Sunday, December 27

Boulders Bay Penguin Colony

Simon's Town is home to South Africa's main naval base. For almost two hundred years the British maintained an overseas base here before handing its facilities to the South African government in 1957. Incredibly, on the edge of this bustling naval town lies a thriving colony of African penguins (formerly known as Jackass Penguins, in honour of the loud donkey braying sound they make). The colony began with just two breeding pairs in 1982. Today more than 3000 birds can be found nesting in steep hills that surround Boulders Bay, a narrow inlet of elegant granite boulders and sheltered sandy beaches.

Garry and I visited the colony today, along with hundreds of others camera-ready tourists. Access to the penguins is restricted to a series of boardwalks that snakes along the coast and down to the beach. Any initial disappointment that we'd be kept well back from the birds were soon dispelled when we discovered pairs by the dozen nesting literally in the shadow of the boardwalk. The sight of penguins preening each other, waddling in simple courtship displays and splashing in the surf was simply magic.

These birds are a monogamous species, whose lifelong partners take turns to incubate their eggs and feed their young. We saw pair after pair nesting in shallow burrows and bowls. Their mutual devotion could be clearly seen. We later learnt that December is the best time to see these birds as its their moulting season. While moulting they don't feed and thus spent a disproportionate time on land. We saw several moulting pengiuns hovering around a popular rock pool where the rocky surface is idle for rubbing away the last of their thick dull winter coat.

The growth of the colony is in part a consequence of the demise of the local fishing industry. Fewer boats has resulted in an increased supply of pilchards and anchovy that form an important part of the birds' diet. This revived fish supply couldn't have come at more opportune moment. Of the 1.5 million African Penguin population estimated in 1910, barely 10% remained by 2000. The Boulder Bay colony is therefore a rare success story for a species still seriously at risk of extinction.

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