A few years ago, amid gale force winds in the Antarctic Peninsula, I was busy photographing Gentoo penguins who were calmly positioning themselves in a circle to avoid the sweeping ice particles, akin to rugby players during a huddle.
While most of my fellow travelers had scampered back to the ship from Port Lockroy, the first British base in Antarctica, I was snapping away until the last zodiac boat summoned me back to the ship. There was one other photographer more keen on shooting these birds than myself, who soon became a good friend for the rest of the journey. This person was a native of Cape Town, Lee Slabber, a famous landscape and wildlife photographer living in the beautiful suburb of Noordhoek. I accepted Slabber’s invitation to visit him in South Africa and one of the highlights of my visit was to photograph the African penguin along the coastline on False Bay near Cape Town.
All penguins live in the Southern Hemisphere, though it’s a common myth they all live in Antarctica. In fact, penguins can be found on every continent in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s also a myth that penguins can only live in cold climates. The Galapagos penguin, for example, lives on tropical islands at the equator. The secret to their survival is the presence of ocean currents from Antarctica, which push cooler waters northwards.
After photographing all the seven Antarctic species and three sub-Antarctic species, I was very keen on seeing the African penguin near the Cape. Waking up well before dawn, we drove to one of the secluded beaches in anticipation of seeing penguins wake up from their nests to go to sea. Slabber mentioned that sunrise photographs of the penguins, while challenging, gives a photographer the opportunity to see them not only go fishing in the sea but also watch them return.
It was a cold morning in May when the temperature was hovering around 13°C. We took up our positions near a boulder to see the spectacle unfold in front of us.
The sky was magical with spectral colors revealing themselves in the cool morning light. The penguins started stirring outside their nests and seemed to stretch on the boulders until a sufficient number of them gathered and slowly began making their way towards the water which was perhaps 25 meters away.
Crouching and crawling, I was trying to photograph them against this brilliant sky in the background. We followed them into the water by taking a circuitous path away from the bushes to avoid startling or trampling little ones. We perched ourselves in a location where boulders shielded us from the chilly winds, but not from the cold wet sand.
The steady march of these birds both in and out of the water made for some spectacular photography. A few males were courting their smaller female counterparts, with the male throwing its flipper over the shoulder of the female and shepherding her along the beach like how humans would do.
Penguins are, perhaps the most loved of birds. We’ve been fascinated by them for just about as long as we’ve known they existed. When penguins are on land, their actions appear to us so humorous and expressive we identify them with moods and actions similar to our own. In reality, penguins live in some of the harshest environments, exhibiting amazing survival skills very far from our prying eyes.
After a good hour of spending time with them it was time for us to leave and not stress them anymore with our presence, despite the fact they adapted well to us. All along the southwestern coast of South Africa and parts of Namibia, penguins have colonies in small rocky islands allowing them to fish and breed. But over the centuries, these islands connected with the mainland thus exposing their vulnerabilities.
Today, the African penguin is considered a vulnerable animal and has been listed as ‘endangered’ by the IUCN. They are attacked from air, land and water. With sea surface temperatures rising, their food sources are further afar exposing their presence in water to seals and sharks. Aerial predators like Kelp Gulls plunder their eggs, while on land, cats, humans and lizards are doing their share. There is an approximate 2% decline in the African penguin population every year, mainly due to habitat disruption and competition for food from commercial fisheries.
Numerous South African wildlife organizations, such as the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), are dedicated to saving the African penguin. As one of 17 mega diverse countries in the world, South Africa’s penguin is a gift to this land from the southern oceans. If you have not seen and enjoyed their antics yet, it may be a visit long overdue to the beaches of the Cape.