South African Beach (Wild)Life

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A penguin sitting on a rock and the surge of a wave is hitting behind him

Most people come to South Africa for either the wine or the wildlife, and if your first thought was wildlife, then you are probably thinking of a safari to see elephants, lions, giraffes or zebras. However, the South African wildlife as a lot more to offer besides the fascinating animals of the Savannah! The marine wildlife is just as fascinating. Next to whales, penguins are probably my most favourite marine animals – and luckily it is also possible to see these little flightless birds in South Africa! But be prepared: while they are just as cute in real life as you imagine them to be, they also smell very bad.

Where to see penguins in South Africa

The majority of penguins in South Africa lives on islands along the coast, but there are also two colonies on the mainland in South Africa which are easily accessible for visitors. One is Boulders Beach, which is located near Simons Town. This is probably the best-known spot for penguin watching as you pass by Simons Town on your way to the Table Mountain National Park to see the Cape of Good Hope. The penguins are used to frequent visitors, so it is quite easy to get quite close to them. If you only have limited time, this is the place to see some penguins! However, Boulders Beach is often pretty crowded as most tour operators offer tours to the beach. If you prefer a quieter, more tranquil place that is less frequented by tourists, you should consider driving up to Betty’s Bay instead. That is were we went, and we have been lucky enough to not just meet some cute penguins, but also other sea birds, seals, a dassie, and even the colourful rock agamas!

The African Penguin

The African Penguin is an endangered species even though especially the colonies on the mainland are growing. However, it was estimated that the African Penguin will be extinct in the wild by 2026. They can become up to 27 years old in the wild, however, many dangers lurk at sea and on the shore in the colonies – predators, too much heat for the eggs… That is why the Jackass Penguin – as the African Penguin is sometimes called because of the noises they make – is struggling to survive.

The penguins spend most of the year at sea, and only come back to the colonies for breeding. Each year, they return to the same place. They live in pairs in monogamous relationships their entire life and typically raise their chicks together.

The chicks leave their nest when they are 60 to 130 days old (depending on the climate, availability of food, and so on), and go to sea on their own. They spend at least one year out there by themselves before they return to the colony they were born at. That is the time when they grow their adult plumage. This process takes up to 30 days – a time in which the penguins cannot go to sea to hunt, because the feathers are not yet waterproof, so they are forced to fast during that time.

That was also the period when we were visiting Betty’s Bay. It was fascinating to see the little penguins interact, helping each other to moult.

Southern Rock Agamas

During the same time, it is also breeding season for the Southern Rock Agama. In that period, the male rock agamas change the colour of their heads to a bright blue, which beautifully contrasts the otherwise greyish/ black body. And as the males like to sit on exposed rocks in the sun, it is quite easy to spot one of them during the breeding season. However, if predators approach, the rock agama has the ability to change colour adn camouflage – little like its relative the chameleon.

In contrast, the females are a lot less colourful. They have a brownish colour and prefer to stay in more secluded, protected areas. These lizards tend to live in small groups so we were lucky enough to see a whole family of them when we visited Betty’s Bay. So watch out for more fascinating wildlife than just the Penguins when you are visiting!

Fun fact: I learned that the Chinese signs for “penguin” literally translate to “business goose” in English – that is so much more fun than “penguin”, isn’t it?

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