Swimming with the African penguin at Boulders beach

Ready to explore another great African destination? Welcome to Boulders Beach, near Cape Town, where you’re about to meet your “local tour guide” for the day.

These tiny little creatures are incredible to watch.

Now listen carefully: your visit with the African penguin starts here!

Meet your local guide


Boulders beach is situated in Simon’s Town, a little haven near Cape Town. The area is protected under the Table Mountain National Park, a top tourist attraction in South Africa. It is home to one of the largest African penguin populations, with an estimated 3000 individuals.

African Penguins or Jackass Penguins?

In a variety of bird books, the little fellows are sometimes known as Jackass penguins (and no, this has nothing to do with the famous American series on MTV 🙂 )!

Strange name, huh? This is due to their distinctive mating call that happens to sound just like a braying donkey! Recently however, scientists have changed its name as other species from South America apparently make the same kind of noise.

Nowadays, Jackass penguins are called African penguins.

Another name for the animal is the Black-footed penguin (quite explicit), or even the Cape penguin.

Interesting Penguin Facts

The visit starts here! (Click to enlarge the image)

Scientific Name: Spheniscus demersus.

Description: Black above, white below (for camouflage against predators). Black “horseshoe” on chest.

Rather pretty, isn’t he?

Juvenile: plain gray/brown.

Youngster enjoying the sun

Habitat: Breeds on inshore islands. Feeds strictly at sea, foraging regularly out 9 miles (15 km).

Typical African penguin habitat

Diet: Mainly fish (anchovy and pilchards).

Height: around 50-70 cm.

Body weight: between 2.1 and 3.7 kg.

Speed: While penguins are quite clumsy on land, they are excellent swimmers and can reach speeds of up to 15 mph (24 km/h). If you get a chance to see them under water, it’s almost as if they are flying!

Any fish?

Breeding season: mostly February-May, but all year around really. Just like humans (at least for most of us …), African penguins are monogamous and partner for life.

Getting the party started

Nesting: Nests in small colonies. Digs nest in sandy area or guano deposit under a boulder or bush, or in a burrow. Lays 2 eggs, which hatch after 38 days. Both parents incubate and feed the chicks.

Nesting in the dunes …

… or under cover!

Range: Restricted to Africa. Off western coast of South Africa, Namibia, South Angola and Mozambique.

Conservation status: numbers decreasing by about 2% a year.

International & South African Red Data Book Status: endangered.

My Experience

There are two beaches in Simon’s Town: one where only penguins are king (Foxy Beach), and the other where both people and penguins share the same sunning, bathing and resting space. The two beaches are adjacent to one another, so you can definitely plan both excursions on the same day.

On the one hand, Foxy Beach is accessible through a boardwalk that overlooks the spot. The admission fee is relatively affordable (R25 for adults and R5 for children; pricing may vary over time). That’s where the largest part of the colony resides, and here no immediate contact with the birds is possible. Really nice scenic view though, and quite fascinating indeed. It’s a perfect venue to see them swim, eat, breed and preen almost without being noticed! I could literally observe them all day …

Panoramic view of Foxy beach and its boardwalk

On the other hand, Boulders Beach is where the real action takes place. Here you get to come face to face with these funny beings! I wouldn’t try to touch them though (it’s strictly forbidden). Penguins can be quite vicious with their sharp beaks, and would cause serious injury in no time. So please keep your distance!

Boulders Beach at high tide

Curious close encounter

The idea is to have a good time, while still respecting the fact that these penguins remain wild animals.

Swimming is also possible, though you have to be more than courageous to take a dip (the water temperature is freezing, rarely reaching 15 degrees Celsius). I tried it a couple of times, but didn’t last very long. 🙂

As far as swimming WITH the penguins … good luck! The little creatures are extremely quick and agile in the water, and it’s impossible to keep up with their rhythm!

Last minute check before leaving 😉

June 2000 “Treasure” Oil Spill

Find out what almost caused the South African penguin population to become extinct …

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4 Responses to Swimming with the African penguin at Boulders beach

  1. africafreak September 21, 2009 at 10:00 am #

    Hey "animaljunkie", how are you? 🙂 Thanks so much for your comment! 😉

    I'm really glad you're thinking of going to UCT. It is definitely one of the best universities in South Africa, and is recognized worldwide for its outstanding academic quality! Not to mention the location which is absolutely stunning, and I hear they have an incredible marine department; you'll love it! 🙂

    Although I am no expert in the marine biology domain, here are a few links that you will most likely find useful:

    – Oceans Research – Marine Research in South Africa. Great website for internships and projects in the marine biology domain:

    – South African Association for Marine Biological Research:

    – The Oceanographic Research Institute:

    – AVIVA, Volunteering in South Africa; Whale & Dolphin Research:

    There are plenty of others, but just start with those and see from there! 😉

    Have you read my article on the Hermanus Whales? If not you really shoud! 🙂

    In terms of the PADI, it would certainly help to get it beforehand but it is by no means a must…as long as you dive with expert divers you'll be just fine with the basics!

    Winter months are best to go on a safari (May-August). For whale watching, consider the months of August-September (during the peak season)!

    Hope this helps…

    Take care and keep in touch,


    PS: Feel free to follow me on Twitter: Cheers 😉 🙂

  2. Alexa September 21, 2009 at 8:58 am #

    I loved your pictures/commentary were great very informative not to mention adorable! I’m thinking of going to the University of Cape Town for my study abroad experience. My major is biology with a concentration in environmental science but I am planning to continue and get a masters in marine biology.

    I was wondering if you have any information about the marine environment in that area. In addition, I would like to hear about other ecological must see spots to visit.

    Are there any places doing marine research that need help or places that I can volunteer that involve marine animals? Unfortunately, I don’t have a scuba certification yet since I’m only in my sophomore year at UNC. Would it help to get PADI certified beforehand? Right now I’m still in the preliminary stages of planning my trip but it will most likely have to wait for next year in either Fall or Spring semester.

    Is there a peak time for animal watching that I should take into account? I’ve done some traveling in Hawaii, Alaska, Italy, France, and Costa Rica but have never been to a place like South Africa it sounds like an exciting country especially for a national geographic animal junkie. Hope to hear from you!

    Thanks Again,

    Alexa aka. animaljunkie

  3. Michael February 8, 2009 at 11:49 pm #

    Thanks Alison! I’m really glad you enjoyed the article :)! Please feel free to give me feedback/your thoughts on the blog…

    What do you think is still missing? Any ideas/suggestions on what could be improved upon? Is there anything in particular that you might be looking for (in terms of articles, interests, etc.)?

    I’m very open to all your comments and suggestions…

    Remember I’m doing this not only for myself, but also (and mostly) for all of you guys out there…

    If I can help in any way, please do let me know…

    Thanks again,

    Michael aka Africafreak

  4. Alison from Cape Town February 6, 2009 at 7:29 am #

    Beautiful article and pictures, Michael! I love the whimsical way you have told the story of the Boulders penguins. They are under so much pressure from the city lifestyle, but they are such a pleasure to live near.

    Thanks for the blog. I’m a fan!

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