It would have taken a hard-hearted curmudgeon not to experience a lifting of the heart as 17 African penguins took to the ocean at Stony Point in Betty’s Bay last Saturday. It was exciting; it brought a smile to the lips and spontaneous applause from the spectators to see them waddling out of their holding boxes, down the short sandy beach and into the water.

PHOTO: SANCCOB

Then, sticking close to one another, they seemed to be looking round at the wide vistas of sea and sky in delight. “Wow, just look at this,” they seemed to be saying, before ducking below the water as if to the manner born, “this is what I mean, guys.”

The three adult and 14 juvenile African penguins were being released after a period of roughly a month at the SANCCOB (Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) Rehabilitation Centre in Cape Town. For CapeNature, which is responsible for the Stony Point colony, and SANCCOB officials, every fit and healthy penguin returned to the ocean is a victory. This is a highly endangered species, which has crashed catastrophically over recent decades and continues to do so.

According to Dr Stephen van der Spuy, CEO of SANCCOB, in the 1930s it was calculated that there were roughly 5 million birds on Dassen Island alone; today there are approximately 5 000. In fact, about 50% of the South African population is currently to be found on Bird and St Croix Islands in Algoa Bay in the Eastern Cape, while in the Western Cape, the most significant colony is that at Stony Point. Although there has been a slight dip in numbers this year, it is the only colony in this province which is showing consistent growth.

PHOTO: CapeNature

As researcher Dr Lauren Waller points out, the declining numbers in the African penguin population are a clear indication that there are serious problems in our oceans, which need to be identified and addressed before we see similar drops in other seabird numbers. Despite the fact that survival is a struggle for these lovable little creatures, they are remarkably tough, says Lauren.

“Without being anthropomorphic, I do admire these little guys. Just imagine now, they have been sitting in cardboard boxes all the way from Cape Town, they have been handled by several people; they have no idea what is going to happen to them; then they arrive here, noise and crowds are all around them, yet they jump out of their boxes and waddle off into the sea as if they don’t have a care in the world.

“I have seen birds arrive at our centre with really horrifying wounds and I’ve thought this bird will never make it,” she adds. “Yet they respond exceptionally well to intensive care and in a remarkably short time, they are as fit as a fiddle again and back in their natural environment. How could one not admire their will to survive?”

With such dwindling numbers in mind, members of the public are urged to contact SANCCOB immediately should they come across a hurt or ill bird. The 24-hour help number is 021 557 6155.

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