Penguins in South Africa - An OverviewThe Penguin Route
The diminutive African Penguin with its peculiar gait, black feet, and obvious cute factor is found mainly on islands off our shoreline. It has also taken up residence amongst us in mainland colonies, like Boulders beach and Stony Point, both of which have become major tourist attractions.
Where? The Penguin Route in the Western and Eastern Cape, South Africa
When? Best between the months of August and December
But just what is a penguin doing in Africa? Equipped by nature for cool, aquatic environments, a penguin on the South African coastline is akin to a fish out of water. Or are they?
Vasco da Gama's voyage around the Cape of Good Hope landed in Mossel Bay in 1497, where he came face-to-face with penguins – the first documented European encounter with Spheniscus demersus.
He and his band of merry men misbehaved by eating a fair number of the penguins, something we have at least had the decency to stop doing. But penguins were on Africa's coastline long before this.
Once there were four different types of penguin here
In March 2013 a new discovery unearthed penguin fossils in South Africa that date back 10 to 12 million years – the oldest fossil evidence we have to date. This discovery predates any other fossil record by at least 5 million years. Scientists now have two what they call 'geological time slices'. In both instances (5 million years ago and 10/12 million years ago) there were four different species of penguin on our coastline. Today there is only one. Scientists can only guess at what happened in between.
They suggest changes in sea level as the principle reason for the penguins' extinction. 12 million years ago sea levels were a lot higher. As high sea levels submerged most of the coast, hilltops would have become islands. Penguins love to live on islands.
Land is actually dangerous for them because of the presence of stoats, cats, dogs and even big birds. Suspected sea level drops reconnected the mainland, leaving them exposed to predators and removing prime nesting colony areas.
The Benguela Current – the reason they're here
What we do know is that the main reason for Africa's penguins' presence today is the Benguela Current. Not only does it provide the penguins with a source of food, but it would have swept its ancestors up the African coast in a current-aided dispersal, delivering them on dry land roughly where they are today from as far away as Brazil (long story: involving the Brazil Current, the east-flowing South Atlantic Current and, finally, the Benguela Current).
The Benguela Current is one of four major eastern boundary current systems in the southern hemisphere that stretches from Algoa Bay near Port Elizabeth to the Angola Front on the west coast of Namibia.
The Penguins evolved in the tropics
Scientists also believe that penguins evolved in the tropics and are not the quintessential cold climate sea bird, as we have come to believe.
They have adapted to cold, rather than the other way around. Penguins as large as humans lived on the Peruvian coast, just south of the equator some 36 million years ago.
Ice sheets that covered Antarctica only appeared during global cooling 34 million years ago. Their presence then in Africa is not that far off the mark.