South Africans famously recognise the penguins of Boulders Beach - but did you know that is a new colony and not the original home of the African penguin? Today there are only 28 African penguin colonies, let's take a closer look:

Ancient island homes

African penguins are native to the small islands dotted around the southern African coast. In the past, these islands offered safety and ample nesting material in the form of guano deposits that had built up over thousands of years.

The African penguin colony of Dassen Island as seen by the naturalists of the Valhalla when visiting the island in 1908 - more than a million penguins called the island home.

Unfortunately, the overfishing of the waters around these islands, and the mining of the guano on the islands, have made them largely unsuitable as ideal habitats for penguins. 100 years ago, it was possible to find over a million penguins at Dassen Island. That's just one colony! Today, there are fewer than 20 000 African penguin pairs left in total.

The far more deserted Dassen Island that we see today. Credit: Lighthouses.co.za

Migrating youngsters

The locations of extant African penguin colonies. Credit: Sherley et al. (2020)

African penguins have always shifted their colonies back and forth to an extend. Young, single penguins swim hundreds of kilometres from their homes and may settle at other colonies - or start new ones. But this is a slow process. When the West Coast sardines were severely overfished in the 60s and 70s, young penguins moved north and south to start new colonies at Dyer Island near Gansbaai, and on Namibia's Ichaboe and Mercury Islands, where they adapted to new food sources in the form of anchovies and bearded gobies.

Again in the late 1970s, thousands of penguins abandoned their nests at Dyer Island when anchovies became overfished. They went on to start three completely new colonies at Robben Island, Stony Point and Boulders Beach (which all had abundant fish at the time).

Although this survival strategy worked well for penguins in the past, each mass migration shrank the penguin population. And in addition to this, the rapid pace of environmental change caused by human activities is something that the penguins are not equipped to cope with.

Boulders Beach may seem like an ideal penguin habitat - but it's actually just the final attempt at survival for a species that has been displaced from its true home. Credit: leyla.a [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Colonies in decline

Today, the populations of the three new colonies are again in decline due to overfishing. This time however,  there is no fertile fishing ground left for the penguins to flee to. Penguins are tough, they have survived poaching, oil spills, bird flu and displacement - but now their only hope of survival is human intervention. Fortunately, researchers are working on exciting plans to start new penguin colonies, and you can support the amazing work SANCCOB does in rescuing and rehabilitating these endangered seabirds.

Follow the March of the penguin:

If you missed the QR code tour during your Two Oceans Aquarium visit and would like to catch up on the extra penguin information that was shared, you can do so here: