Pilchard Please ~ Hanging with Jackass Penguins in South Africa
The man in charge yelled out to us to “just pull open the beak and shove it down.” I gave it my best try, but I just couldn’t do it. Those squinted frightened eyes looked up at me in terror. He didn’t know any better. We were both scared. Then, he bit me. Ouch. The guy yelled at me again, to “hold him tight, and once it is in part way, he will swallow, it will be easy.” I tried again. I picked up the pilchard by its tail. It was ten times the size of those minnows I fished with years ago. Here I go. I gripped the slimy pilchard with my hand, opened his long pointed beak and forced it into his mouth. He did not like it. I forced a bit more. His throat opened wider and he then swallowed. Whew. And then he bit me again. I never did like the sight of blood. We tried again. This time my husband sat on the ground, he put the little penguin between his legs, and then put his thumb and forefinger at edge of the mouth to force open his sharp beak. I quickly grabbed another pilchard from the bucket and point it head first and tried to push it slowing down the penguin’s throat. He started to get it. I think he realized we were there to help him eat! The bucket was half full of pilchards and we had one more to go. We continued until we got three pilchards down that little jackass’ throat. Poor thing looked in a daze the entire time; he didn’t know we were there to help him. The little one was so frightened. He was cold, wet, and starving. We moved him to the next step, the heaters. Poor little guy probably just witness the beginning of horrible suffering of his colony. His mom was now dead, and his colony dying off daily. His once thick black and white coat now drenched with oil from the recent spill. Depressed and mal-nourished, he was one of many African Jackass Penguins suffering. And this story is just the beginning…
It was a sad day in 1994 when an oil tanker, the Apollo, busted open at sea, and more than 2,400 tons of fuel oil bled into all areas of the ocean near Cape Town, where the African penguin population flourished. Nearly 40,000 African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) were affected and dying right and left. Many died from hypothermia, as the oil reduced the waterproofing and insulating of their feathers. The local community took action to try to save these small jackass penguins. The SA Navy partnered with SANCCOB and worked together to rescue all that they could. After finding a large park with pool areas, they launched their operation. The SA Navy reached out to the local community and asked for help to save these sweet birds. Many people answered their call, and came from varied backgrounds to the help clean, feed and nurture the sweet the penguins back to go health. We joined them.
When Pat and I heard the radio news report of the oil spill and potential death of the thousands of Africa penguins, we felt just sick. It was incredibly sad news. We sat in silence for a while, and then discussed how we could help. What could a couple of Americans do to help save these precious penguins in South Africa? We were so saddened. We later heard a plea for volunteers to come out to the shelter and help clean and feed the penguins. That was our call to action! We can do this! We immediately spread the word at the U.S. Embassy, and then coordinated an effort for us to volunteer at the shelter on the weekends. We weren’t sure what we would find. I wanted to skip work and go right there but waited. That Saturday morning we got up early and put on our oldest warm clothes, grabbed some gloves and old sneakers and headed out to the old Navy yard. On our first visit there, as we approached the entrance we heard what we thought were donkeys braying. It was the penguins. We learned later their nickname jackass penguins came from their braying cry which resembles that of donkeys. There was much braying going on that day.
Once inside the pool gates we were greeted briefly, exchanged first names, and given a quick tour of the operation and put right to work. My husband and I teamed up. We went to the large pools, and they gave us orders. Some of the team helped clean the penguin’s fur and feathers. Unlike whales and seals, penguins do not have blubber to insulate them against the cold, but they have a layer of air trapped beneath their feathers which gets severely damaged when coming into contact with an oil spill. Knowing that, the first step is to take each penguin, one at a time, and dip him into a warm cleaning solution. They lined up tall trash cans and containers filled with this cleaning solution, made from Dawn dishwashing liquid detergent. The same Dawn my mom used for cleaning dishes at home. They used this detergent to wash out the oil from the penguins feathers, and then rinsed the penguins in a bin of warm water. After that process, the penguins are brought to the large pool to get use to swimming again. Unfortunately many penguins were quite ill and had a long recovery ahead; some were placed in areas with heat lamps to protect them from hypothermia. The penguins seemed stunned and in a daze, and very stresses. Many were very ill and maybe even in shock from the horrific impact of the oil spill. The timing was even more critical, as the disaster occurred during the penguins’ breeding season, which greatly affected the survival of the chicks and unhatched eggs.
