South Africa was always a place I dreamed of going but I was never quite sure where to start. So, like most of the travel I have embarked on, I tried to find a wildlife volunteer, nature, adventure or environmental projects to be part of.
South Africa and SANCCOB had it all!
SANCCOB is a South African Sea Bird Charity based in Cape Town. They are a leading non – profit organisation that protect and conserve seabirds and other sea-life, especially threatened species such as the African penguins. They do this through rescue, rehabilitation and release as well as educational programs and research.
My initial reason for going was to learn more about the issues the African penguins and other marine life face in the wild as well as get experience working in field with a well known organisation and see first hand how SANCCOB makes a difference.
Getting to work with penguins was obviously a major influence on my decision too!
What I found was incredible!
My first day I was welcomed by the SANCCOB team along with the volunteers and one of the ambassador penguins, Rocky the Rock hopper. I was shown the general site and then headed to the pens to start my day.
Waiting for me in Pen 2 were 78-orphaned African penguins waiting to start their day!
I soon saw that the work carried out was not for the faint hearted!
January is part of the busy season at SANCCOB or “Chick season”. During the months of November through to the January/February SANCCOB embark on the mammoth task of caring for all the African penguin chicks that are abandoned by their parents on the breeding sites throughout Southern Africa.
The main breeding season for African penguins is March through to June, although, this particular species are know to have more than one clutch of eggs throughout the year. In fact some pairs are known to have up to three. However, as South Africa enters the summer months, the African penguins struggle to rear their late season young.
Research has shown this to be due to the increase in heat and lack of food available in their oceans through over fishing and climate change.
The parents may spend much more time foraging for food and therefore not return to feed the chicks that are unable to feed themselves. In these cases, the chicks that are abandoned would just simply not survive. What may have just been survival of the fittest many years ago is now a huge concern for the survival of the species. The need to conserve each penguin is becoming more and more apparent as years pass by.
Once a thriving population of numbers over 1.5 million breeding pairs, these unique little penguins have now declined to the total number reaching as little as 25,000 breeding pairs left in the wild.
The “Chick bolstering” project is one of SANCCOB’s main strategies which aims to "bolster" the African penguin population numbers in the wild. This initiative has shown to increase their numbers significantly.
However, this is by no means a simple task. It takes a team of rehabilitation staff, veterinarians, researchers, directors, a team of office staff and a mass of volunteers to enable this project to happen. And that is not to mention the sponsorship and funds that allow it to happen.
The daily routine begins from 8am through to 6-7pm. In some cases longer depending on the number of penguin arrivals. During my time volunteering in January there were over 400-rescued orphaned penguins within the SANCCOB.
The penguins are initially admitted to SANCCOB and classed on which pen to go to. Most will head to one of the three main pens, however, some will need extra TLC either in the Chick rearing unit or the Intensive care unit.
It works on a graduation regime to when they will be released back into the wild.
If there is no need for them to go the intensive care of the chick-rearing unit then Pen 2 is their first stop. The penguins in here are usually younger, some are on medication, they will need formula feeds, fluids given and on a “no force swim”. This just means they have time in the pools to swim but are able to come out when they choose.
If deemed healthy enough they can then graduate up to pen 3. Pen 3 is where majority of the penguins are starting to require less fluids, they are able to take fish and will be able to swim in the pools for a minimum of 20 minutes.
This will then progress to them building the muh needed strength in their bodies for the long fishing trips out in the wild.
On average wild penguins will spend at least an hour foraging for fish in the ocean, therefore it is vital that these little guys are able to swim for at least one hour in the pool during their rehabilitaion time at SANCCOB.
The last stop in their journey through rehabilitation is pen 10, the final step before they are ready for release. In pen 10 all of the penguins are on a whole fish diet and they are able to swim for at least 1 hour, 3 times a day.
As a volunteer, the days are spent feeding, cleaning and caring for the birds.
It is tough work but knowing that every little part of the day contributes towards the survival of the African penguins makes every second worth it.
The best bit of the day for me is seeing the penguins taking their daily swim.
They are naturals. Some will have never stepped foot into the water before SANCCOB, due to the fact they were still fluffy chicks and therefore not old enough to head to the ocean. But despite this, they waddle down the ramp and into the pool like they have been swimming their whole life.
This then follows into the most amusing part of the day; trying to herd them back out the pool when their swim time is up as the next group are waiting to go in. Volunteers in their oilskins and crocs wade into the water trying to usher them back into their pens. Much to the penguin’s amusement, I believe, they swim past us, in the knowledge that their swimming skills far out way our ability to catch them!
When they do decide to make their way out of the pool, the little penguin army march back up the ramps into their pen, preening and relaxing after their busy day.
These wild penguins, although very cute and beautiful animals are by no means cuddly or interested in being cuddled by people!
You soon see how this small bird has found its niche in the natural world. Their beaks will give a nasty peck; their flippers offer a powerful punch, robust in body and feisty in attitude.
These little guys are by no means an easy patient to work with. Understandably they will peck, slap and put a good fight when trying to be fed or moved. They are stressed, confused, in some cases ill, and within an environment that is so unnatural for them. So even though you may get a few cuts and bruises, feel exhausted and overwhelmed it is nothing in comparison to what they must be feeling. It would be great to be able to explains we are just trying to help and get them healthy and ready to head back to the wild but human - penguin communication is still yet to be discovered!
So until that day, staff and volunteers try their best to make it as least stressful as possible. Allowing the birds to feed, swim and heal as calmly and as quickly as possible so they can head back out to their natural home around the coastal line of Southern Africa.
Of course the overall aim is to get these guys back into the wild.
So when that day arrives, the ones deemed fit have their final checks by the vets and rehab staff, they are sprayed with a pink spot on their belly so as to ID for the first couple of weeks of release, they get put into boxes, 2 by 2 loaded into the van and taken to one of the release locations; Boulders beach, Betty’s Bay and Robben island.
Once at their chosen beach, the boxes are lined up in a semi circle facing the wild penguins already there. On a count down the boxes are opened, carefully turned on the side so they can waddle their way out and into the big wide world, usually greeted by some of the colony.