African penguins on Dyer Island
Did you know?
Decades ago, penguin eggs were considered something of a delicacy.
For centuries, Dyer Island off Gansbaai was home to world’s greatest concentration of African penguins.
It literally teemed with penguins and another seabirds, and as a result, their guano on the island was metres deep. The island must have reeked to high heaven, but the penguins found it a delightfully soft and convenient substance to burrow into for nesting.
All was well until the 1800s when England and America needed fertiliser for their exhausted soils. Guano was perfect, and islands like Dyer were methodically stripped.
Even so, Dyer Island remains one of South Africa’s 101 Important Bird Areas. Rare seabirds are often seen here.
You’ll pass it on a whale-watching or shark-diving expedition, so bring your binoculars to spot the many bird species. What you won’t easily see are the African penguins that once filled this 20-hectare island.
As recently as the 1970s, there were 25 000 breeding pairs of penguins on Dyer Island. Today that number stands at just 1 200 pairs. A similar sharp population drop in other African penguin colonies resulted in the species being reclassified as endangered in 2010.
The reasons for the dramatic population drop are many, but a key problem remains the historic removal of guano, which started in the 1840s and only stopped in the mid-1900s. The penguins can’t burrow, so they have to nest on open ground, making their chicks and eggs vulnerable to predators like kelp gulls.
In the absence of guano, the Dyer Island Conservation Trust has come up with a burrow-substitute. It’s a fibrecrete artificial penguin nest.
The nests are designed to improve breeding success by sheltering the young from predators. They also reduce heat stress.
Each nest costs R400 and thousands have been bought by members of the public. But the proof is in the pudding. Trustees have been gratified to see that mere hours after a nest has been dug into the rocky ground, a pair of penguins moves in.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Dyer Island Conservation Trust
Tel: +27 (0) 82 907 5607
How to get here
Dyer Island is about 8.5km away from the nearest town, Gansbaai, which in turn is about 2 hours' drive from Cape Town. But it's not generally open to the public because it is very difficult to land there by boat. However, if you're whalewatching or shark diving near Gansbaai, you'll go past it. Just ask the skipper to slow down if you'd like to do some birdwatching.
Around the area
Hermanus, less than an hour's drive away, is a scenic town well-known for its cliff paths, from which you can watch southern right whales mating, giving birth and nursing their calves.
Tours to do
The Dyer Island Conservation Trust is the brainchild of Dyer Island Cruises, which runs whale-watching and shark-diving boat trips. They'll be happy to tell you all you want to know about penguins and the island.
What will it cost
A nest, installed at Dyer Island, will cost approx R400.
Where to stay
Gansbaai, which is about two hours' drive from Cape Town, offers many options.
Gansbaai (the closest town to Dyer Island) is shark-watching central. Great white sharks are here offshore in great profusion, especially during the winter months. From May to November, you'll also see many southern right whales.