Pilchard Please ~ Hanging with Jackass Penguins in South Africa

The man in charge yelled out to us “just pull open the beak and shove it down.” Seriously? 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, “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 scared 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 started 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. After feeding we were told to move the little guy to the next step in the process, the heaters. It was all very organized and planned out, accept for the oil spill part. Poor little guy probably just witness the beginning of horrible suffering of his entire 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.

Oil spilled penguins in Africa

Oil spilled penguins in Africa

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, South Africa, 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 heavy oil reduced the waterproofing and insulating of their feathers. As the word spread as fast as the oil, the local community took action to try to save their beloved 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 responded, and came from varied backgrounds to the help clean, feed and nurture the sweet the penguins back to go health. We joined them.

While getting ready for work at the Embassy that day, Pat and I heard the radio news report of the oil spill and potential death of the thousands of Africa penguins. We both felt just sick. It was incredibly sad news. We sat in silence for a while, and then drove to work. While driving we both knew what we had to do. But, what could a couple of American Foreign Service officers do to help save these precious penguins in South Africa? We were sickened and saddened for them. We later heard from local press 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 can all 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 were in for. I wanted to skip work at that minute and go right there but waited. Our time came that Saturday morning. I could not sleep the long night before, imaging all the little penguins suffering. We got up put on our oldest warmest clothes on, grabbed some gardening gloves and old sneakers and headed out to the old Navy yard. Once there, we approached the entrance. I heard what I thought were donkeys braying. It was the penguins. As we walked in, it was louder and louder. The little penguins were talked, maybe screaming. We later learned their nickname jackass penguins came from their braying cry which resembles that of donkeys. There was much braying going on that day.

Clean from oil

Clean from oil

Once inside the pool gates there was much activity, and people running around. We were greeted briefly, exchanged first names, and given a quick tour of the operation and put straight 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 years 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 much stressed. Many were very ill and maybe even in shock from the horrific impact of the oil spill and losing family. The bad timing of this incident was even more critical, as the disaster occurred during the penguins’ breeding season, which greatly affected the survival of the chicks and unhatched eggs.

The work continued. After 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. This was our duty, we were to feed them. I thought to myself oh this will be easy we can do this. There were buckets and buckets lined up of each filled with 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, we led each to the next step of feeding vitamins. Again, we had to force open the beak and push vitamins down. The little guys were so scared, not knowing we were there for them and not only to make them healthy but to help them survive. When the entire process of cleaning, feeding and pushing vitamins was completed, the penguins could go off back to their penguin families. Many did not find their families and sat alone. It was sad. Many penguins lost their feathers, their survival 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.

Saving the oil soaked Jackass Penguins in South Africa

Saving the oil soaked Jackass Penguins in South Africa

We learned from that 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 they regained a good percentage of their normal body weight, and blood results and plumage were healthy, it was freedom for them. Those cute small donkey braying penguins were loaded up on the US Navy ship and off they went to a safe unloading area, free from oil and waste, and released at sea. They swam with their family group and headed right back to where they knew to be home. It seemed they knew exactly where to return to. It was amazing sight. 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 really fell in love with those African penguins. They are very sweet family-oriented creatures, and it was like they finally understand that we were that to help them get home. Due to the efforts of the SA Navy and 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. I Smiled. 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.

Happy penguins returning to sea

Happy penguins returning to sea

Today we continue to find ways to support the penguin population. We all benefit. It was a nice surprise to receive an acknowledgement for their efforts from the South African Navy and given an official certificate for the aid in Saving the Penguins. My real reward and gratitude came from seeing them survive. I fell in love.

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. An organization, 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 proven to be the most successful sea bird rehabilitation center in the world.

This is one of many beautiful stories to share of our life 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
Updated 2015



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