Once the penguins were cleaned, they were moved on to feeding stations. Typically, the penguin’s diets are made up of fresh fish, and since they couldn’t fend for themselves, we helped them. There were buckets and buckets full of dead pilchards. We were instructed to force feed these to the little penguins. It was an awful grueling experience, yet we knew they needed to eat, and there only chance of survival. The little guys were scared and thought we were there to hurt them. They pecked back at me, and boy did that hurt, and my hands were red with blood. We wiped the blood off and would go on to round two. Pat held the penguin between his legs and I force fed them the pilchards. We fed them 2-3 pilchards at one feeding. After feeding one, we lead each to the next step of feeding vitamins. Each penguin got their daily vitamins. We had to force open the beak again and push vitamins down. After the entire process of cleaning, feeding and pushing vitamins, the penguins could go off back to their penguin families. Many did not and sat alone. It was sad. Many penguins lost their feathers, their insulation and were freezing and often died. Many mother penguins lost penguin chicks. It was sad to see the penguins die off, young and old. They would just drop. We couldn’t pick them up fast enough to clean, feed and keep them warm. Many died from hypothermia or malnutrition. Yet, many were saved.
Thousands of the Jack Ass Penguins were actually saved during this rescue mission and kept in a safe place until the time was right to release them back to sea. After their weight, blood results and plumage were healthy, and time was right, it happened. Those cute small donkey braying penguins were loaded up on the US Navy ship brought to a safe unloading area, free from oil and waste, and were released at sea. It was amazing sight. They swam in their group and headed right back to where they knew to be home. It seemed they knew exactly where to return to. We watched as this long black streak of African Jackass penguins swam in the sea, the black streak continued to get smaller and smaller as they move further away. This image is one I will not forget. These sweet little ones were swimming back home.
I fell in love with those little African penguins. They are very sweet family-oriented creatures, and it was like they finally understood that we were that to help them get back home. Due to the efforts of the SA Navy, community organizers and volunteers they did get home.
This experience changed our lives and made us more aware of how our little part of a whole team, helped save these beautiful creatures. We had become their friends after all. We thought about our time with these guys, and often took drives a few hours from Cape Town to the penguin colony in an area called Boulder Beach. I thought, naively, how nice it would be if we might recognize the ones we saved. The bond was so great and I just didn’t want to lose it. It didn’t matter either way, we did our job, and there were hundreds of little penguins and their chicks alive today.
We continued to find ways to support the penguin population. I found a small project to raise funds. I met a local artist who I asked to help design t-shirts with a beautiful African Jackass Penguin, to write “Save the Penguin.” He did and I bought them and then sold them to raise donations for the local Penguin Saving Fund. We tried to do our part to help out. It was also nice to be acknowledged for our efforts by the South African Navy and given an official Certificate for the help in Saving the Penguins.
Today, Jackass penguins are the only nesting penguins found on the African continent. They occur from Bird Island near Port Elizabeth in the east, all round the south coast, and up the West Coast of South Africa into Namibia. They nest in colonies, mainly on offshore islands, but two colonies recently became established on the mainland. One of these is at Boulders Beach, near Simonstown, and the other is at Bettys Bay. Both locations are in the southwestern part of Western Cape Province, South Africa. Fortunately, the Southern African National Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) was formed to help rescue penguins from oil spills and other disasters. 10 000 penguins were individually caught and treated successfully in just one oil spill incident. SANCCOB continues to operate a rescue and rehabilitation center for injured seabirds near Tableview. It has been scientifically proved to be the most successful sea bird rehabilitation center in the world.
This is one of many beautiful stories of living in South Africa post-apartheid. I count the days until we return there, especially to see our little Jackass Penguins colony in beautiful Boulder Beach.
A story from the road
South Africa, 1994