Meet penguins up close at Boulders Beach. © South African Tourism

The Boulders Beach penguins are about as famous as birds can be. They're also ever-more endangered. The birds, who draw crowds of visitors who can't resist their waddling ways, are under threat from loss of habitat, dwindling fish resources, and their human neighbours.

Did you know?

Of 17 penguin species in the world, African penguins are the only one that breeds in Africa. African Penguins were moved to the Endangered list in May 2010.

Each year, around 60 000 visitors flock to Simonstown to photograph and watch the the famous Boulders Beach penguins. Few visitors though, realise that for all their amusing antics and endearing appearance, African penguins are increasingly endangered.

The story of the African penguins at Boulders Beach is one of remarkable urban colonisation, but the species as a whole faces many threats and these aquatic flightless birds are listed as endangered.

African penguins used to be known as jackass penguins, because of the braying sounds they make. The birds breed in colonies stretching from southern Namibia to Port Elizabeth.

The story of this penguin colony in Cape Town started in 1983 when a pair was spotted on Foxy Beach at Boulders. The birds came to False Bay from Dyer Island. At the time, False Bay was closed to commercial fishing. For the newcomers, abundant food and breeding sites meant the African penguin population at Boulders soared.

Almost 3 decades later however, Boulders Beach penguins are in trouble. Cars, people and competiton for breeding sites has seen penguins trying to nest in unsafe environments, leaving their nests exposed to predation and the elements. Climate change has affected fish stocks, and increased severe weather incidences have depleted penguin chick numbers.

The penguins are particularly vulnerable to humans. From the time of the first Dutch settlement at the Cape in 1652, penguins were an invaluable addition to the settlers' food supply. As a result of oil spills and declining food resources, African penguin numbers have decreased dramatically, from millions in the 1930s, to under 1 200 breeding pairs now.

Boulders Beach remains the only place in the world where one can get up-close to African penguins. Penguin viewing is made easier by boardwalks that traverse the beaches and an information centre, which is managed by South African National Parks (SANParks).

Years of over-fishing, pollution, egg predation by seabirds, and guano scraping of their preferred nesting sites has left Africa's penguins in peril, but there's hope.

In a bid to curb the continued loss of chicks, and provide a safe breeding environment, Boulders Coastal Park management has introduced artificial nesting boxes. And, thanks to conservation initiatives by the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, and SANParks, Simonstown's precious penguins may yet survive to swim another day.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

South African National Parks
Tel: +27 (0)12 428 9111
Email: reservations@sanparks.org
Web: www.sanparks.org

How to get here

Boulders Beach is located in Simon's Town, just over the hilly peninsula from Cape Town. It's easily accessible by bus, car, taxi or train.

Around the area

Simon's Town is home to the South African Navy and the village houses a few navy museums. There are also plenty of superb beaches close by.

Get around

Enjoying the penguins at close range is made easier by boardwalks traversing the beaches, and an information centre, which is managed by South African National Parks.

What will it cost

A small conservation fee is payable for use of the boardwalk.

Length of stay

A visit to the penguins can last from half an hour to an entire day.

Where to stay

The Cape Town area, including nearby Simon's Town and Fishhoek, has a wide variety of accommodation available from budget to luxury options.

What to eat

Try one of the terrific fish restaurants in Simon's Town, Fishhoek, Kalk Bay or Muizenberg, all close to Boulder Beach.