Penguins in Cape Town

There are 17 seventeen known species of penguins in the world, but the ‘African penguin’ is the only one which inhabits the African continent and its inshore islands.

Those flightless, aquatic birds have remained wonders for quite some time. They are ancient ones; theories postulate that they evolved about 65 million years ago, at the time dinosaurs became extinct.

You will find them in False Bay, an hour’s drive from Cape Town. The world we live in is so colourful, yet penguins will show you it can be equally beautiful in black and white…

The ‘Black-footed penguin’ is another name for this species. It is also widely known as the ‘Jackass penguin’, due to the donkey-like braying sounds it produces on land. The term ‘African penguin’ has been adopted to distinguish it from the Jackass penguin found in South America.

African penguins have an average lifespan of 10-11 years old, but sometimes, they can live as long as 24 years. They grow to 68-70 cm (around 27 inches long) tall and can weigh between 2 and 5 kg (4.4 and 11 lb). Males are usually larger than the females and have larger beaks.

Penguins at Boulders beach

The very best place to watch penguins in Cape Town is at Boulders Beach.

There are indeed very few places on earth where you can get so close to a colony of penguins while they breed—even swim close to them!

Boulders beach has a colony of penguins set up since 1983. From just two breeding pairs then, it has now grown into a colony of about 3000 penguins, though this number keeps dropping.

The beach is some 2 km from Simon’s Town in False Bay, between Fish Hoek and Cape Point. It is home to a growing colony of the endangered African penguins. The entrance fee which you pay (as Boulders Beach is part of the Table Mountain National Park) is used for the conservation of these penguins.

At Boulders beach, the penguins nest as from February to August, in simple burrows in the sand or under plants. They moult in November and December.

Visitors can view them in their natural habitat from the wheelchair-friendly wooden boardwalk at Foxy Beach, from where the birds will just be a few meters away from you. There is also a path next to the Kleintuin Road entrance from where you can spot penguins walking around.

You can even get close to the birds and observe their behaviour (of course, not to disturb them as they can bite!). They roam freely on the beach and around. If you find them moving their head from side to side, take it as a warning sign and distance yourself.

The sea is good for swimming, so if you wish to take a jump in the water with those wonderful animals, do not restrict yourself from doing so! Penguins swim fast and can dive deep; it will be fun being in the water with them. The place is also suitable for children as immense boulders protect the cove from large waves and currents. The big round granite boulders are 540 million years old—they are from what the Boulders Beach name originated.

When to visit Boulders Beach Colony

Seasons greatly determine what you will see at Boulders Beach: number of penguins, what they are doing, what they look like. Below you can find a rough guide to their activities:

  • January: Juveniles moulting and adults feeding up for breeding season
  • February – August: Breeding season
  • September – October: Penguins at sea, feeding up for moulting
  • November – December: Moulting season

You must have surely seen penguins on television but seeing them in real is simply another experience: black and white comes to life!

If you wish to know more about the penguins on Boulders Beach, direction: the information center there.

More about the African Penguin:

General Appearance

Penguins generally like the cold but, in South Africa (and South America) where the air is hotter, they have evolved various ways to adapt to the sun. African penguins, thus, have shorter features than the Antarctic birds, including a black stripe curving across the top of the chest. They also have black spots on the chest which help in their identification as they are unique for every penguin. What is an interesting feature of the penguins is their distinctive black and white colouring, called countershading, which is a camouflage survival tool: black for the predators looking down on the dark water and white for underwater predators looking upwards, so in both ways, they are less noticeable—quite smart!

Penguins - Mating and reproduction

Sexual maturity is reached at around 4 years old. They breed mainly in colonies. The breeding season starts in January. Penguins maintain sexual fidelity: males return to their previous nesting areas, defending their respective nests while they wait for their female partners to arrive. They mate with the same partner every year.

They typically lay 2 eggs which hatch in March, if those eggs manage to survive for that long. Some may even lay eggs again in May/ June or even in August/ September. This is a common case when the initial egg has been lost. Penguins are just determined to breed successfully.


They feed mostly on small pelagic fish like pilchards, horse mackerel, herrings and anchovies. Pelagic fish is fish which swim on the upper layers of the open ocean. However, with modern commercial fishing, the animals have had to adapt themselves to squid and small crustaceans. As they dive deeper, they can reach fish other birds cannot. On average, a penguin eats about 300 g of fish per day, though the amount increases considerably (more than thrice!) before moulting or when feeding older chicks.

Swimming at Sea

Despite their seeming vulnerability on land, these birds are remarkably skilful at sea. They can swim up to a speed of 24 kilometers (15 miles) per hour and can reach depths of 180m! Unlike other aquatic birds, they do not use their feet to swim. Rather, they use their wings which have been adapted to make exceptionally efficient flippers. They mostly use their webbed feet to swim on the surface of the water and their small and waterproofed feathers overlap to provide better insulation.

An Endangered Species…

In the 20th century only, the total African penguin population nose-dived by 90%!

Egg harvesting, guano scraping and marine pollution were few of the reasons.

Penguin eggs are considered a delicacy in some parts of the world, so the demand for them is high. Guano scraping is the removal of nutrient rich bird droppings from the birds’ colonies to sell them as fertilizer on the international market.

African penguins usually make holes into the guano layer to form their nests, which not only retains a good temperature but also hides them from predators. Also, massive oil spills caused by oil tankers accelerate their decline in numbers.