Jumping Right In

Put yourself in the middle of African penguin conservation

BY Donna Parham

Photography by Ken Bohn

It’s a sunny day at Boulders Beach, South Africa. Smooth granite boulders frame the sheltered shoreline, and African penguins paddle and preen in the calm, blue-green bay. Penguins are gathered along the rocky shore—dozens of the busy birds waddle by, nearly close enough to touch. They’ve dug nesting burrows, and some are incubating eggs.

Thanks to virtual reality (VR) technology, you can put yourself right in the middle of the action here, in one of the most important African penguin breeding areas in the world. And you can watch as juvenile penguins, nurtured at a dedicated rehabilitation site, are released back into the wild. It wouldn’t be possible, though, without the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) and their chick-rehabilitation program.


Thanks to new 360-degree VR headsets at the Zoo, visitors can experience this for themselves. Senior digital media producer Dustin Trayer has spent years videotaping wildlife, but this type of recording—on a 360-degree camera not much bigger than a deck of cards—was new for him. He has high praise for how far the technology has come, but he says shooting and editing for VR “is like stepping back and trying to think in a different way. I’m used to having total control over the shooting process and what the camera records.” But because the camera shoots in 360 degrees, once he pressed “record,” the crew had to scramble to get out of sight, hiding behind boulders to stay out of the shot. “The challenge was trying to predict where animals would go,” said Dustin. “We saw penguins walk along a path the day before, early in the morning, and we hoped they’d do it again, so we set up cameras and hid and waited.” They let the camera record for 20 minutes at a time and “hoped for the best.” They got the shot.

Systems analyst Andrew Schultz set up the VR system at the Zoo so that visitors can step into the penguins’ world. “This is a way to get people closer to the animals and really experience their habitat,” he said. But be sure to take a good look around—in all directions. “It’s the viewer’s choice to look where they want to look,” said Dustin. “So, when there’s a penguin walking by, the viewer might not even be looking in that direction.”


SANCCOB’s primary objective is to reverse the decline of seabird populations, including the endangered African penguin. A hard-working staff and an army of volunteers rescues, rehabilitates, and releases ill, injured, and abandoned seabirds. They may be on the other side of the world, but their work involves the zoo community in North America, which is working with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to save African penguins.

Joop Kuhn, Amy Flanagan, and Debbie Denton traveled to South Africa. With fellow volunteers from around the world and SANCCOB staff, they rehabilitated African penguin chicks and returned many—including the ones in the boxes here—to the sea.

Late last year, San Diego Zoo Global sent three experienced keepers to volunteer at SANCCOB. Animal care manager Joop (pronounced YOHP-ee) Kuhn was among them. “Every chick is important,” he said. “Twenty-three thousand breeding pairs sounds like a lot, but there used to be millions.” In an effort to reverse this alarming decline, SANCCOB nurtures chicks that are found in poor condition, then releases them as healthy juvenile birds. Sadly, more and more chicks are in need of the attention.


Penguin parents spend hours at sea, gobbling enough fish to satisfy their own energy requirements, plus bringing food back to their growing chick at the nest. But, penguins food sources have become harder for penguins to find—and are farther away. Researchers are exploring the reasons for this change; hypotheses include a shifting distribution of prey, environmental fluctuations, and competition with commercial fisheries. Regardless of the underlying cause, parent birds are spending more time away from their chick and returning with less to share. To exacerbate matters, many adult birds begin molting before their chicks fledge. Environmental cues trigger adult penguins to molt at about the same time each year: new feathers grow in and push the old, worn feathers out. Patchy and scruffy, and without a waterproof layer of feathers, molting penguins stay ashore for about 18 days and don’t eat during that time.

A molting penguin looks a bit disheveled, but when it’s done, the bird is sleek, streamlined, and once again waterproof.

The photoperiod changes that trigger molting typically corresponded with the fledging and independence of chicks. Newly waterproofed juvenile birds were capable of heading out to sea and fending for themselves, while the molting parents spent two or three weeks in “dry dock.” But with less nourishment, chicks are slower to develop; they’re often not yet waterproof and independent when their parents start to molt, and without food, they quickly become emaciated and dehydrated. “Because the parents haven’t had enough food for their chicks, the chicks are underdeveloped, and they need support,” said Joop. “And, lack of adequate nesting sites means that chicks are often more exposed to the elements than before. It’s not just one thing—it’s all these things that add up.”

