Adopt a penguin

The penguins at the SANCCOB rehabilitation centre are either permanent or temporary residents, the adoption process is simple and easy to adopt one of these incredible birds or an egg where once hatched you can track their progress. I saw a photo of these cute birds a few years ago on the internet and was amazed that penguins, which I had associated only with living in Antarctica, were sunbathing on a white sandy beach in Africa! 

African penguins can only be found in their natural habitat in South Africa. They also breed in central Namibia and they live in colonies, two of which are located near Cape Town, on the popular Boulders Beach in Simons Town and Betty’s Bay. The latter is home to the largest colony consisting of 2,000 couples at the present moment. Compared to the beginning of the 20th century, when 1.45 million penguins lived on the island of Dassen which is located on the West Coast (Yzerfontein) of Cape Town, their population has drastically decreased. African penguins are now considered an endangered species mostly due to the reduction of safe breeding sites and environmental pollution. Oil spills from ships are especially dangerous. Additionally, extensive fishing means less food for them.

Boulders Beach


Betty’s Bay Penguins Colony

SANCCOB plays a vital role in rescuing penguins and other endangered seabirds. With two locations one in Cape Town and the other in the Eastern Cape, it has become a centre of aid and an educational centre. I visited them to learn more about the team’s work and how we can help save these beautiful birds.

Penguins in SANCCOB are divided into permanent and temporary residents. The permanent residents who are based at the centre stay here because of their injuries or due to their strong attachment to humans. SANCCOB releases them after chipping them, however, they are still not able to function in the wild and the centre becomes their home. Each penguin based at the centre has a unique personality and is named by their caregivers. The amazing thing about these birds is that they pair and mate for life unless one of them disappears for a longer period, then only do they seek a new partner.

The oldest penguin “Flo”, has been at SANCCOB since 1999. She is estimated to be at least 21 years old, and she is in a happy and committed relationship with a younger penguin “Milo” (whoever said a woman couldn’t have a younger partner? ☺). An interesting fact is that the sex of these animals cannot be determined by the naked eye. For this, you need DNA tests to distinguish between a male and a female. That’s why funny enough, a penguin named “Ballerina” is a male and Steve is a female. Each of the permanent residents has their character and quirks. There is a penguin called “Princess” who lives up to her name as she is supposedly moody, and Rocky loves calamari in addition to the standard fish diet.

Sanccob Centre


Sanccob Centre

The centre is very well equipped. In addition to the main pool, where the permanent resident penguins live and have their “houses”, there are also pools for the training and rehabilitation of the temporary residents. SANCCOB has a three-stage training system that allows them to get used to swimming and creates a stimulating natural environment. There are also special rooms with incubators where the chicks hatch. Regulars such as Milo and Flo look after newly hatched chicks. Every quarter, employees check the penguin’s weight, blood, and fur quality (water resistance depends on it) and do x-rays. All the facilities are here, just like a real hospital would operate. After passing the tests and rehabilitation programme, a decision is made on whether to release the bird into its natural habitat.Additionally, volunteers come to the centre from all over the world. There are also specially trained rangers who monitor the coast and deliver both injured or maladaptive penguins and abandoned eggs.

How can we help? We can do a lot more than make a simple donation. For a fee of R1000 we can adopt a permanent, already-named resident, R600 is the price for a penguin temporarily staying in the centre, whom we can name ourselves. R300 is the cost of adopting an egg. The fee is annual and covers the cost of food and medicines. After making a transfer or paying on the spot, we receive a certificate with information about our adoptee.

This is how I became the “mother” of Enrique, the penguin, who ended up at SANCCOB due to malnutrition, among others. Of course, “my” Enrique can be adopted by other people who will give him a different name, but it’s an honourable cause and I don’t mind. ☺

You can find more information about adoption here.

Certificate of adoption

Some interesting facts about Enrique and other African penguins:

  • Height: 65 cm
  • Weight: 3.1 kg (female), 3.6 kg (male)
  • They live 10-15 years, some around 20, the oldest known penguin was 27 years old.
  • They eat mostly fatty fish, especially anchovies. Unfortunately, the amount of fish is decreasing, so penguins often have to eat the less nutritious calamari and small crustaceans.
  • They move in water at a speed of 3 km/h, but in case of danger, they can reach speeds of up to 19 km/h. Usually, they dive to a depth of 50 m.
  • Adult penguins shed their feathers every year. Then they look like they are ill. They forage before moulting to gain weight. They are unable to swim for lengthy periods of time during the moulting period, so they starve themselves for three weeks and use up their fat reserves during this time.
  • They begin to reproduce at 4-6 years of age. They build their nests under bushes or in burrows. They usually lay two white eggs. The eggs are incubated for 38-41 days, and the little ones are fed by their parents for two to three months. It takes about 25 kg of fish to feed a chick.
  • Their natural enemies in water are sharks and seals. On land, otters pose a threat.
  • The African penguin was called the jackass penguin because of the donkey-like sounds they make. 

As I mentioned before, one of the biggest threats to African penguins is oil. South Africa’s coast is one of the main shipping routes. 30% of oil from the Middle East is transported on this route to Europe as well as South America and North America. Accidents happen frequently with oil spillages and when penguins come into contact with the oil, they lose their water resistance. They get cold and are too weak to fish. They become anaemic and can catch pneumonia. What’s more, the oil causes ulcers on their skin, eyes and intestines. Therefore, in SANCCOB, they also have a special room dedicated solely to cleaning penguins of the deadly substance.

SANCCOB’s founding story is also associated with the oil industry. In the late 1960s, there was a major leak from the Esso Essen ship. The extraordinary woman Althea Louise Burman Westphal decided to save 60 penguins. She set up a temporary centre in her home in the suburbs of Cape Town. She scrubbed them with soap, rinsed and fed them. The birds had a swimming pool at their disposal in her garden and two or three times a week they were taken to the beach, where they marched into the tidal basin (it is a rock tank filled with seawater) and allowed to swim for an hour. Althea was determined to convince many South Africans and global ecological organizations and individuals that the penguin population was declining and that a professional shelter was needed to save this species. She achieved her goal and in 1968 an internationally recognized coastal bird rehabilitation centre was established.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of one of the worst environmental disasters to have happened on the South African coast. SANCCOB, local and international experts and 45,000 volunteers took an active part in saving 19,000 penguins over three months. I encourage you to watch the YouTube film, from this largest animal rescue operation in the world so far.

Immediately after visiting the foundation, I drove to the town of Betty’s Bay, about a 1.5-hour drive from Cape Town, to see penguins in their natural habitat. Even on a cloudy day, the views were spectacular. On the other side of the bay is Simons Town with the most popular Boulders Beach home to African penguins. It is a must-see during a trip to the Cape of Good Hope. You can also come across them on Robben Island. It doesn’t matter where you see these cute little creatures while in South Africa. Meeting and observing them is a great experience that will stay in your memory for a long time. I encourage you to adopt them. That way you can make your contribution and help save them.

Betty’s Bay

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