“Neither fish, flesh nor fowl is the penguin. On land it stumps, afloat it sculls, in the air it flops. Nature keeps this ungainly child hidden away at the end of the Earth.”Herman Melville; 19th century author
When watching an African penguin sporting gracefully in the Atlantic, or visiting one of the two land-based colonies that exist (at Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town and Stony Point in Betty’s Bay on the opposite side of False bay), it’s unlikely that your first thoughts will be of the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. But it was this calamitous occurrence that gave rise to penguins as we know them today, albeit in somewhat circuitous fashion. The extinction is believed to have been the result of an asteroid colliding with the earth 66 million years ago in the Yucatan Peninsula off Mexico, the resulting global ‘impact winter’ causing the extinction of over 75% of Earth’s species, including all tetrapods and non-avian dinosaurs. But life doesn’t give up that easily, and the resulting evolutionary opportunities saw survivors adapt and diverge into new forms and species. These palaeognathes included the species that was to become our beloved penguins, a group of birds which, put scientifically, were forced by ‘…new ecological influences to converge on flightless modes of existence by altering them morphologically and behaviourally.’ Put simply, flying was no longer necessary – foraging and feeding had to happen at sea level, so penguins adapted. Their wings became flippers, their bones grew more dense (to assist with diving) and they put on a great deal of subcutaneous fat to keep out the chill. Which was a problem after man evolved to become a greedy hunter, as we’ll see below.
Depending on who you believe, there are currently either 17 or 20 differing extant species of penguin, and all except one group, the Galapagos penguins, reside in the southern hemisphere. (Which is why you’ll never see a Polar bear eating a penguin.) It’s not only the numbers of species that confuse the experts; the origins of the name itself is debated by those in the know. One school of thought is that it is from the Welsh ‘pen’ – white, and ‘gwyn’ – head, and was originally applied to the Great Auk, which lived conveniently on Pen Gwyn Island in Newfoundland. The name was then applied – mistakenly – by sailors who first saw the Southern Hemisphere penguins. An alternative etymology links the word to Latin pinguis, which means ‘fat’ or ‘oil’, and the Germanic word for penguin – Fettgans, or ‘fat-goose’ – supports this theory. A little vaguely, in our opinion, but who are we to argue with etymologists? Besides, the melodic Welsh is more romantic. For those of us who have seen the land-based groups of penguins, the collective noun is perfect: a ‘waddle of penguins’. Put the same group into the ocean, and they become a ‘raft of penguins’. Perhaps an ‘acrobat of penguins’ would be even more apt.
Penguins have adapted superbly to aquatic life. Intriguingly, their underwater antics are almost identical to their airborne cousins; their wing-derived flippers still act as wings underwater, and watching them dive, loop and soar below the surface at speeds up to 12 kph is a treat that brings great joy to divers privileged to witness their frolics. Their smooth plumage holds a layer of air that has two functions: it assists with buoyancy, and also acts as an insulation layer to help ward off the chills of their chosen habitat.
The penguins that we have here in the Western Cape are the African penguins, and their territory extends from Namibia through to Port Elizabeth. They are the only penguins that breed in our waters, and the twenty islands along the Namibian coastline were collectively named the Penguin Islands as a result of this activity. (These islands remained as South African possessions after Namibia’s independence in 1990, ownership only being transferred four years later. The penguins would have had to change their passports.) African penguins are not particularly large as far as penguins go – there is a trend that sees size increase the further south penguins breed; they average around 65cms in height and around 3kgs in weight. Like all penguins, they control blood temperature through glands above the eyes; the hotter they get, the more blood is diverted to the glands to cool, giving them a permanent ‘pink-eye’ look. Like many seabirds (albatrosses in particular), penguins have an additional facial gland that removes salt from seawater, allowing them to live without needing to access fresh water supplies. Pretty handy for a sea creature, we think.
It would be difficult to document the effect that humans have had on our ocean inhabitants: a shameful list many volumes thick, and penguins have borne the brunt of the exploitation. They have been thoughtlessly culled for their oil and flesh for centuries, and the African penguins have suffered along with the 17 (or 20) other species. From around 4 million in 1800 down to 1.5 million by 1910; by 2000 only 200 000 were left. By 2010, this number had diminished to 55 000 and African penguins hit the ‘endangered’ scientific classification. It is estimated that at this rate the African penguin will be extinct by 2026. That would be a disgrace.
At Waterfront Charters we support the endeavours of SANCCOB and other wildlife preservation societies. The ocean creatures that surround us on our cruises are more than just attractions – they are part and parcel of Mother Earth and her legacy, and we will do all in our power to help preserve, protect and further the cause of all the co-inhabitants of our planet. Join us for any one of our cruises and if you are lucky enough to see penguins at sea, you too will marvel at how nature has adapted to survive everything, except perhaps for humans.