My Time on the South African Penguin Project

I’ve found that people don’t often give scientists enough credit… in certain areas, that is. While their stereotype is that of someone who is unathletic, I actually find that field work is quite difficult and completely disproves that theory. While conducing field work, you’re usually going in and out of difficult terrain, climbing, crawling, and handling wild animals- something most people are incapable of. Field scientists, at least, are actually pretty badass. I mean, I just spent two weeks watching a penguin biologist hop into bushes and more-or-less wrestle penguins. Anyway, this leads into my thoughts on my recent experience on the South African Penguin Project on Robben Island, a unique island off the Coast of South Africa.

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Recently, I’ve found myself traveling so much for work that when I travel for myself, I prefer to volunteer on one scientific expedition or another. I think it’s a great way to give back while also being able to learn a new skill at the same time. My first adventure in this world taught me how to map archeological trenches while on an expedition outside of Angkor in Cambodia. This time, I found myself in a wildly different setting. I was in South Africa, on Robben Island to be exact, tagging and handling South African penguins.

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Robben Island is one of the most interesting places I’ve ever visited. Honestly, there’s areas full of plains and African trees, so with the mountains of Cape Town in the background, you can really feel as if you are in Africa… which clearly you are. Yet, a few feet away, there are beaches, sand, shells, and… you guessed it, penguin tracks all along the ‘penguin highway’. It’s a really peculiar and unique setting. The perfect setting for a true adventure.

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Robben Island has quite an interesting history, as well. It was a prison for many years (in fact, it’s where they held Nelson Mandela), it was a leper colony, and it was a prospective military center for World War II. And as you go about the island, you’ll see many vacant homes, old world war buildings, old prison buildings, the new prison (which runs the tours for tourists), an old lighthouse, multiple shipwrecks, and many penguins waddling about peeking out at you.

There is a tour that goes through the prison here, specifically, and takes visitors on a bus to a photo spot at the Alpha 1 portion of the island. But aside from giving good insights into the prison, it’s not a spectacularly great tour for seeing anything else on the island. But seeing as how Mandela was kept in the prison (and our guide was actually a prisoner there, which was really interesting), it is a good tour to get a nice view of the political prison. And if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a penguin or two peaking out of their nests as you go about your tour.

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Speaking of, let’s get back to the penguins. The reason for the penguin project on Robben Island is partially to try to understand why the South African penguin population is rapidly declining and to try to help monitor (and hopefully increase) the penguins on the island. It’s part of a larger project, as well, where scientists, along with the South African government, are trying to set aside a safer place for penguins to colonize and somehow nudge them to the best habitats for them to thrive in.

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After years of research, it seems the penguin decline has come from the decrease in anchovies and sardines in the area thanks to, you guessed it, human fishing. Specifically, the sardine shortage really hurt the penguin population, as they have found their primary source of food scarce. That mixed with global warming causing the waters to shift slightly, has moved the penguin’s food source (and a lot of the penguins) off Robben island to different areas.

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After settling into our research house, our first full day on the island had us monitoring the penguin nests in certain marked zones, checking the status of the nests and the penguins and chicks within them. While recording that data, we would check to see if the penguins were, in fact, tagged. Honestly, my favorite thing to do at nest rounds was use the transponder stick (which looks like a light saber) to see if the penguins were tagged. You simply wave the stick near the penguin’s left leg, and if it is tagged, the transponder will tell you the number of the tag for you to keep track of. Naturally, this tells you which penguins are nesting where so you can monitor their breeding and nesting habits.

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The penguins go out in the morning to fish and go about their business, and they generally come back in the evening. There are set routes many penguins take around the island to and from their nests which are referred to as ‘penguin highways’.

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A Penguin Highway on Robben Island

So, our first evening on the island had us walking down, around, and near the penguin highways and beaches to count and see if any juveniles were malting.

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The second day had us checking the artificial nests that past scientists had laid out across the island for penguins to prospectively nest in. However, while one or two were occasionally used, with so few penguins on the island, most are nesting underneath of large bushes and trees, digging their homes underneath the bramble.

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What I found most interesting was that, while some penguins can be aggressive, especially when you have to take a stick and lift them up with it to check if they have eggs or poke near them with the transponder, many of the penguins in the Earthwatch program are actually pretty used to this, so they just let you do it, knowing you will soon be on your way. One way or the other, though, if you do get too close to the babies, they will move their head left and right slowly as a way to threaten you, though most don’t do more than that. A few more aggressive birds would bite at the transponder sticks, and we were told stories of one or two who used to chase scientists away from them. But all in all, while they are defensive of their nests, the penguins were mostly accommodating.

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In the afternoon of the second day, prior to checking out more nests, GPS devices were put on penguins to see where they were going to get food. You see, after a mom penguin layers her eggs, the father takes the initial shift, which lasts for days (much longer than a normal day-to-night shift) with the babies. The mother uses this time to build back up her strength and feed. After that time, the mother and father penguins alternate laying on the eggs and then, later, the babies as they develop. Penguin babies are labeled P0-P4 to notate their sizes and development with P0 being newborns and P4s being almost fully fledged and able to go out to sea. Ideally, penguins will stay with their chicks until they are quite large, with the mother and father alternating going out to sea daily and bringing back food for the family. However, if food conditions are poor, parents will fledge or leave their babies sooner rather than later. Right now on Robben Island, there are many fat chicks in their nests with their parents, which leads us to believe that the food supply is doing well there which could be due, in part, to the anti-anchovy fishing law which was put in place by the government to help save the penguins (which alternates every 3 years with a neighboring island). They are currently researching to see if fishing is having a detriment on the penguin population, which we have theorized it is.

