Have you heard of the penguins in South Africa? In different locations along the coast, you can see and observe penguins! This is one of the reasons why I chose South Africa as my travel destination are the small black and white birds. Of course, I am not alone with my wish to see penguins in the wild. That's why I'm going to share with you seven different places in this blog post where you can observe and visit penguins in the wild and in sanctuaries in South Africa.
Where to find Penguins in South Africa
Penguins live in the wild exclusively in the southern hemisphere. In Africa, the birds are found along the west coast only – on some islands of Angola and Namibia and along the coast of South Africa all the way to Mozambique. The penguins belong to the species of African Penguins, also called jackass penguin or black-footed penguin.
The population of African penguins has declined considerably in the last decades. For this reason, they have been classified as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In South Africa alone, the number of breeding pairs is estimated at less than 20,000.
Jackass penguins are the only penguins living in the wild in Africa. Adult animals reach a size of 60 to 70 centimetres, weigh 2.5 to 3 kilograms and live for up to 20 years. Jackass penguins breed in colonies near the coast.
In South Africa, I have observed penguins in seven places and have been amazed by the small birds again and again.
Interesting Facts about Penguins
- In German African Penguins are called Brillenpinguine (penguins who wear glasses). This comes from the light pink spots around their eyes that make them look like wearing glasses.
- Penguins are birds, but they cannot fly. They are excellent swimmers and divers. Anyone who has ever observed a penguin in the water knows how fast they move there and more or less fly through the water.
- Penguins choose each other as partners for life. If a male penguin loves a female penguin, he hands her a small stone as a sign of his affection.
- It has been known for more than 100 years that there are also homosexual penguins. Some statistics say that about 1/5 of the penguins are gay.
- Penguins can drink salt water thanks to a special gland. They filter out the salt and excrete it through the nose.
- Penguins change their plumage frequently. This process is called moulting. During this time the penguins cannot go into the water because their plumage is not waterproof. The moulting process takes several weeks and during this time the penguins lose quite a bit of weight because they cannot go hunting for food.
- After hatching, young penguins do not have waterproof plumage and look wonderfully dishevelled. Only after moulting can the young animals go into the water, otherwise they would sink or freeze to death.
Where to find Penguins in South Africa
See Penguins in South Africa: Penguin Colony Boulders Beach (Foxy Beach)
The penguin colony at Boulders Beach is only a short drive (approx. 40-50 minutes) from the centre of Cape Town. It is the most popular place to observe the small penguins up close.
Once you arrive in Simon's Town, follow the signs to Boulders Beach. The parking lot is marked with a penguin sign. You can access the penguin colony from two sides: The northwestern part is Foxy Beach with wooden paths and the southeastern part is the actual Boulders Beach where you can swim with the penguins. At both places, there are parking lots and ticket offices. The two parts are connected with each other and therefore, you only have to pay once for admission. The prices for international visitors have been increased during the last years. For this reason, it is possible that the information in your travel guide is no longer up to date. During my visit, I paid about 7€ entrance fee.
At the ticket office at Foxy Beach, there are some information boards about the penguins living in this bay. Two wooden walkways lead across the penguins' nests towards the beach. Everywhere there are penguins eating, sleeping, feeding their young, making noise or waddling around. It is an incredible feeling to be so close to the animals and to see so many penguins at once.
Tip: Be sure to visit the penguins in the morning or in the late afternoon, because then the fewest visitors are around. For taking pictures I liked it best in the morning because the light was especially beautiful and my photos were better than in the late afternoon.
See Penguins in South Africa: Swimming with Penguins at Boulders Beach
When I think back to the penguins at Boulders Beach, I can only describe it that way: A dream come true. Because how incredible is it to swim with penguins?!
The second part of Boulders Beach connects to Foxy Beach via a shady wooden path. So here you can swim with penguins and watch them up close. Due to the cold water temperature, many visitors just admire the animals from the beach. The little penguins jump from rock to rock, waddle in the sand and swim like a whip through the water.
Insider tip: If you want to enjoy watching the penguins in peace or lie in the sun without being disturbed, you should be prepared for a small climbing tour. The sea at the right hand, follow the beach until there seems to be no more moving forward. Through the big rocks, there are small paths to smaller beach sections depending on the water level. Here some of the penguins are usually chilling.
Where to see Penguins in Cape Town: Robben Island
I discovered the first penguins on my trip through South Africa on the former prison island Robben Island. During the bus trip across the island, I was able to spot a penguin couple on their way to the sea. Spotting penguins at Robben Island requires a bit of luck: There' s a colony of penguins on Robben Island, but it is not accessible to visitors. Keep your eyes open, maybe you will spot the animals anyway!
Important: To visit Robben Island you have to buy a ticket in advance. The easiest way to do this is to visit the website a few days before.
Help Penguins in Cape Town: SANCCOB Centre for Sea Birds in Cape Town
At the SANCCOB sanctuary in Cape Town, injured seabirds are being cared for and nursed. Most of the animals can be released back into the wild after a certain time. Others were unfortunately injured too badly or in such a way that they would have no chance of survival in the wild. These birds then remain in the SANCCOB sanctuary for the rest of their lives. Most of the seabirds cared for here are penguins.
