It’s impossible not to smile when you look at a penguin
Just try it…
As part of a recent blogging trip, hosted by Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism, I visited a non-profit organisation called SAMREC (South African Marine Rehabilitation and Education Centre) situated in the Cape Recife Nature Reserve in Port Elizabeth.
It’s well worth a visit, especially if you have children. Young ones will delight in the widdle-waddle antics of these little tuxedoed comedians – watching them bopping and belly flopping with their paddle-wings and gliding effortlessly through the water. Being closer in size to penguins, I have seen children find much joy in mimicking them!
Kids can also get lost in the centre’s Sea School, an ocean-themed classroom wonderland which encourages them to engage with interesting displays using all their senses.
Libby Shalwood, founder of SAMREC, is a retired school teacher whose interest for ocean life, particularly penguins, grew while volunteering at Bay World. Yet her delight in the natural world begun at an early age, “I was always an animal lover, as a child I used to look after caterpillars in the garden, and take them inside the house when it was raining.”
After a devastating oil spill in 1998, Libby turned her Port Elizabeth home into a sanctuary for some the oiled birds, a rescue operation that saw many of the penguins cleaned, recovered and released back into the wild.
It soon became clear that Port Elizabeth needed a formal penguin rehabilitation centre, which led her to start SAMREC. Port Elizabeth is close to the St Croix islands, which are home to the largest African penguin breeding colony in the world.
“St Croix is in line with the new port of Ngqura which means ships sail right past the breeding colony … a penguin needs only to get a spot of oil as small as a 5 cent coin on its feathers to render it helpless.”
But oil spills are only one of the contributing factors to the African penguins’ endangered status (declared in 2010 by Birdlife International. Commercial fishing, loss of habitat, climate change and imbalanced ecosystems (which, of course, are all intertwined in some way) are serious threats to the species’ survival. Most of the birds brought to SAMREC are just one or two months old.
“…the cold currents in which penguins find their food have been pushed further out to sea. This results in them having to swim almost 60 kilometers away from their burrows and by the time they get back to feed their babies much of the food has been digested so the chicks are not fed properly and therefore take longer to fledge. This has a domino effect: the parents start moulting before the chicks fledge, once in a moult they cant swim and find food so the chicks suffer even more. When the chicks are left to fend for themselves, they don’t know how to catch fish and in their weakened state they can’t cope with the elements and so they are washed up on our beaches.When we get them, either from finding them ourselves or the public bringing them in we treat any diseases they may have, give them a vitamin boost, fatten them up and release them. They still have to learn how to catch fish but at least they are now fit, fat and strong and have a fighting chance. It is important to try and save every bird we can as there are only 25 000 breeding pairs left in the world and 21 000 of those are mostly right here on our doorstep.”
Visiting SAMREC was an experience characterised by mixed emotions – anxiety and concern for the future of penguins, and joyful delight that is impossible not to feel when close to these charismatic birds. There is so much more to write about them, and I wish I could do it all in one blog post but it’s not possible!
Take your kids to see the penguins! We can only save what we love…
And don’t forget to say hello to Agro, SAMREC’s only permanent penguin resident. Unfortunately, he is brain damaged and wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild, (Probably because of seismic testing) Agro has his own special bed to sleep in and, as far as I could tell, seemed like a very happy penguin!
* If you’re in Cape Town, visit the penguin colony at Boulders Beach. If you’re in Port Elizabeth, phone and make an appointment to visit SAMREC (Telephone: +27 (0) 41 583 1830) Also find out about SANCOCOB’s ‘Adopt a Christmas chick’ initiative.