Who Am I?
Scientists call me Spheniscus demersus, which more or less translates to "the wedged diver", thanks to my uniquely tapered flippers that help me to swim and navigate the depths with ease. The oldest penguin fossils found date back a whopping 60 million years ago. When continents drifted apart, remnants of my family settled in diverse corners of the globe, including the vibrant lands of South America where my look-alike, the banded Humboldt penguin, resides.
There are four types of banded penguins in total, and we’re called that because we have a black band that runs around our bodies. Like other penguins, if you watch me closely, you’ll see I often shake my head swiftly. It’s not because I have itchy ears! I’m merely expelling excess salt after relishing salty fish, thanks to our salt glands.
Why Am I Special?
I’m unique because I’m the only penguin species in all of Africa. I have colonies in South Africa and Namibia, and I’m one of the very few types of penguins that sometimes set up nests in urban areas like Simon’s Town, near Cape Town, and at Stony Point near Betty’s Bay in the Western Cape. Each of us sports a unique spot pattern on our chests, much like human fingerprints - no spot pattern is ever the same from penguin to penguin, and not all species have spots. When we meet our boyfriend or girlfriend, we tend to then stay together for life and slowly turn into a little, old, married couple.
Importantly, the size of our colonies can tell you a lot about the ocean's health. Every second breath you take is made up of oxygen that the ocean produces, so the sea is vital for your survival and mine. When our numbers start to decline and there are fewer of us, it means the ocean is unhealthy and that it might also stop producing as much air as we both need. You know what else is interesting? Historical icons like the famous scientist Charles Darwin noted my presence when he visited Cape Town long ago, and the late former president of South Africa Nelson Mandela mentioned us in his book `A Long Walk to Freedom’ due to a colony residing on Robben Island, a small testimony to our significance.
Why Am I in Danger?
The tale of my decline goes back more than a hundred years. Back then there were far fewer human beings in the world, but people still lived close to the land and there weren’t huge factories manufacturing everything people needed. People needed food and warmth, so they ate our big eggs and scooped up deep layers of our guano (which is actually penguin poo) to fertilise their crops. This created problems because we built up our guano over centuries for warmth and to keep our chicks safe.
With our eggs being eaten before the chicks could be born and with the removal of the guano that helped our chicks survive, the number of African penguins started to decline. The good news is that people aren’t allowed to eat our eggs or take our guano anymore. The bad news is new perilous challenges have surfaced. The main one being overfishing of sardines and anchovies - our favourite food. The sardines have also now moved their breeding grounds far away from some of our colonies. Secondly, the expansion of towns and cities has led to the destruction of some of the habitats we liked to live in. There are also now thousands of ships in the sea – sometimes they leak oil and that can kill us or make us very sick. Near Gqeberha in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, ships are now being refuelled by big carriers out at sea – this is called bunkering. It’s good for ships, but it increases the chances of oil spills. There are also predators that like to eat us – sharks, seals, and gulls. And then there’s global warming – the fierce floods, storms, and heatwaves are hard for us to bear.
How Bad Is It?
A staggering 99% decline in our population has been recorded, leaving only 1% of us in the wild. Scientists predict that if this trend continues, by 2035 (that's not very far away at all), there might be too few of us to breed successfully in the wild to keep our species alive, confining our existence to zoos and aquariums.
How Can You Help?
There are so many things you can do to help me and to help our ocean. To help me, you can lend your voice and support to the #NotOnOurWatch campaign, and every month you can go to www.africanpenguins.org and email the minister who looks after the environment and ask her to protect us. You can also join or arrange waddles, which is any event where people dress in my favourite colours – black and white – and take photographs, post them on social media, and tag #NOOW. By showing your support, public pressure will help the government understand how much people care. And if you live near one of the SANCCOB branches in Cape Town or Gqeberha, you can also volunteer and go and help wash and feed my fellow African penguins who have been rescued and are being rehabilitated.
Furthermore, Hansie en Grietjie have thrown their support behind our cause, launching their special line of African Penguin socks. Each pair sold not only raises awareness but also channels much-needed funds into conservation efforts aimed at protecting African penguins. With these companies as our allies, and with your support, we can stride together toward a future where the chorus of African penguins continues to echo across the shores, celebrating a vibrant tapestry of life and biodiversity.
What Can You Do Every Day?
The thing about the ocean is that almost all the rivers in the world eventually run to the ocean. All the rain that comes down, all the chemicals that go into the soil, all the debris in storm drains, all the deep groundwater is running downhill toward sea level. We can choose to make what’s running downhill as ocean-friendly as possible. It’s now easy and not unaffordable in supermarkets and organic shops to get eco-friendly toothpaste, shampoo, face wash, body wash, toothbrushes, cleaning liquids, washing machine powders, dishwasher tablets, dish washer soap, floor cleaners, reef-safe sunscreen, and more.
Then there’s the really big issue of plastic. Avoid it at all costs. Take canvas bags for your shopping. Buy your vegetables unwrapped. Further, walk or cycle rather than burning fossil fuels and causing emissions with your car. Buy in bulk. Make sure your homes, schools, and workplaces have proper recycling facilities. If you eat fish, make sure it’s sustainable by checking the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (Sassi) list, which can be found at https://wwfsassi.co.za/sassi-list/. Try to avoid eating sardines and anchovies, but if you do eat them, ask questions – where and how were they caught? Start demanding sustainably caught sardines. Use less electricity. Turn off lights in rooms you’re not using. Get rid of electric heaters, only run dishwashers and washing machines when they’re full and you have to – all of these appliances in South Africa are powered mostly by energy from coal, which really harms the environment.
And finally, challenge yourself every month to make one more ecologically sound change in your life. Together, in our global colony of all beings and species, we can make a difference. Let’s embark on this journey hand in flipper!