The lives of penguins on South Africa’s Robben Island are defined by the rhythms of their daily commute. Every morning, they parade down penguin highways to the sea, and every evening they return to their nests along the same paths, full of half-digested fish that they regurgitate to their whining chicks.
I was crouched behind a camouflage net to avoid scaring skittish birds on their way home after a long day of fishing. My job was to read the numbers on flipper bands. Scientists have banded about 4,000 chicks and 40,000 adult penguins in this area over the past 33 years to find out how long they live and where they feed, swim and nest.
Eight penguins, not yet tagged, teetered on the crest of a sloping rock face and stopped just a few feet away to soak up the last of the sun. These are not the world’s most beautiful penguins. They don’t have the aristocratic bearing and the polar mystique of the emperor penguin. They’re not as brightly colored as the king penguin, with its glowing gold neck and nape, probably the most beautiful of all penguins. Nor do they have the shining yellow head feathers of the crested species, the macaroni and rockhopper penguins.
The African penguin, though, is handsome in its own simple way. A single band of black loops around its white belly and chest, from foot to foot, like a horseshoe. White stripes curve around its black cheeks, giving the bird the appearance of wearing a white hood. A few black spots mark the chest, different for each bird. The only decorative flair is a patch of pink skin from eye to beak.
The birds continued their hike home, heading inland to their waiting chicks, which were already begging for food. I heard a cacophony of braying as penguins still at the nest called out to guide their mates home. A harsh and hoarse donkey sound, the call earned the birds their former name: jackass penguins. Every night the island echoes with tone-deaf serenades, sung to establish and affirm mating bonds. They honk out a loud chorus, chests pumping like bellows and beaks pointed to the sky. The penguins might seem operatic if their songs weren’t so ridiculously unmusical.
Something about the daily migration captures the animals’ dignity and comedy. They are so purposeful, so earnest, so serious in their stiff-legged waddle, wings rigidly forward. Often as I watched, they would hear a noise or see something startling, like a gull, and the entire group would dissolve in a general panic, fleeing in all directions, using their flippers like front legs, even running over each other.
African penguins have not been celebrated in movies, but they find themselves on center stage now as one of the world’s most endangered penguins. Researchers have been studying penguins here since the early 1980s, and their work has shed a harsh light on a species in free fall, with a population down more than 95 percent in 100 years. “I hate to say it,” says Richard Sherley, a biologist at the University of Cape Town who now runs the Robben Island study, “but unless something serious changes, the African penguin may be on its way out.”
Robben Island is best known as the site of the former maximum-security prison that once held Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists, and one morning I accompanied Sherley to the dense acacia trees in front of the hulking structure, now a museum (see “A Monument to Courage,”). Sherley fought through heavy brush to reach a young chick in its nest, a hollow in the sand about the size of a kitchen sink. Flippers out and oversize feet cocked upward, the penguin chick squirmed in Sherley’s grip. He lifted it and handed it to me.
For sheer cuteness, the baby penguin was tough to top. It looked more like a bottom-heavy stuffed toy than a living creature; it was covered in a thick velour of down and was mostly gray except for its white belly and bulging white cheeks.
“Watch out for the beak,” Sherley said, bringing me back to the task at hand. “Oh, and the poop, too—a stream of hot fish soup.”