The African Penguin is endemic to southern Africa.  The annual African Penguin Awareness Day, which this year took place on 10 October, celebrates this iconic bird and draws attention to the ongoing and rapid decline of this endangered species.

In acknowledgement of this campaign to raise awareness as well as funds for the conservation of the African Penguin, this week I share photographs taken in the Western Cape, when my husband and I visited the Boulders Penguin Colony in Simons Town (2007) and the second mainland coastal colony at Stony Point in Betty’s Bay (2015). These are the only two mainland breeding colonies in South Africa, with all other breeding colonies being on offshore islands, with other breeding colonies existing in Namibia.

Our first sighting of African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) at the Boulders Penguin Colony was of this small group of penguins making their determined way across the sandy beach. More agile in the water than on the land, the penguins hold their wings out sideways to help them maintain their very erect posture as they stride out with a waddling motion on their short legs.

Taking a longer view, it is obvious why this area is known as Boulders Bay. The massive rocks dwarf a small group of penguins who are taking a break from going out fishing in the ocean.

African penguins’ main prey includes sardines, anchovies, bearded goby and round herring. Where fish stocks are depleted they may supplement their diet with squid and other crustaceans. Declining fish stocks due to overfishing is one of the main factors in the ongoing decline in the population of the African penguin. Fish stocks and fish movements are also impacted by shifts in sea temperatures and other effects of climate change.

Oil spillages are another significant contributor to the decline in the African penguin population. Because of the concentrated distribution of breeding colonies, a spillage can affect a large proportion of a population incurring high mortality rates and impaired breeding success for survivors. Some individual oil spills have resulted in the deaths of thousands of birds, despite the successful rescue of many in rehabilitation programmes.

Organisations such as the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) rescues, rehabilitates and releases penguins and a variety of other seabirds that have been oiled, are ill or have been injured, and young chicks abandoned by parent birds. Of the seabirds admitted for care each year, 50% are African penguins.

After crossing the beach at the Boulders penguin colony, we followed the path leading to a boardwalk that leads to the main nesting area. On the way we saw this parent and youngster in a nest against a rock close to the path. African penguins form monogamous pairs for life, and both parents share in incubating their eggs and in caring for and feeding the young,

This pair of youngsters rest in the nest in the shade of trees growing between the boardwalk and the shore.  African penguins lay one or two eggs per clutch. The babies are brooded for the first 15 days after which the youngsters can better regulate their own body temperature.

The boardwalk at Boulders Penguin Colony leads to a viewing platform overlooking the nesting sites on the beach. Our visit did not coincide with the peak breeding season, but nevertheless there were several nests in use on the sandy beach. The nests are burrows in the sandy ground lined with sticks, bits of vegetation and other material gathered by the parent birds.

Historically penguins, breeding on rocky shorelines and islands, made their nests by burrowing into rich guano deposits. However, guano collection in the early 20th century removed these deposits, forcing the birds to nest in open ground, making their young vulnerable to both heat and rain and to increased predation.

Also in the first half of the 20th century and through to the 1970s, human disturbance and egg-collecting had a severe impact on penguin populations. Millions of penguin eggs were collected over these decades. Egg collecting is now illegal but habitat destruction and coastal development continue to take their toll on the survival of many coastal species, including African penguins, as do other forms of disturbance from humans, which may include inappropriate tourism activities.

Once old enough to be left alone while their parents go foraging for food in the ocean, young penguins may band together in informal crèches. These youngsters still have their downy coats.

A parent bird sits in the nest, back to the sun, to provide shade to the two youngsters. At some nesting colonies, conservationists provide artificial shelters as nests in an effort to improve breeding success for the endangered African penguins. For more on the provision of such shelters see

This adult penguin is trudging back from the shoreline to the nesting sites. It is possible that after foraging in the ocean it is returning to regurgitate food for its young at the nest. The young become independent of this level of parental care when they are about three months old.