African penguins treated by SANCCOB each year


South Africa’s SanParks and Cape Nature staff regularly check the penguin breeding colonies at Boulders Beach and Stony Point, looking for chicks in poor condition. When they find them, they bring the young birds to SANCCOB’s busy rehabilitation facility. They feed and shelter the chicks, and provide any necessary medical attention. When the Zoo team arrived last year, SANCCOB was in the process of caring for 247 African penguins—mostly rescued chicks. Animal care supervisor Amy Flanagan and keeper Debbie Denton accompanied Joop on the trip. Long, hard days included feeding penguins, hosing down enclosures and crates, making formula, feeding chicks, doing tons of laundry, and “getting pooped on and bitten,” said Joop. Staff and volunteers wear thick arm guards and gloves to protect themselves from the birds’ plier-like bills.

The final step in the bolstering process is preparing the birds for release. “There’s plenty of work to go around,” said Debbie Denton, here holding one of her feathered friends.

Debbie described what it’s like to work on the chick-bolstering program. “The workload is imposing. You work from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with an hour for lunch. If another team isn’t finished with their work, then you pitch in to help them.” Not that she’s complaining. On the contrary. She says, “It is wonderfully gratifying to know that you’re making such a difference to a population. These birds wouldn’t be alive if not for SANCCOB.”

Before juvenile penguins are released, they must have a full coat of waterproof feathers—and pass a swim test.

Various enclosures hold young penguins in various stages of development. Before its release, a penguin has to reach a minimum weight and be in excellent physical condition. To make sure its plumage is waterproof, it even has to pass a swim test! “We have a penguin swim for an hour, and then check to see if its skin is still dry,” said Joop. When the birds are ready for release, volunteers load them into boxes and transport them to the breeding colony at Boulders Beach or Stony Point.


As her three weeks at SANCCOB were drawing to a close, Debbie was eager to participate in a beach release. “We released all 20 penguins from their boxes at the same time,” she said. “At first, they were completely mystified.” As the juvenile birds waddled and waded along the shore, an adult penguin in the water swam close. “It was curious about all these new penguins on the beach,” said Debbie.

Perplexed at first, newly released juvenile penguins quickly get comfortable on the beach, and at sea.

When a mild swell came in and gently lifted the newly released birds, instinct took over. They joined their inquisitive counterpart, and without a backward glance, the group paddled out to sea. “I got more emotional that I thought I would,” said Debbie. “You’ve just taken care of these birds for the past three weeks. Knowing their numbers are so fragile, and there are so many challenges there, it is absolutely amazing.”

A VR headset isn’t the only way to experience the wild penguin colony in 360 degrees. Put yourself there using any internet-linked device. Don’t forget to take a good look around—in all directions!


SANCCOB treats more than 50 species of seabirds

San Diego Zoo Global is leading the fight to end extinction for species like the African penguin and is committed to helping SANCCOB “in any way possible,” said Dave Rimlinger, curator of birds at the Zoo. “That includes sending our staff each year to help with their critical rescue efforts.” In addition to helping out at SANCCOB, San Diego Zoo Global is also involved in AZA projects to test artificial nest sites and to track the movement of wild penguins via passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags. These projects take many months of hard work and rely on generous donations, large and small. (To find out how you can jump in and help, go to endextinction.org/penguin.)

African penguins spend time on the beach when breeding and raising their chicks, but they find all their food in the ocean.

Thanks to the efforts of SANCCOB and other partners, the perilous decline of African penguins has slowed. “We’re helping in a small way, but it will have a big effect on the population as the birds mature, pair up, and breed,” said Debbie. As Joop says, “It’s amazing to get to be the ones that release these juveniles, and to see the results of our efforts within our lifetime. We are walking the walk—not just talking the talk.”

You can read more about Debbie Denton’s SANCCOB experience on her blog post, “Pitching In to Save African Penguins.”