Did you know you can spot penguins in South Africa? Here are the best places to find them in the wild.
Is seeing penguins in the wild on your travel bucket list?
These cute little birds (and in some cases not so little at all) are certainly worth travelling for. The ultimate spot to experience penguins in their natural habitat certainly is the Antarctic. But if going on a ship, cruising down the Drake Passage for two days with the possibility of facing strong winds and rough sea along with freezing temperatures worries you, then the good news is, penguins can also be seen at some other locations outside the Antarctic.
And believe it or not, one of these locations is South Africa.
Even though South Africa is not a place where you will encounter icebergs, the country is home to a couple of penguin colonies spread across the coastline from the Cape Peninsular to the port city of Port Elizabeth.
What types of penguins can be found in South Africa?
The penguins that you will encounter in South Africa belong to the African Penguin family, also called Jackass Penguin, which are the only species of penguin living on the African continent. African Penguins are just around 60-70 cm tall and weight somewhere between 2.5 to 3.5 kilograms.
A particular characteristic of the African Penguin are the small pink patches above their eyes. They have a black face and the upper part of their body is also black while the underparts are white and marked with a black band.
The species is related to the Humboldt, Galapagos, and Magellanic Penguins and together with those other species for the family of banded penguins, based on the black bands found on the underparts of their bodies.
Sadly, African Penguins belong to the endangered species and numbers across the various penguin colonies are indeed dwindling year after year.
Where you can see penguins in South Africa
There are penguin colonies spread along the west coast from Cape Town up to around Port Elizabeth. However, while you might be lucky and encounter smaller groups of penguins on the various beaches along the coast, if you want to make sure to see these little birds, there are two locations where you will find the largest colonies in South Africa. Boulders Beach, just outside of Cape Town and Betty’s Bay in the Overberg region.
Boulders Beach, Simon’s Town
The perhaps most well-known place to see penguins in South Africa is Simon’s Town, just a short 30 to 40 minutes’ drive outside of Cape Town.
Here, the largest penguin colony of African Penguins can be found at the Boulders Visitor Centre at Foxy Beach. Going through the Visitor Centre means you have to pay a small entrance fee, but the views you will get form the different boardwalks are more than worth it. In addition, the fees are contributing to the conservation of the penguin colony and the local natural habitat.
The local penguin colony was established in 1982/83 when a couple of these birds came here from the nearby islands to bread. The colony kept increasing to nearly 4,000 in 2005 but has since started to shrink due to various reasons and sadly following a global trend of shrinking numbers of penguins at other places too.
Tough it is also perhaps the most crowded time of the year because it’s peak summertime, January is actually a great time to visit. It’s the time when you will see a lot of juvenile birds moulting on the beach, slowly shedding their fluffy grey fur feathers for the black-and-white adult look. Meanwhile, March to May is the peak of the local breeding season, even though you can actually see penguins breeding all year.
After you have visited the colony at Foxy Beach, head to Boulders Beach just a few minutes away, put you towel into the sand and spend the rest of the day on the beach. Chances are high you get to observe more penguins swimming out in the sea and even showing up right on the beach. In fact, these little creatures are quite curious and might walk up to you quite closely. If they do, keep in mind these are wild animals and though they might not seem bothered by the people on the beach, never try and touch or otherwise interact with them. You don’t want to add up getting snapped at.
If you take the scenic route via R43 and R44 from Cape Town to Hermanus, you can observe penguins in the wild at Stony Point, Gordons Bay, about an hour away from the famous whale-watching town of Hermanus.
The penguin colony at Stony Point indeed now inhabits an abandoned whaling station, now home to one of the largest breeding African Penguin colonies in the world. Here too you will now find a wooden walkway leading along the coast.
While the area is further away from Cape Town (about 90 minutes), the benefit visiting Stony Point is the lower numbers of visitors as well as a lower entrance fee compared to Boulders Beach Visitor Centre.
Similar to Boulders Beach, the first penguins settled at the site in Betty’s Bay around 1982, and today there are around 2,500 of these little cuties.
The area is approachable via the visitor entrance point only. Otherwise, it’s fenced off – and not just to keep out people hiking around and potentially disturbing the penguins spread out over the rocks. The colony in recent years had also experienced predator attacks such as in 2017 when a Cape Leopard attacked and killed a considerable number of penguins.
By the way, Stony Point is not only home to penguins. There is a good chance you will also come across the resident dassies (also known as rock hyrax or rock rabbit). Pretty cute too, aren’t they?
Other locations where you might see penguins in South Africa
There are more penguin colonies found on a couple of islands just off the coast, including Robben Island, the country’s infamous former prison island. However, those colonies are not accessible to visitors. Though you might be able to see some penguins on these islands, you would have to be lucky, and it might just be the odd couple wandering around.
One place you could actually observe penguins is St Croix Penguin Island in Port Elizabeth, which is home to the largest breeding penguin colony of African penguins. However, it’s not allowed to get on the island. Thus you only can see the penguins from a boat, which will still offer you some fantastic sightings. Plus, who knows, there might also be some dolphins around the day you visit.
Other opportunities to see penguins close up are visiting one of the penguin and sea bird sanctuaries which are spread along the coast. For example, there is the SANCCOB Centre for Seabirds in Port Elizabeth or the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary at Gansbaai established by the Dyer Island Conservation Trust for the protection and rehabilitation of penguins and birds living across the Western Cape.
If you planning to see penguins in the wild, do you consider going to South Africa?