin?

Shanet: It started when I was a volunteer at the Aquarium. I volunteered for about eight years, and during this time I did all sorts of behind-the-scenes activities. One day I decided to help out with the penguins and once I had the chance to work with them my passion just grew.

All the birds have their own personality and they are all different in their own special way. They've all got different ways of walking, of braying - even the way they look at you and react when you approach them is quirky. Everything about each individual penguin is unique and you start to love them more once you get to know them.

You need to have lots of patience when you are working with a penguin or any animal. You also need to take things slow and realise that you have to do things on the animal's terms and take time to build their trust. It's a really rewarding experience once they are used to you, and you are then able to interact with them.

What's the best part of your workday?

Shanet: It must be walking the rockhopper penguins! This is when we walk the penguins from the Penguin Exhibit upstairs where they normally stay to the outside pool every morning*, which is where they can swim and exercise for about six or seven hours.

In the afternoon we get to walk them back, which is lovely because our visitors tend to join the waddle back up to their exhibit and the penguins really like this chance to entertain people and get up to mischief at this time too. 

The penguins wait expectantly - they know it's almost time to waddle.

*Sometimes referred to as the "old seal pool", this is visible through the window of the I&J Children's Play Centre. This is a temporary arrangement, and the penguins will be walked to the roof to swim in the Kelp Forest Exhibit once it reopens.

Have you ever lost a penguin during a waddle?

Shanet: I did. Haha... Yeah I did lose a penguin once, but it was just because he was naughty and hid behind the seal coin-machine on the ramp.

Penguins mate for life, any cute romances?

Teddy and Wallace

Shanet: Teddy is our oldest rockhopper penguin and when he had an eye operation we had to separate him from the other birds that were attacking him. During the healing process, we placed a small pen on the beach to isolate him - he could still see the other penguins, but it was covered to only allow a little light in. 

Somehow, and we still haven't figured it out, Wallace would always find her way into the enclosure in the evenings. The enclosure was only a few centimetres across, small enough for just one penguin, but she would squeeze her way in next to Teddy every night.

They might be the "old couple", but Teddy and Wallace sure know how to throw a noisy party! Photo by Devon Bowen/Two Oceans Aquarium.

Alex and Nikki

Shanet: Alex and Nikki are a rockhopper same-sex couple who are adorable together, always protecting each other even though one always tries to be dominant. We have tried to separate them in the past, enclosing one of the males with a single female, but they always found their way back to each other.

What is particularly cute about them is that because male rockhoppers are the ones who build the nests, they both build nests for each other when we put nesting material like lavender and reeds on the beach for them. They'll eventually merge their nests and steal material from all the other penguins to make their nest the biggest and tallest.

Alex and Nikki take the job of protecting their nest rather seriously. Photo by Devon Bowen/Two Oceans Aquarium.

Bubbles and Miss Harold Custard

Shanet: Bubbles is one of the bachelors and tends to follow the females around, but for some reason, he would never follow Miss Harold Custard around. Then one morning I came onto the beach and I was looking for Harold because normally she comes running when I greet the birds.

When we looked again we found that Harold was courting Bubbles in his nest. It's very cute, she's young, full of energy and wants attention so she's always flirting with him by moving her head from left to right in front of him, digging little holes for him to see. He enjoys letting her do all the hard work and most days he will just stand there watching, but he protects her so it's very cute.

Miss Harold Custard might be young, but she can be quite the flirt when she wants Bubbles' attention. Photo by Devon Bowen/Two Oceans Aquarium.

What is it like to care for a baby penguin?

Shanet: It's hard work. I don’t have kids of my own, but I feel like a baby penguin is as much work as a child. It's not just feeding them, but it's making sure that the medical care is there, that the chick is getting the right nutrition, weighing the chick regularly to track its growth, keeping the pens clean, washing towels - laundry is one of the biggest jobs in penguin keeping because every time you sit somewhere or touch something you would need to either wipe down or wipe your hands.

When Clax hatched, I helped to rear her from hatchling stages right here at the Aquarium, but Chippy and Harold were both reared by SANCCOB. They have an amazing and dedicated chick rearing team, so they are better equipped for this hard work!

