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  Sierra Magazine
  September/October 2004
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  ELECTION 2004:
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Good Going

by Amanda Thacher Hawn

"[Penguins are] like children, or like old men, full of their own importance and late for dinner, in their black tail-coats and white shirt-fronts — and rather portly withal."
— Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, 1922

Boulders Beach, smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood on South Africa's Cape Peninsula, seems an unlikely pick for a colony of 3,000 penguins. Over the years, the area has served as a whaling station, a base for fishermen, and a prison camp during the Anglo-Boer War. The rocks, survivors of 300 million years of wind, rain, and tide, create turquoise pools where local kids swim, sheltered from the ocean beyond.

Though the balmy climate also seems unsuited to such well-insulated birds, Spheniscus demersus, the African penguin, lives only along the coast that curves from central Namibia to eastern South Africa. To keep cool, the birds nest in the shade, puff their insulating feathers to catch breezes, and spend most of the day in the water--making Boulders Beach one of the few places in the world where humans swim with penguins.

Biologists think these birds, normally wary of people, were drawn here two decades ago by good foraging. Commercial fishing is restricted in adjacent False Bay, so the penguins have no problem finding anchovies, horse mackerel, and round herrings. Once the first breeding pairs settled at Boulders, new recruits and their offspring rapidly followed.

The friendly colony's gangbuster growth did become problematic when the loud birds--also called jackass penguins for their braying--started waddling inland to nest in hedgerows. In response, Table Mountain National Park took over Boulders in 1998. Now a fence restrains the birds from wandering into urban areas, and the park has erected boardwalks and an information center, so you can get to know African penguins before you take the plunge with them.

Explore: Gawk at penguins, sharks, rhinos, and more on a Sierra Club outing to South Africa in September 2005.

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