A stuffed animal. A beanie baby. A knockoff brand beanie baby. A blanket. A snowglobe. A middle school research paper. A necklace. Matching earrings. Flannel sheets. Slippers. Pajamas. Proof of an obsession, listed out in just thirty seconds. I’m sure there was more. What did all of these precious collectibles in the nineties share in common? They were penguin-themed, of course.
I wasn’t alone in my obsession back then, and I’m not alone when I say they are still one of my favorite animals, if adults have such things. I mean, try to find someone who doesn’t like penguins. Try to find someone who doesn’t giggle when they see a video of a penguin clumsily waddling across a glacier and belly-flopping into the ocean. Try to find someone who doesn’t gush, “aww,” when they see a picture of two penguins holding hands, without even being in possession of hands. Find these people and then tell them to stay far away from me.
There were lots of reasons to go to Cape Town – reuniting with a friend I’d met in Myanmar, traveling with one of my closest blogging friends, visiting a new continent, escaping the cold weather, working with some local nonprofits, and eating all of the food. But another reason was to fulfill a lifelong goal of childhood – seeing penguins in person in their natural environment.
If you didn’t spend a lot of the nineties studying Zoobooks, you might be thinking right now, “but…Erin. South Africa is warm! Penguins live on glaciers and in the snow and hang out with polar bears and giant seals!” But if you were a
nerdy inquisitive child like me, you know very well that there are some breeds of penguins that live in warm weather too! There are penguins in Australia, New Zealand, South America, and…CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA.
My travel buddies in Cape Town had both lived there for a while, so I trusted them with our activities. The only things I insisted upon were the sunset from Table Mountain and the penguins on Boulders Beach, both of which were on their lists as well. We made the penguin visit on my final day in Cape Town after an incredible week and a half in and around Cape Town.
We parked our Around About Cars rental with help from a parking attendant along a side beach road and I practically leapt out of the car with excitement. The butterflies in my stomach were in full force. We walked to the right, down a few weathered paths to the beach for about twenty minutes and I saw…nothing. Nothing. No penguins. No people with cameras. Just sunshine. And a gorgeous beach. And the crashing waves. And two wonderful friends. I tried not to be disappointed, because all of those things I saw were still awesome. I told myself, “this is a reason to return to Cape Town,” though I already had a full list at that point.
It was not yet time to give up, so we retraced our steps and walked past our car to the left this time. Within just a few minutes, we saw something in the distance, or a few things, rather. These were what we had come for – the penguins – and they’d even dressed up for our visit – wearing tuxedos, of course. They were small, but my camera’s zoom went further than I’d ever asked for it to before, and suddenly, these tiny animals in the distance filled my screen. I stood in awe of them for a while, convinced that this was it, that was my moment, but then we walked even further down the boardwalk.
As we continued, the beach views turned into fenced-in garden areas along the boardwalk. Suddenly I was within a few feet of a penguin daddy, standing on a penguin baby egg (these are scientific terms) in the nest. It was truly remarkable to see such a seemingly private moment in this penguin’s life, and so up-close. There were several pairs in the vicinity and while I couldn’t help but think I wouldn’t want anyone watching me or taking pictures of me with my future babies, it was hard to look away. A gentleman (or a not-so-gentle man) reached into the fence with his GoPro outstretched on a stick and one of the penguins, rightfully, nipped at him. Don’t do that. It is possible to enjoy the penguins and respect them at the same time.
We kept seeing groups of these beauties as we continued our walk and 1994-1997 Erin was in heaven. Penguins were waddling on the beach and flopping into the ocean, just as I’d seen on television. There were even what I called “teenager penguins” in their awkward molting stages hanging out with their friends. And then there was an opportunity to see more.
Since my travel buddies have had the experience many times and it was crowded that day, they stayed outside while I ventured in further to pay 70 Rand to Table Mountain National Park for access to a different section of the boardwalk and the beaches. The cost goes toward conservation efforts of the beach and, therefore, to the conservation of the penguins, who are on the endangered species list.
The boardwalk experience was something special for me. Sure, there were crowds of people taking pictures, but I got a few minutes with a front view of the penguins and in that few moments, it didn’t feel like I was surrounded at all.
I didn’t want to disturb the penguins’ turf by walking further onto the beach, although my pass would have allowed for this. I didn’t know what would come over me if I had been within reach. Would I have started to chase them? Grabbed them for hugs? Smooched them? I couldn’t be sure, so I stayed away for safety – for the penguins’, and for my own. Apparently penguins can bite off a finger or two, so just be aware of that.
When I met my friends again and told them about how cool my experience was, I almost couldn’t contain my excitement. Whenever I can fulfill the dreams of nerdy, outcast, bullied Erin, who could have never dreamed that she’d see as much of the world as she has or see her penguin friends in the wild, I feel good about everything.
Experience penguins for yourself at Boulders Beach:
Cost: Free -or- 70 South African Rand (a little more than $5 US) for access to the extended boardwalk and the beach for an up-close experience
Best times of year: February – August; November – December (January, September, and October the penguins spend a lot of time out at sea to prep for the molting / breeding seasons)
Best times of day: early morning, late afternoon
Type of Penguin: These are African Penguins, which used to be called Jackass Penguins, which are not named after your ex-boyfriend, but instead for the sounds they make that are similar to donkeys’ brays.
Thank you, Around About Cars, for helping to make our car rental in Cape Town possible. Opinions are always my own.