Boulders beach is a beach near Simon’s Town, a little town on False Bay on your way to Cape Point. This little beach between the granite rocks that have given the name to this beach is famous not for its turquoise water or even its boulders (the rocks), but for its colony of African penguins.
First come first serve, or not?
There are some houses beautifully located just a bit higher up on the rocks, and this time it’s not the people that took possession of the area chasing the animals away. The penguins arrived only in 1982 and thought this was a really good area to start their colony long after houses have been built. They started with a few pairs breeding to more than 3,000 penguins today. This big increase in number is mainly due to the fact that part of the beaches are now a natural reserve, so the penguins have their own space which is suitable for breeding and they are being helped with breeding ‘bottles’ that serve as a nest.
A bit of history on the African penguin
The African penguin is the only African penguin and is only found on the coast of Namibia and South Africa. Boulders beach is one of the few mainland colonies and might have been chosen due to the absence of land predators like leopards and mongooses, who due to human activity are not present here. They are endangered as there numbers continue to fall and in 2018 only 50,000 African penguins were thought to survive in the wild.
Up until the 1970’s eggs were collected and guano was removed from the islands where the colonies lived to be used in fertilizers, but the penguins used the material to construct their nests. This led to a rapid decline. Oil spills did not help and commercial fishing of sardines and anchovy, the main food source of these penguins, made the penguins swim out further for food or eat less nutritious food. Together with climate change, things are not looking good for the penguins. But walking around in this reserve, you would have no idea, and the penguins seem to be thriving here.
The penguin reserve
The reserve is part of the Table Mountain National Park and visitors can walk on raised wooden pathways to get close to the penguins without disturbing them. There are still a few beaches outside of the reserve available to us humans, but in the reserve the penguins get the best space and all of the beach.
Throughout the reserve nesting bottles are distributed which make it easier for the penguins to make a nest that is well protected. The African penguin is monogamous and the pairs return to the same site every year. In general they lay two eggs which are incubated for around 40 days. When born one of the parents will stay with the chicks all the time for the first month. After that the chicks are send to a creche with other chicks and both parents go out to sea to catch food. After 2 to 4 months depending on how much food is available, the chicks go out to sea themselves where they will spend the next 1 to 2 years. They then return to their colony to molt into their adult plumage. The African penguin lifespan is between 10 and 15 years.
Photographing the penguins at Boulder beach
Even though you need to stay on the walkways (humans are the guests here!), there are plenty of opportunities to photograph the penguins. Some stay very close to the walkways, so getting a portrait of one of the penguins is possible even without using a long focal length lens. I would advice you to stay as low as you can get with your camera. A photo from the same level as the penguins, or any other animal and even children, looks better and more natural. With the raised walkways you might have to improvise, but you’ll find a way.
It’s also easy to take photos of the groups of penguins laying on the beach or on the rocks. Try and get to Boulder Beach as early as possible, so the sun is still low. You will not be able to get in before sunrise though. You can show their environment, but take care not to make it a very busy photo. Watch the background of your photo and try not to cut penguins in half on the edge of the photo.
If you take your time, you get the chance to see some of the behaviour of the penguins. Most are resting, but there’s always some activity going on, like this penguin below trying to get back into the sea.
If you want to join me and photograph Boulder Beach together, here’s your chance. You will not only photograph the penguins because the Cape has so much more to offer. You can read all about it here.