Penguin conservation in South Africa has had to overcome a bewildering array of challenges – climate change, dwindling fish stocks, and lack of suitable habitat. But the most dramatic moment came in 2000, when an oil slick threatened the largest concentration of African penguins. South Africans sprang to the rescue.

Did you know?

African penguins used to be called jackass penguins because of their braying call.

If you squint your eyes only a little, it's easy to see African penguins as knee-high, rather formally dressed little people.

They are endearing creatures, and observing them up close and personal at Boulders Beach near Cape Town, where a colony of over 3000 birds are thriving, remains one of life's great joys.

But their numbers have been diminishing for decades. In 2010 the African penguin was listed as endangered on the Red Data list.

Penguin conservation in South Africa has demanded some innovative thinking. Back in the winter of 2000, a ship carrying 1300 tons of oil sank near Robben and Dassen islands – sanctuaries critical to the conservation of penguins. It had the makings of a real disaster.

Oiled penguins were rehabilitated by hundreds of volunteers at Sanccob (the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds). Thousands of unoiled penguins were fenced in to stop them going into the polluted sea. But they couldn't be kept there indefinitely.

A cunning plan was hatched to buy time. More than 20 000 African penguins were taken to Port Elizabeth and they were released into the sea, nearly 1000 km away from their traditional home.

Three penguins had transmitters fitted, and the South African public breathlessly followed their progress as they and the others swam back home, giving authorities two weeks' grace to clean up the islands' beaches.

Another heart-warming story is that of the penguin nests. Penguins prefer to nest in burrows or under bushes, protecting their eggs and young from heat and predation.

The Dyer Island Conservation Trust came up with the idea of artificial fibrecrete burrows for penguins. Once installed, penguins move in almost immediately and breed successfully – a real boost for penguin conservation in South Africa.

Apart from Boulders Beach in Cape Town, you can also see African penguins at the excellent South African Marine Rehabilitation and Education Centre (Samrec) rehabilitation and visitors' centre in Port Elizabeth, at the Sanccob head office and visitors' centre in Tableview, Cape Town, and at the Sanccob Eastern Cape centre in Cape St Francis.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Boulders Visitor Centre
Tel: +27 (0)21 786 2329
Kleintuin Road, Simon's Town

Cape Town Tourism (Simon's Town Visitor Centre)
Tel: +27 (0)21 786 8440
Email: simonstown@capetown.travel

Samrec (South African Marine Rehabilitation and Education Centre), Port Elizabeth
Tel: +27 (0)41 583 1830
Email: info@samrec.org.za
Cape Recife Nature Reserve, Marine Drive, Port Elizabeth

Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism (Port Elizabeth)
Tel: +27 (0)41 582 2575
Email: info@nmbt.co.za

Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (Sanccob)
Tel: +27 (0)21 557 6155
Email: info@sanccob.co.za
22 Pentz Drive, Tableview, Cape Town

Sanccob Eastern Cape
Tel: +27 (0)42 298 0160
Email: wilma@sanccob.co.za
Seal Point Lighthouse, Cape St Francis

How to get here

Boulders Beach, one of the best places to view African penguins in the wild, is within easy driving distance from Cape Town, around 30 minutes or so from the city centre. You could also see them at Robben Island (take the ferry) or Betty's Beach, an hour or two along the coast, or at the Sanccob centre in Tableview.

Samrec is a short drive south of Port Elizabeth, and you'll find Penguins Eastern Cape at the picturesque Cape St Francis, about an hour's drive south of Port Elizabeth.

What will it cost

It costs R40 (adults and children over 12), R15 (children over two and under 12) for entry to Boulders Beach, where there is a visitors' centre and boardwalks from which you can view the penguins.

Entrance to Samrec in Port Elizabeth is R25 for adults and R15 for children. You can visit any time from 9.30am to 3.30pm every day, but if you can, come for the daily penguin feeding at 2.30pm.

The Sanccob centre in Tableview, Cape Town, offers tours Monday to Friday at 11am and 3pm (weather permitting) and every second Saturday at 10am, 12pm and 3pm, for R50 per person. Book one day in advance; maximum 10 people per tour.

What to pack

Sunglasses and sunblock are musts. Don't forget the camera, African penguins are photogenic.

Where to stay

If you are going to Boulders Beach, try a quaint B&B or guest lodge in nearby Simon's Town, a historical coastal town with plenty to see and do.

There are dozens of accommodation options in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and at Cape St Francis.