It’s a warm, sunny afternoon in mid-May when I step on to the white sand beach in Simon’s Town, a dramatically picturesque spot 25 miles outside of Cape Town, South Africa. Giant granite rocks rise up from the sheltered cove’s seafoam green water, lending the beach its moniker: Boulders Beach.
The first living beings I spot are a pair of African penguins perched companionably atop one of the large boulders. While one is preening, the other appears to be standing guard. I wander over to Foxy Beach, the next cove to the north, and as I stroll along an observation boardwalk, dozens of penguins are nesting in the sand, among the rocks, under the boardwalk, and all the way up the hillside to the luxury homes overlooking the ocean. Some of the birds, measuring about two feet tall and weighing up to 11 pounds, are so close I could touch them, with a few poking their heads out from beneath the boardwalk to snap at ankles in case we humans get too close to their nests. Otherwise they go about their business as if dozens of giants weren’t ogling them and invading their turf.
One particular penguin suddenly throws his head back and opens his beak wide. At first I think he’s yawning, but then he begins to bray like a donkey. (The species was formerly known as the jackass penguin for this very reason.) Looking out toward the ocean, a half dozen miniature tuxedoed creatures emerge from the surf and waddle up the beach, their wings flapping in the air.
As delightful as the tableau before me is, the reality is more bittersweet: The African penguin is critically endangered. Recently the subject of the quirky Netflix docu-series “Penguin Town,” filmed in Simon’s Town, African penguins, or Spheniscus demersus, breed only in Namibia and South Africa. Their closest relatives are the Magellanic, Humboldt and Galapagos penguins in South America. Only two percent of the African penguin population that existed in the early 1900s remains today, with fewer than 20,000 breeding pairs left in the wild, 13,300 of these in South Africa.
Several hundred can be found on Boulders and Foxy Beaches year-round. But, around November, things get busier when more penguins from around False Bay (which Simon’s Town overlooks), in addition to other areas along the southern coast of South Africa and as far as Namibia, begin landing on the beach to molt. Single penguins will snag mates, and couples, both new and established, will start breeding around January or February. By April, the colony swells to approximately 1,000 breeding pairs, with nests carpeting the beach and spreading into residential gardens around town.
With a typical lifespan of 20 to 30 years, African penguins begin breeding between the ages of four and six. The birds lay one or two eggs at a time, and can raise up to two broods per year. Eggs incubate for about 40 days before they hatch. When the chicks are several weeks old, both parents will go to sea and the chicks will stay on land in a creche (or “penguin daycare”), sometimes with an adult standing guard. At three or four months, the chicks fledge, their feathers now waterproof so they can swim without drowning. The parents leave them on their own on the beach and, like young adults on a gap year, the fledglings head out to sea with others their age. The penguins travel long distances, often heading west and north, sometimes into Namibia, and can stay out at sea for up to a year. Only 35 to 40 percent of all fledglings survive the first year at sea. These survivors return to land to molt into their adult plumage.
“We are working so hard on all fronts to secure the survival of the birds, both in the colonies and at sea,” says Katrin Ludynia, research manager of the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB).
Founded in 1968 to rescue oiled penguins and other sea birds, SANCCOB now has researchers, veterinarians, rangers and rehabilitators devoted to studying, rescuing and rehabilitating African penguins, as well as hand-rearing chicks when abandoned eggs are found on the beach. They also offer educational talks and guided tours of their seabird rehabilitation center in Cape Town.
The foundation admits around 1,000 penguins each year, about 50 percent of them chicks who are being hand-reared. When the birds are injured, ill or oiled (as a result of an oil spill), staff will capture them and admit them to their rehabilitation center. They will release them back into the wild once they are well enough and able to fend for themselves. In cases where the birds would not be able to survive on their own, SANCCOB keeps them at the rehabilitation center, where staff care for the penguins for the rest of their lives. Some of these non-releasable birds can become very tame and will jump on staff’s laps (as in seen in the docu-series), but Ludynia is careful to emphasize that staff and volunteers do not cuddle with releasable penguins.
The rehabilitation process depends on the individual bird, but generally follows a specific feeding, swimming, medication and treatment plan. For the most part, birds spend between four to 16 weeks in rehabilitation before being released back into the wild. Penguins are evaluated on a weekly basis in terms of overall health, blood results, weight and the waterproofing of their feathers. Before they are released into an existing colony, penguins are implanted with a transponder, which is injected under the skin. In this way, researchers are able to monitor the birds post-release. Since 2006, SANCCOB has hand-reared more than 7,000 African penguin chicks that have been released back into the wild. Happily, rangers and volunteers have spotted many of these individuals breeding.
Simon’s Town wasn’t always blessed with a penguin colony. It all started back in 1985 when two breeding pairs chose the town’s beaches as their breeding grounds. In the early '80s, a ban on the industrial fishing of sardines and anchovies took effect in False Bay, and the availability of fish there remains better than elsewhere. In other areas of the African penguin's range, the stocks of small pelagic fish can get dangerously low, and penguins end up competing with fisheries.
“False Bay seems to be a good location for the birds to forage," she says. "All the birds we’ve tracked in recent years stayed within the bay. This indicates there’s sufficient food for them close to the colony.”
The town itself also provides some extra protection to the birds from terrestrial predators like caracals. "Historically, African penguins wouldn’t have been breeding on the mainland as they would have been attacked by wild animals," says Ludynia, "but the existence of the town, with people and traffic, does, in a way, protect these birds."
