‘African penguins’ sounds like an oxymoron — the hottest continent on Earth paired with the flightless birds most commonly associated with Antarctica, the world’s coldest.
The frigid waters of Boulders Beach – just a stone’s throw from Cape Town, in Simon’s Town, South Africa – clearly didn’t get the ‘hottest continent’ memo, since each gently lapping wave is freezing me right down to my marrow.
Knee-deep in the sea, I imagine my bone-china fibulas and tibias shattering should I accidentally bang my shin on one of these enormous, ancient granite boulders that protrude like monstrous molars from the gum line of sand and sea.
OK, maybe I’m being a little dramatic, but nobody else is foolish enough to join me in the water at this time of year. It’s one thing to see penguins on land, but I want to swim with them. Other visitors seem content to shiver on the picturesque, powder-white beach under the setting sun, as I wade around in search of the elusive flightless birds whose shadows zip beneath the water’s surface, just on the periphery of my vision, before disappearing entirely.
African penguins, sometimes known as jackass penguins due to their bizarre, donkey-like, braying bird calls, have declined in numbers by more than 96% since the pre-industrial era, and 83% in just over 50 years.
Commercial fisheries and climate change are making the penguins’ prey more scarce, while habitat destruction is leaving colonies exposed to predators, heat stress and flooding. The birds get entangled and drown in fishing gear too, and – since they live along a major global oil transportation route – they are also victims of oil spills, which are slicking the slippery path to their extinction.
In 1910, there were an estimated 1.5 million African penguins. By 1956, when the first full census was conducted, they’d been decimated to 150,000 breeding pairs. In 2009 that number dropped to just 26,000, and by 2010 – just a hundred years later – the African penguin was classified as endangered.
These birds only live in southwestern Africa – from Namibia to Port Elizabeth – with just three mainland colonies. Despite a sizeable population drop at Boulders Beach – from 3,900 in 2005 to 2,100 in 2011 – this is still the most wonderfully accessible place to see them. That said, when the rest of the day trippers pack their towels and start to leave, as twilight shadows diffuse and fade, so too do my hopes of watching them underwater.
Just as I’m about to quit, though, I notice a little tail disappearing into a gap between two mammoth stones. A quick clamber over a few boulders, a couple of stubbed toes, and one inelegant slide down a wet rock, finds me splashing into a secluded part of the bay, just as the last raft of penguins comes in from the sea for the evening.
I’m so transfixed by penguins swimming around me that I’ve completely forgotten about the icy water. Instead, I dive under the surface and slip through the sea as they zoom beside me like bullets. These ten minutes of sub-aquatic spectacle are worth the wait, but then, almost as quickly as they appeared, they’re gone.
At least I had a good look at them while I had the chance. If our grandchildren are to see them too, we must similarly examine our impact on the planet, bringing wildlife like African penguins out of the peripheries and into sharp focus, before they disappear entirely.