The charismatic African penguins living in my neighbourhood are back in the news. A notice was put out last month by the South African National Parks board that a strain of avian influenza virus (H5N8 strain) has been detected in the colony at Boulders Beach. So far penguin eighteen deaths have been noted. The state veterinarians are working to contain the outbreak. Let’s hope they succeed.
Playing tour guide, my first stop is this vantage point overlooking the splendid vista of False Bay. Simon’s Town lays at the foothills, and way in the distance on the opposite side is Cape Hangklip. The small town bustles with a distinct naval ‘air’ having been established as a naval base by the British in 1799 and where today the SA Navy is stationed. We’ll pass through it, as we’re on our way to visit Boulders to see the African penguin colony.
The Boulders area is dotted with impressively sculpted granite rocks sheltering discreetly placed sandy coves. Here a colony of African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) have found a comfortable nesting area. From just two breeding pairs in 1982 the population numbers have increased to about 2200 in recent years.
We will venture down the boardwalk to see the main nursery.
As you will note the houses are quite nearby – this is as close to an ‘urban’ colony as can be imagined. The area is fenced off, but often the penguins stray beyond the boundaries and care must be taken driving or parking to check if all is clear.
Sadly the African penguin is listed in the Red Data Book as an endangered species, and the birds are in considerably more trouble than rhinos. With the decline in shoal fish such as pilchards and anchovy they could be heading for extinction in the not too distant future.
To end the tour, a nod to the eminent granite Rock Stars, all of 540 million year old. A pathway follows along the coast for a nice leisurely stroll and swim to top off the experience.
Living by the coast has it’s drawbacks sometimes – the seasonal wind and sea fret can impact the hardiest of coastal dwellers. Just when we thought spring had settled a couple of low frontal weather systems had us scurrying to get out the winter layers again. On the Atlantic side the seas were huge, and one of the unexpected visitors to our rocky beach was an exhausted young Cape fur seal. It hauled out of the water and spent the day on the rocks recuperating. Seal pups are only weaned when they are about nine months old. Baleful eyes warily watched as I attempted to remain discreetly hidden.
Generally the dassie (Rock hyrax) colony commands rights over the rocks and sandbathing facilities, little seal was the first intruder and then up popped a Cape clawless otter.
It was all action for this photographer, as the next to appear (out at sea) were Southern right whales. Their sheer size and tonnage have us entranced and the trick is to figure what is happening out there by trying to piece together the body parts which randomly appear – a ventral fin, the size of the flukes – is it adult or newly born? Or perhaps the cavorting of mating rituals?
Further along the road at the penguin colony the chicks are looking quite bedraggled in various stages of growth:
Looking sleek and probably almost ready to fledge and make off on it’s own, this juvenile’s plumage will soon change to adult colouration.
False Bay is sometimes referred to as the “Serengeti of the seas” for it’s rich marine life and influx of seasonal species. Though there is the fear that many species are decreasing in numbers and little is being done to protect the resources.
It’s calmer on the False Bay side when the nor’westerly Atlantic swells push onto the coast; though the wave height may not be as high as along the western edge of the Cape Peninsula there is still power in the break. We watch with great anxiety for the otters and penguins as they exit the surging waters. Fortunately the Boulders’ penguin colony is sited in a sheltered sandy cove, with a defence of boulders breaking up the force of the water. Still these sturdy little creatures risk being tumbled in the surf. Once on land they head for shelter from the strong winds. Interesting to see the Cape cormorants happily hunkered down amongst the penguins. (Note the little penguin with the missing foot.)
Close by the Cape clawless otters (Aonyx capensis) maintain secret holts on land where they can hole up out of the rough seas. We’ve been fortunate to observe a pair which have returned to the area near our garden since the vegetation has regenerated after the devastating fires. Unlike the penguins’ sandy beach landing, the otters negotiate a rocky shore and often suffer from injuries. Pyjama shark is the catch of the day. If you’d like to read more details about the otters Wilf Nussey’s enthralling stories are here.