Which species of penguin is more difficult to care for?

Shanet: The rockhopper penguins! They are much more interactive and they tend to imprint on humans a bit more, and because they need more one-on-one attention, they also learn how to play and manipulate you. 

For example, Alex and Grommet don't like to leave the beach in the mornings for their walk so they will try to hide between the trees when they hear us coming, whereas the other birds will race to the gate to leave the exhibit, so I'll reward the other penguins by feeding them when they come off the beach, but not Alex and Grommet. They will then get their meal later in the morning. These two are like grumpy humans that don’t like getting up in the morning. 

The penguins really do their best to give their keepers the run-around.

Other than their looks, what are the differences you see?

Shanet:​ Rockhopper penguins are much friendlier because they are a small colony. They all get our undivided attention at the Aquarium and will often come right up to a human. But this is natural, because in the wild there are no people or predators that live on the islands that they inhabit, so they don't have a fear instinct on land, just curiosity.

African penguins are much more territorial and can seem to be quite aggressive. They are not as interactive, and this is likely also as a result of their heritage. They inhabited tightly packed colonies where territory was scarce. In the past their numbers also dwindled because of oil spills and poaching of their eggs, so the ones that survived might have been those with a wariness of humans.

 

Although African penguins seem more aggressive, they are gentler than the rockhoppers when it comes to interactions with hatchlings and caring for their own young. They also have a hook at the end of their beak, which the rockhoppers don't have, which means that when they bite they can pull the skin open. Rockhoppers tend to bite and twist which just gives you a big bruise.

Why are the penguins at the Aquarium not released?

Shanet: Our African penguins are third generation captive penguins, which means that the whole colony was hatched and reared in captivity. None of them came from the wild and because they've never been exposed to the wild, they lack some of the behaviours which would allow them to survive - they won't be able to catch their own food and their immune systems are different from wild birds. It is also currently illegal to release these captive bred penguins or any of their young into the wild in South Africa.

Wild rockhopper penguin colonies are found in a large range of locations, each with its own population genetics and microbiology. Some of our rockies are stranded penguins that were rescued from around our coast. When they entered South African waters they may have been exposed to parasites and diseases that are not found at their colony. So, even if we knew exactly from which colony they came it would be dangerous for the other wild rockhoppers if we released them.  

What threats face African penguins in the wild?

Shanet: There are quite a lot of threats facing African penguins, notably overfishing of the fish species that they depend on for food, and pollution of the ocean. Both of these factors are affecting their natural feeding grounds and they are expected to go extinct in the wild within a few years if we don't change the situation.

Plastic pollution is a major concern, jagged bits of floating plastic waste might look like food or bits of nesting material to a penguin. These bits can cause internal injuries which may cause the penguin to die of starvation or infection. Not only are the penguins harmed, but the species they depend on for food are also harmed by the plastic.

Humans eat many of the same food penguins do - anchovies, pilchards/sardines and squid. And because sardines have been downgraded to "orange" on the WWF SASSI list, we need to make more sustainable choices when it comes to seafood. 

Photo by Guy Shorrock (who managed to save this penguin - check out his story).

What can the public do to help African penguins?

Shanet: The only way to save penguins in the wild is to save their environment and make sustainable choices. Instead of taking a plastic straw every time to eat out, why not buy a reusable metal or bamboo straw? Why not take a reusable bag when you go shopping? Try to eat less meat - try to have a "meat-free Monday". Only eat sustainable seafood. It's about making good lifestyle changes and choices.

Using the WWF SASSI app is an easy way to ensure you always pick sustainable seafood.

Lastly, any penguin secrets you want to reveal?

Shanet: Penguins all think they can fly. You can often catch them running around flapping their flippers on the beach as if they are going to take off. It's really funny to see.

Thanks for your time and insight Shanet and sharing some of the passion and experiences needed to take care of these adorable birds!

If you'd like to see more of the ocean's wonders, tune in to The Wild Ones: Aquarium: An Aquatic Life on Sundays, 4pm on M-Net. And don't forget to #AskAnAquarist!

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