Several times a day there are informative guided tours through the sanctuary, which give many insights into the life of the penguins and other seabirds. It is recommended to call in advance and ask for available guided tours to avoid disappointment or long waiting times.
Watch Penguins up close: Stony Point Nature Reserve, Betty's Bay
Betty's Bay is also one of my favourite places in South Africa to see penguins up close. The site of the abandoned Waaygat whaling station is now home to one of the largest colonies of African penguins. The factory was closed in the middle of the 20th century – remnants and old machines are still scattered around the site.
A wooden walkway runs along the coast and everywhere you look there are plenty of little penguins. They jump seemingly clumsily between the rocks, waddle to their nests or go hunting in the sea. But not only penguins live in the Stony Point Nature Reserve in Betty's Bay: Dassies (also known as rock hyrax) run around and are hardly disturbed by visitors.
Even if you come to Betty's Bay outside the opening hours of the nature reserve, it is worth a short stop. Near the visitors' car park there are penguins living outside the reserve. So chances are good that you will see some of them here.
Save Penguins in Port Elizabeth: SANCCOB Centre for Sea Birds in Port Elizabeth
Furthermore, I strongly recommend the sanctuary for seabirds in Port Elizabeth. Away from the busy city centre in a quiet area, there is a sanctuary for penguins and other seabirds that have been rescued. At certain times you can watch the feeding and otherwise move around the area very freely. Depending on the availability of volunteers, small guided tours are available to explain about the penguins, their rescue and the program.
Tip: If you would like to support the sanctuary in Port Elizabeth, you can adopt individual animals. I adopted two penguins myself and would have loved to take them home with me. Thanks to donations like mine, the sanctuary can cover the running costs and buy enough fish for the hungry penguins.
Where to see penguins in South Africa: St Croix Penguin Island in Port Elizabeth
Also in Port Elizabeth, you can observe penguins in the wild. But not from the mainland. On the small island of St Croix in the Algoa Bay lives the largest breeding colony of African Penguins. The island is regularly visited by tour operators and the small birds can be observed from the boat. It is not allowed to set foot on the island – the view from the boat is fantastic in any case. With a pinch of extra luck, dolphins will greet you on the way to the island.
Where to see penguins in South Africa: Taking photos of penguins
No matter whether you want to capture penguins in the wild or in a sanctuary, there are a few things to keep in mind. In this section I compiled some helpful tips for photographing penguins or wild animals in general:
Tips for Photographing Penguins
- Benefit from the Golden Hour: This describes the time shortly after sunrise or shortly before sunset. The light then has a particularly magical and above all soft effect. However, this is often not possible with national parks or nature reserves, as they are not or no longer open at these times. There are exceptions or possibilities to take pictures of the birds during this time: The penguins at Betty's Bay do not respect the boundaries of the protected area and so you can take great pictures from the parking lot.
- Telephoto lens: If you are travelling to South Africa, there is a good chance that you are also going on a safari. If you want to take pictures of animals it is worth investing in a fast telephoto lens. Alternatively, there are camera shops that rent lenses. A telephoto lens is also unbeatable for photographing penguins. For my Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II, I had the 75-300mm 4.8-6.7 Olympus M. Zuiko lens with me in South Africa (in the meantime I replaced it with the 40-150mm 1:2.8 Pro Olympus M. Zuiko and the 2x teleconverter).
- Tripod: Even a small tripod can work great miracles because it allows you to choose much longer exposure times. So you can take sharper photos even in low light and with a low ISO. It's also ideal for HDR shots when your camera doesn't have good image stabilization. When travelling I usually have a small tripod and a big one in my luggage. The smaller one is from Cullmann and really fits in every camera bag or backpack. My big tripod is from Manfrotto and a real asset on my travels.
- Camera settings: With special settings in your camera you can make wildlife photography a lot easier. These include continuous shooting, continuous autofocus and settings that detect and prioritise the eyes.
- Portrait vs. Action: Depending on whether the penguins are very active or resting on a rock, you can try out different ways to portray the animals. If the animals are quiet and you can zoom in on them quite close, then it is a good idea to take the photo like a portrait. With a large aperture (2.8 or 3.5) the background becomes blurred and the focus is completely on the animal. If the animal(s) are moving quickly, your focus should be on the fastest possible shutter speed. This way you can freeze the penguins in motion and take great action pictures.
- Image composition: In general, the general recommendations for image composition also apply to animal photography. This includes the rule of thirds and the golden ratio. These make a picture more interesting and you prefer to look at it longer.
- At eye level: Even though this is often not quite possible in the wild, it is preferable to photograph the animals at eye level. This creates a more exciting and interesting picture than, for example, from above.
- Put the camera away: I always find myself trying to take the one perfect photo and drowning in the camera settings. That's why I try to remember to leave the camera alone and to give my full attention to the animals and the world around me.
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