If you don’t already have a soft spot for penguins, you should! In South Africa, we don’t have the large emperor penguins that you find in the Antartic: the ones in the photo are African penguins, (Spheniscus demersus), more commonly called the ‘jackass penguin’, not (as you would think) because of their hilarious behaviour but because of the braying sound they make which to early explorers sounded like a donkey.
They are endangered, mainly due to problems with fish stock on the Cape Peninsula, and it’s for this reason that we’d recommend not visiting the Simonstown colony (very touristy, crowded and bad for the birds) but rather making the trip to the Stoney Point reserve (in the Overberg) which can be done in a day trip from Cape Town (we arrange guided trips of rental vehicles as you prefer).
We’d also strongly suggest a visit to the SANCCOB sea bird rehabilitation centre which is about twenty minutes out of Cape Town. SANCCOB offers three tours, one for children which is limited to the centre with a visit to the chick growing unit and nursery and encounter with ambassador penguin.
There are two other tours. The first is a group tour of about an hour with up to ten guests. There is a minimum donation of R60 for what they call a Behind the Scenes Tour where you visit every part of the facility but don’t necessarily get to see the work that’s going on. There is then also a three-hour personalised tour for up to three guests only in which you get to witness the actual work done in the centre, such as spending time in the lab with the researchers and perhaps viewing an operation or post mortem in the clinic. These tours are a minimum donation of R500 per person (because a researcher takes you round in person and obviously their time is precious).
There is also the option to visit the Dyer Island Conservation Trust which is managed by Cape Nature. This is one of the largest and well funded marine conservation trusts in the country: they are deeply involved in the conservation of all the marine species in the area. It’s in Van Dyk Bay, which is about another hour past Stoney Point so you could easily make a very nice day.
There are also volunteering experiences we can recommend near Gansbaai (two hours out of town) but for these, you’d need to overnight and normally, they are two-week trips. Again, we arrange guided trip, rental vehicles, accommodation etc.
Lastly, we’d also recommend considering a trip by boat into False Bay to Seal Island where you can see a much larger array of wildlife, such as (obviously!) seals, Great White sharks, penguins and many varieties of sea bird. These trips take about half a day normally. We recommend Marine Dynamics who are a Fair Trade Accredited company.