These flightless birds waddle and hop clumsily over boulders on the beach until they reach the water where they are suddenly transformed into streamlined and agile swimmers, able to reach speeds of up to 20 kilometres per hour. They can stay submerged for as long as two minutes, as they dart around looking for small fish to eat.
The black-and-white colouration did not develop by accident. It is known as counter-shading, in which the white underside blends in with the water's surface when seen from below, while the black on the back helps to camouflage the birds when seen from above.
Small tightly packed feathers help to insulate penguins from the cold water, but harsh conditions take their toll, and these feathers deteriorate over time. Each year, during a process known as moulting, penguins lose these feathers and allow their bodies to generate a new set. Since they cannot swim without their insulating feathers, they do not feed during the three-week moulting period. Once the new feathers have grown out, the hungry birds head out to sea to gorge themselves on shoaling fish such as sardines and anchovy, which they swallow whole.
The wild population of African penguins has declined and it is estimated current populations are a mere 10 percent of what they were at the turn of the 20th Century. Originally the fall in numbers was caused by over-collection of eggs for food and disturbance due to the collection of guano for fertiliser. Today, however, depleted fish stocks caused by over-fishing, loss of habitat, and vulnerable nesting sites, as well as the risk of oil pollution, are the major threats to the survival of this species.
The African penguin is protected by its listing on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (3), and on Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) (4). All of the breeding areas in South Africa are protected as National Parks or Nature Reserves and the collection of guano and eggs is no longer permitted. The recovery of rescued oiled birds has also been shown to be successful. Populations need constant monitoring if the future of Africa's only penguin species is to be secured.