Wildlife Spotlight: The African Penguin

By Sarah Gold April 18, 2024

Penguins likely aren’t the first species that leaps to mind when planning a luxury African safari. And yet, as numerous Micato travellers have reported, encountering wild African penguins (also called Cape penguins) can be a highlight of a visit to Southern Africa. These charismatic water birds, which live along the western islands and rocky coasts of South Africa and Namibia, enchant safari-goers for many reasons—including the following.

penguin colony at Boulders Beach South Africa
A Penguin Colony at Boulders Beach, South Africa

Raucously (Ear-Splittingly) Expressive

Among the world’s most diminutive penguin species (they max out at about 27 inches in height and 11 lbs in weight), African penguins nevertheless make a big impression. This has much to do with the deafening noise that arises from their large rookeries, each of which can include up to 100 birds. The penguins use different vocalizations to communicate, including shrill barks that let them locate one another, and blaring honks to warn intruders away. But the most distinctive African penguin sound is a long, grating bray the birds use to attract mates—so reminiscent of a donkey’s that the birds are locally referred to as “jackass penguins.”

Birds who pair up share parenting duties. Once the female has dug a burrow in the sand, or beneath the shelter of a rock or bush, she lays two eggs (always two); the parents then take turns incubating the eggs and feeding the chicks once they’ve hatched. After about a month old, the chicks are left for short periods in nursery-like groups of other chicks while their parents hunt. During this time the fluffy chicks huddle together, flap their stubby flippers, and raise their very own racket of shrieks, squawks, and cries for food.

Strikingly Beautiful

Like other “banded” species, African penguins’ waterproof black-and-white feather patterns include a black stripe that encircles a mostly white belly (mimicking a neatly pressed tuxedo). The dark, spotted markings that fleck each bird’s chest are as individual as human fingerprints.

A particular characteristic of the species is a patch of bare skin above each eye, which helps the penguins to regulate their body temperature. When they feel hot, blood flows to these unfeathered areas to be cooled by the surrounding air. The warmer the birds are, the brighter pink their eye patches appear.

African Penguin

Superb Swimmers (and Ungainly Waddlers)

African penguins are extraordinarily quick and agile in the ocean. Using their flippers as wings and their tails and feet as directional rudders, they zoom like torpedoes underwater, hunting down mainly cold-water fish like sardines, herring, mackerel, and anchovies. While feeding, they can dive to depths of more than 450 feet and hold their breath for up to two minutes. Sometimes, when pursuing large, fast-moving schools of fish, or evading predators like sharks, penguins can even be seen “porpoising”: plunging dolphin-like in and out of the water’s surface, which lets them catch their breath on the fly as they hurtle forward.

Of course, most Micato travellers who see African penguins do so on land at Boulders Beach or Stoney Point just outside of Cape Town—where the birds are significantly less graceful. Still, watching them lurch and lumber over stones, guano and piles of seaweed, whilst somehow maintaining an air of haughty formality (maybe it’s the tuxedos?) can be wildly entertaining.

Critically Endangered (But Getting Help)

African penguin populations have declined steeply in recent decades. Of the nearly 2 million penguins that flourished on the continent a century ago, less than 10 percent remain. The causes for this decline likely include overfishing of cold-water fish, and extreme weather events that damage penguin habitat. But both government and non-profit organisations have mounted initiatives to monitor and conserve these endemic birds, through fishing bans, rescuing and re-releasing abandoned chicks, and more. Penguin tourism also helps draw attention, and resources, to these efforts.

To visit African penguins as part of your Southern Africa Safari with Micato, Request your Micato Safaris brochure and then set up a time to speak with one of our safari experts.

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