Anyway, a GPS device is put on a particular penguin one day and retrieved two days later, as that will be the next day that penguin should be back in their nest (due to their alternating trips with their partner). Naturally, a lot of information can be gathered from those devices, including where the penguins are getting their food from.

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The third and fourth days of our adventures on Robben Island had us weighing and measuring baby penguins. Any P0, P1, and small P2s aren’t bothered by the scientists, but we looked for and weighed many fat P2s, P3s, and P4s across different sides of the island. We used a tool to measure their heads, weigh them, and potentially get poop samples (and baby penguins almost always poop when you lift them, so the poo samples were, in fact, relatively easy to get)… we just had to scrape them off of our clothes sometimes…

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On the second day of weighing chicks, we also put the transponder tags in any of the baby penguins we caught, so additional measurements and feather samples were gathered.

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Getting up close and personal with the chicks really was a highlight of this expedition for me. And, of course, the team takes extreme care to ensure the time spent holding the babies is as minimal as possible.

There were times when I had to hold and measure one chick while also holding a second chick. When that comes up, you can actually turn them around and brood them. They will, in fact, burrow under you in between your legs while you squat on your knees. This position makes them feel safer. It’s just part of their instincts.

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A Chick Brooding Under Me

By the end of the first day and a half of this, I was a pro at climbing into the nests, going up and down and all around through the bramble, and grabbing chicks from their nests while distracting the mother or father if they were around. When releasing them back into their nests, they usually instinctively run back towards their parents, though, there were times we needed to block another exit to their nest just in case. Many times, as penguins have the instinct to peck at anything as it enters their nest, whether or not it’s a threat (which especially makes sense in Africa where they have Mongoose predators or worse on the mainland), they will peck at their babies for a second when they come back into the nests before realizing it’s their baby. So, we would sometimes shield the baby from the parent for a second when re-releasing them if they were of P2 size. Of course, if it’s a larger chick, it’s used to the pecking and can handle it.

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The importance of weighing the chicks is to see where they stand health wise on the average weight/size chart compared to other chicks of their age. If they are deemed “too skinny” and fall under the curve, they likely won’t make it, so they are sent off to a center that will ensure they grow big and strong before they are re-released. Luckily, at this time, most of the chicks on Robben Island are healthy.

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Handling the babies ensured that we came back covered in adorable shedded down feathers (IE fluff) and a lot of poop, so we made special wash loads for “penguin laundry” on the days we handled the babies. It was worth it, though, to be sure. And, of course, everyone took extra special care to only bother a nest once within the week if it could be helped and not to bother the same birds unless it was to retrieve the GPS devices.

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A Camera Device on a Penguin

We also conducted a couple evening game counts of Springbok, Steenbok, and Fallow Deer, which was a lot of fun. We drove on the back of our team truck across the island, through the penguin colony side and out through the more Serengeti-like scenery of the other side of the island, to count the number of these different deer that could be found on the island.

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Our research house (where we all stayed together) was inadvertently surrounded by the breeding ground of the seagulls this year, so there were gulls screaming all around our house all day, every day, every hour. After a few days, surprisingly, you can somehow tune out the gull noises. Though an occasional gull screaming at your window at 2am could wake you up in a jolt, and that happened to me quite a bit. With the swarm of seagulls circling around the base house, it was no surprise to find that one of the gulls happened to run into our house once. That was an adventure. We were sitting at the research table, and there goes a gull and two other people running behind it to chase it. Of course, it flew down the hall into my room and pooed on my floor.

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Field work is always something I cherish, as you get to closely work with a great and knowledgeable team of people. It’s always unique, always exciting, and always informative. And, this time, we all lived as a family unit for two weeks. So, we all chipped in to make dinner and clean up each day and got to really know each other. We had a lot of fun together outside of the hard work. We learned that our group really liked juice, “chockits” (which are really delicious wheat-y flavored chocolate biscuit cookies), and tomatoes. It was a remarkable experience that I will always be grateful for. After this incredible experience, I realized how much I really do love penguins, and I hope to be able to work with this team, as well a with South African Penguins, in the future.

Malorie Mackey

Malorie Mackey is an actress, published author, and adventurer based out of Los Angeles, California. Throughout her experiences, Malorie found a love for travel and adventure, having journeyed to over a dozen countries experiencing unique locations. From the lush jungles of the Sierra Madre mountain range to the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland, Malorie began adventuring and writing about her unique travels. These travel excerpts can be found on VIVA GLAM Magazine, in Malorie’s Adventure Blog, in Malorie’s adventure show “Weird World Adventures” and in the works for her full-length travel book. Stay tuned as Malorie travels the world bringing its beauty and wonder to you.

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