The African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus)

Endemic to Southern Africa, the African Penguin is listed as a vulnerable species.

African Penguin

Also known as the black-footed penguin is only found along the south-western coast of Africa.The African penguin is one of only seventeen penguin species worldwide.

The African Penguin's closest relative is the Humboldt and Magellanic penguins in South America, and the Galapagos penguins of the islands off the coast of Ecuador. The African penguins breed in South Africa in two groups - one in the Western Cape and the other in the Eastern Cape, separated by about 600 kilometres.

More than a little gawky on land, it uses its rather insubstantial wings to literally fly underwater. They are lethal predators and underwater experts with an outer layer of overlapping feathers that keep them completely waterproof


  • Mass: 2.1 and 3.7kg
  • Length: 50cm

The black-footed penguin is black above and white below, with a black chin and face patch, separated from the crown by a broad white band. A narrow black band also crosses the chest and runs down towards the legs. These unique black spots vary in size and shape for each penguin. This black and white plumage is protective camouflage in the water, known as countershading – from below the white blends in with the sky overhead, whilst from above a predator will see only the darkness of the sea.

The African penguin, also known as the black-footed penguin (and less frequently the Jackass penguin, to distinguish it from the Jackass penguin in South America), is only found along the south-western coast of Africa in 28 sites from Hollam's bird Island in Namibia to Bird Island, Algoa Bay.

To see them most people visiting our shores head to one of two mainland colonies where we are tolerated by the penguins enough to walk or even swim in amongst them at Boulders Beach in Simon's Town and Stony Point in Betty's Bay.

Their main food is fish, sometimes dead, but mostly caught live. Catfish and lungfish are among the most frequent. They also catch and eat some water birds, including their young. The birds most frequently taken include ibis, storks, herons and spoonbills and especially the Lesser Flamingo. They also eat some carrion. Live caught fish account for about 90% of their diet.

The African penguin is monogamous and breeds in colonies, with pairs returning annually to the same site. They prefer to burrow when nesting, or nest in depressions under boulders or bushes. But if they find themselves on particularly rocky islands or sand that is not stable enough, they will nest right out in the open, leaving them more vulnerable to predators.

The breeding season can occur anywhere in the year (known in science terms as an extended breeding season), depending on the penguins, so it is not unusual to see juveniles throughout the year. However, the penguins display peak breeding times regionally. Dassen Island peaks in June and November to December, Robben Island January through to August and St Croix, in January. The adults remain, by and large, within a 400 km radius of their breeding area, feeding within 12 km of the shore. They breed and moult on land, after which they head out to sea where they remain for four months, before returning once again to land for the next breeding season.

The eggs are incubated by both parents for up to 40 days. Chicks take 60 to 130 days to fledge and then head out to sea all on their own. They, in contrast to their parents, will travel as far as 1 900 km from their natal colonies, only returning after a period of between a year to 22 months, to moult and acquire their adult plumage. Moulting is when penguins replace their worn-out feathers with new waterproof ones. To do this they must stay on land and cannot feed. Subsequently, they can lose up to half their body weight whilst moulting. Moulting is more regular amongst the African penguin than their breeding season, and in South Africa this generally occurs November through January, taking roughly 13 days to shed their feathers and 20 days for the process to complete.

Life Expectancy is 10 to 27 years in the wild

Their predators in the ocean include sharks, Cape Fur Seals and, on occasion, orcas. Land-based enemies include mongooses, genets, domestic cats, and the Kelp Gull which steals their eggs and newborn chicks.They are also affected through ingestion of oil from oil spills and shipwrecks.

Yet as delightful as the tableau of beaches packed with penguins may be, the truth is that African penguins face a sobering future. Their populations are believed to be just 2% of what they were at the start of the 20th century, and a 2019 count yielded a historic low of less than 21,000 breeding pairs.

The penguins’ decline over the past century can be partly attributed to the horrendous exploitation of their eggs, which were enjoyed as a delicacy by their thousands until the 1970s. However, the population has declined by over 65% in the last twenty years. One of the primary reasons for this is the decrease in prey availability due to climate change and the commercial overfishing of the oceans. African penguins hunt oil-rich pelagic fish species such as sardines and anchovies but are increasingly reliant on squid, octopus, krill and shrimp to supplement their diets.

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