The penguin population increased rapidly, topping out at 1,200 breeding pairs in 2005. Since then the figure has been decreasing slightly, but Simon’s Town is the only stable colony. It is also one of only two land-based colonies, the other one being Stony Point, on the other side of False Bay. This means the penguins here can be easily observed, unlike colonies at sea.
According to SANCCOB, the biggest threats facing the penguins, apart from predation by seals, caracals, leopards, mongoose, and cats and dogs, come from human activity. Oil spills, marine pollution, habitat destruction, climate change and industrial fishing have all played a role, with industrial fishing being the number one contributor to the decline of the African penguin.
“We need the government, we the need fishing industry to address the lack of food facing the birds and, really, for everyone to understand the seriousness of this, where the African penguin could in fact become extinct” said Nicky Stander, SANCCOB’s preparedness and response manager in a video. “And I can’t imagine a future without them.”
Cayley Christos, one of the producers of “Penguin Town,” says, “If it weren’t for SANCCOB, they’d probably be extinct by now."
Making an already difficult situation worse for the penguins, the Simon’s Town colony suffered a tragic blow in September this year when 63 penguins suddenly died overnight as a result of being stung by honey bees. The penguins had evidently been wounded around the eyes and flippers, areas which are not protected by feathers. Ludynia told NBC News Now that it was a “complete freak accident.” The foundation’s clinical veterinarian, David Roberts, added, “The African penguin population is rapidly declining, and it is very sad to see the deaths of so many healthy, most likely breeding adults.”
Christos and Alex Sletten, co-owners of Red Rock Films International and the producers of “Penguin Town,” are particularly concerned about the penguins’ precarious status due to the detrimental effects of industrial fishing. “If the penguins can’t get enough sardines and anchovies to eat, they will not survive,” says Christos. The partners took this so much to heart that the two maintained a vegetarian diet throughout the 10 months of filming, which began in December 2019. They also asked their crew to make the same commitment.
During filming, the producers and crew witnessed some frustrating and devastatingly sad moments, like seeing penguins getting caught in plastic bags or watching them get accosted by paparazzi. In the months spent capturing 2,000 hours of footage, Christos says the most heartbreaking moment came when they saw a penguin get run over in the parking lot. “We all just walked inside and cried.”
SANCCOB is working to reduce the number of birds breeding in gardens so that they don’t have to cross streets. They are also trying to encourage people to look underneath their cars before they drive off so that resting penguins don’t get crushed.
“It’s just so hard not to get involved," says Christos." I think we spent a lot of the time feeling angry. On the other hand, we thought, if we could tell a story that people connected with, then maybe we could make an impact, maybe we could make people behave better. That’s always the hope.”
Spending time in Simon’s Town, where penguins are regularly seen walking up and down the sidewalks, it’s hard not to feel a connection. One time, Christos and her partner Sletten were sitting in the living room of the house they were renting while filming, each working on their laptops, when Sletten whispered, Don't move! There's a penguin right behind you! “It was so incredible,” Christos says. "We got the camera out and we got down low on the floor, and we filmed him wandering around the house.” Some of this footage is used in the series.
“Penguin Town,” which premiered on Netflix on June 16, consists of eight 20- to 30-minute episodes filled with bouncy pop music and narrated by actor and comedian Patton Oswalt. Each installment tells the story of various penguin couples and singles in a sort of bizarre endangered wildlife version of a reality dating show. We meet ‘Junior,’ who ends up in rehab at SANCCOB because he is starving as a result of being unable to molt properly. We also meet four penguin couples—‘the Bougainvilleas,’ 'the Culverts,’ ‘the Courtyards,’ and ‘the Wheelbarrows,’ cutely named by the film crew after the places where they lived, who go through the joys and heartbreaks of raising chicks. By focusing on the stories of these particular penguins, viewers connect to the birds and care about their plight.
“It’s difficult to get people to care when you make a typical wildlife documentary,” says Christos. “We wanted to reach more people, more young people.”
The docu-series is lighthearted without brushing over the dangers and difficulties the African penguins face every day. Viewers have been moved to donate to SANCCOB, which, in addition to rehab, is calculating the long-term survival of the penguins, tracking their movements, and studying the ways in which they are impacted by noise pollution and climate change. Not to mention, tourism in Simon’s Town has been on the rise since the series premiered.
For Christos, the happiest, most moving moment came after months of agonizing over the fate of the ‘Bougainvillea’ family, one of the penguin families followed in the series that perhaps best embodies the agony and the ecstasy of the birds’ existence. When ‘Mrs. Bougainvillea’ fails to return home from her fishing expedition, ‘Mr. B’ steps up and raises the chicks on his own. (The crew suspected that ‘Mrs. B’ was the penguin the crew had seen being run over by a car in the parking lot.)
Over the next few months, the crew watched ‘Mr. B’ run himself ragged with the responsibilities of single parenting and having to leave the chicks alone for hours on end while he was out fishing. Left alone, the chicks were exposed to many dangers, including three single young penguin bullies who hang out in the parking lot down the hill from the bougainvillea bush under which the aptly-named ‘Bougainvillea’ family lived; a large pet dog belonging to the family who owned the house and garden where the penguins made their home; and even a caracal who roamed the streets of Simon’s Town in broad daylight when South Africa went into lockdown.
The babies came very close to starving to death or being killed. Some days the crew thought they were going to have to call SANCCOB to come rescue the chicks, but then ‘Mr. B’ would come home to feed them and chase the “bad guys” away. Then, one day in June, one by one, the chicks followed their father out of the garden and jumped over the wall.
“We just looked at each other, and we were in tears," says Christos. “That this single dad managed to send these chicks off to sea. It was like watching your child going off to university. It was the most beautiful moment.”