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My First Wild Penguins! Betty's Bay, South Africa

Sunday, January 3, 2016

African black oystercatcher, Stony Point, Betty's Bay

Years ago, when I lived in Connecticut, I was commissioned to create a sketchbook of penguins for  the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic Seaport. My friend Ed Ricciuti, a writer, recommended me to an exhibit company that was contracted by the Aquariium. It was the perfect marriage of job and artist. I got to go to Mystic Aquarium and draw their flock of 28 beautiful African black-footed penguins from life. I researched their natural history and made drawings that illustrated aspects of their life, from behavior, breeding and feeding to the threats posed by offshore oil spills. Black-footed penguin populations have decreased 70% in the last ten years, thanks to habitat loss, oil spills, and baitfish collapses due to overfishing. Ack.

Far more than just displaying penguins, Mystic Aquarium helps the birds in South Africa, as well. Each year, its staff travels to South Africa to work with wild penguins and the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds. Mystic Aquarium staff rehabilitates abandoned penguin chicks, oiled birds and helps bolster wild chicks--taking in weak or sick chicks and saving each precious one for further breeding and/or repatriation to the wild.

I was so proud to contribute my artwork to this display, which includes underwater viewing ports and a big station where you can watch these merry little birds torpedoing around in streams of silver bubbles.

from Mystic Aquarium's website

from Mystic Aquarium's website

Photo by Karen Kemp. My sweet grand-nephews Will and Max for scale!

My drawings were blown up a zillion percent and baked onto a score of enamel panels that line the exhibit. This was in the late 1980's, and amazingly enough, the panels still stand and look great today, through 25 years of rain, snow and shine.

So it was with more than the ordinary amount of excitement that I approached a colony of black-footed penguins in the wild. I had had the privilege of spending many hours with them in captivity. I'd even held a few. It's like holding a live football or a small tuna; they're like India rubber, dense and hard and very, very strong.

The first thing I saw was not a penguin but a rock hyrax, or dassie, as they're called locally. OMGGG!!!

These rotundly adorable animals (about the size of a Scottie) live in rockpiles and feed on whatever vegetation they can find. I was NOT expecting hyraxes. Hyraces. Dassies. These.

Hyraxes find their closest living relatives not in rabbits or rodents but manatees and elephants. They are a miracle of evolution.

And this one reminded me of a certain dearly missed Side of Bacon, baking in the sun. I know. You don't go down and kiss the brisket of a wild hyrax. But oh, I could have.

Soon enough, the penguins materialized before us. I was so thrilled to see a thriving colony full of older juveniles, still begging from their parents. The steel-blue one is a juvenile; the black one its parent.

This juvenile is in the process of molting out of its first natal (baby) down, and into its first juvenal plumage. They look like fairy penguins at this stage, but they're much too large. And those are in Australia and New Zealand, anyhoo.

The black-footed penguins nest under rocks and vegetation and in burrows they dig with their feet and bills. This colony happens to be just outside a luxury housing development; it's in a band between the homes and the sea.

Whosoever lives amongst penguins needs to develop olfactory fatigue, and quickly, for they are the stankiest of birds. They are as stanky as they are adorable and endearing. That's pretty stanky.

And there are lots of people living amongst penguins here. I had to hand it to them for putting up with the neighbors. Not only do they stink to high heaven; they bray, too, which accounts for their common name of "jackass penguin." Perhaps the fact that they're not in residence year round helps. I'd love to think that the homeowners take pride in their diminutive endangered neighbors.

The gale of that morning was still raging; the cold ocean currents hitting warmer water make for some wild weather around the Cape. Even with fresh air racing through our lungs, the stench of fish emulsion was remarkable. We remarked on it, a lot.

Penguins radiate excess heat via these bare patches over their eyes. A pink penguin is either very excited or too hot, as this basking fellow was becoming. 

I couldn't believe I was finally seeing wild penguins. I never thought I'd make it to a penguin colony, but I was very glad that I didn't have to cross the ocean to get to Antarctica to accomplish it. A bit of a landlubber, I'll admit.

More on Stony Point Penguin Colony in the next installment!


Good Lord, you flew 35,000 feet above the ocean for hours to get to Africa. That is way scarier than a ship to me. Ships just stop if the engines die.
I had the thought, " That critter has a Chet Baker expression before I ever read your caption so ... validation!

Penguinvy :)

It is so cool that your artwork is still part of the Mystic Aquarium's penguin exhibit. Love knowing that the black-footed penguins are stanky. Rock hydraxi & penguins in the same day, who'da thunk it? I guess after a certain time of bacon deprivation, everything sorta starts looking like bacon. Luckily, only Bacon smells like Bacon.

Posted by Gail Spratley January 3, 2016 at 9:30 AM

I always love reading your posts because I learn something new, see your beautiful photographs, and get to enjoy your sense of humor. What adorable animals you were lucky enough to see. Thanks for sharing!

Thanks for the blog from South Africa! More please!

Check and check--we saw dassies all over Table Mountain (or at least the part of Table Mountain where we were...we rode up, not climbed as some folk do). And penguins--my son-in-law LOVES penguins, so we visited a penguin colony. Yes, yes--they do emit a powerful odor. Beyond any barnyard smells I ever encountered.

Two new African Penguins were hatched at the Toledo, OH zoo. They will be on display with their parents in the spring.

Posted by Anonymous January 6, 2016 at 3:04 PM
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