As they develop, young African penguins undergo their first moult after about 14 days, and a second moult at 40–60 days, developing their juvenile plumage when they are 70–80 days old. Once fully fledged after 70–90 days, juveniles venture out to sea on their own. They return to the location of their birth colony after 12–22 months away. After their return they moult into their adult plumage.

Adult birds undergo an annual moult. During the weeks preceding the moult they fatten up increasing their body weight by at least 30%. They will draw on their fat reserves during the moulting period when they are unable to go out to forage for about 18 days, during which time their body weight decreases by about 40%. Once their plumage is restored they head back out to sea to feed and build up their fat reserves ahead of the breeding season. For more on this annual moult see

Above is a fully fledged juvenile African penguin, photographed while it rests among other penguins on a slipway at Stony Point at Betty’s Bay. African penguins have the potential to live as long as 27 years.

African penguins are also known as Cape penguins. They were formerly called jackass penguins, being so named for their braying donkey-like call.

This juvenile is maturing enough to develop the pink glands above the eyes that help it regulate its temperature in the heat. More blood flows to these cooling glands when the animal is hot.

African penguins have well-developed mechanisms for surviving on land where they breed and moult, but they are at their best in the water. Outside of the breeding season they can remain out in the ocean for four months at a time. During the breeding season they remain close to the location of the colony, with foraging expeditions confined to within 20 to 40 km, although with fish stocks depleted or relocating increasingly they are forced to travel further to find food.

African penguins are flightless birds with their wings adapted to function as flippers to propel them through the water. When foraging they dive to an average of 25 m (82 ft) although diving to a depth of 130 m (430 m) has been recorded.  African penguins can hold their breath for 2.5 minutes and when diving can reach speeds of 8 km/hr. When travelling at speed using a porpoising technique they can swim up to 19km/h.

This African penguin is wading much like a human would do, as it walks out of the sea onto the sandy beach at Boulders Bay.

Exiting the sea at Stony Point at Betty’s Bay can be more complicated, requiring negotiating the rocky shoreline.

After labouring over the rocks the penguin has now found a firm footing.

This is a view of part of the shoreline at Stony Point. Numbers of penguins at this colony have been increasing slightly, though at all other breeding sites populations are declining. It is thought that the increase in numbers at Stony Point might partly be in response to the movement of fish populations. Movements in fish populations in response to changing sea temperatures has resulted in African penguins having to travel substantially further when foraging to feed their chicks.

The rapid destruction over the last century of the African penguin population is truly shocking. In 1910 there were estimated to be over 1 million breeding pairs of African penguins, now there are fewer than 20 000 breeding pairs left.

BirdLife International reports that “the population in Namibia declined from 12,162 pairs in 1978 to an estimated 5,800 pairs in 2015”. And in South Africa the population “declined from c.70,000 pairs in 1978/1979 … to 19,300 pairs in 2015. Decreases in both countries amount to > 50% in three generations”.

Taken at Stony Point breeding colony, I thought that this photo clearly shows the bond between parent and chick. African penguins must rank among the hardest working of all parents when it comes to sustaining and caring for their young.

These are some of the organisations undertaking the rescue and rehabilitation of African penguins and other seabirds, as well other projects directed at the conservation of African penguins:

Dyer Island Conservation Trust.  African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary.

Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB).

South African Marine Rehabilitation and Education Centre (SAMREC).


BirdLife International. 2020. Species factsheet: African Penguin Spheniscus demersus.

Cape Nature. 2020. African Penguin Awareness Day 2020.

Seiphetlho, Ntefeleng Lesego.  2014. African Penguin. South African Biodiversity Institute (SANBI).

Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB). 2020.  African Penguin Awareness Day.

South African Marine Rehabilitation and Education Centre (SAMREC). Why the African penguin?

South African National Parks (SANParks).  Table Mountain National Park. Boulders Penguin Colony.

Posted by Carol