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The South African Penguin Kayaking crew spill the deets on all things flippered-friends and eco-conservation

group of travellers on boulders beach looking at african penguins

If you thought penguins weren’t endemic to South Africa, you’d be wrong. African penguins live very happily on the shores of Boulders Beach, waddling around, sunning their feathers. It’s a really adorable sight, one we like to treat our guests to on our Cape, Safari and Falls trip, but it’s important to remember that as much as they look like cuddly, they’re animals. 

We spoke to the crew of the Shark Warrior Adventure Centre, the hosts of this MAKE TRAVEL MATTER® Experience, who organise the experience (as well as kayaking trips) with these friendly fellows. They told us about their conservation efforts and how they ensure the penguin’s natural habitat isn’t disturbed by eager visitors. 

The main attraction here is of course getting to spend some time sharing a beach with these tiny penguins. Terry Corr, education head of the Shark Warrior Adventure Centre, expressed that getting to work with these animals everyday is “an incredible privilege.” He describes how special and uplifting his job can be: “One of the most amazing things is walking down the steps every morning and, even if I’m in a bad mood, when I see the penguins I just have to smile. I think I’m the luckiest person in the world.”

For Basanda Longo and Potipher Shabalala, the real privilege is actually getting to meet the visitors themselves. “Speaking to guests is really special, they come from a different world and I come from a different world. We all get to learn things about each other which is really cool.”

African penguins on Boulders Beach in South Africa

Image source:Contiki

Part of the experience is a guided kayaking tour off the coast where travellers will get to paddle alongside the penguins in their natural habitat. The hope of this activity, as Lesley Rochat, founder of Shark Warrior Adventure Centre, puts it, is to “offer people an opportunity to experience the wonders of the oceans and the environment above and below the waves. It’s an opportunity to educate and raise awareness.” The money spent on renting the kayaks for the tour is funnelled straight back into the non-profit organisation in order for them to continue their conservation efforts.

When asked what the current issues were at the moment, Terry stepped in to deliver some sobering facts. “Most people are surprised, they don’t realise that these penguins are slowly going extinct. The numbers are plummeting. That’s why our message is becoming so urgent.”

Not only is it a beautiful kayaking trip over sparkling ocean waves, it’s also a moment of education and a call to action. “It’s thought provoking, we get people to talk about eco-conservation and issues of sustainability.” 

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“It’s very difficult raising money for eco-conservation in South Africa,” says Lesley, which is why these paddling with penguin tours are so important and actually carry a lot of weight. “All our guests from all over the world help to support our non-profit organisation directly.”

Not only that, but the organisation also supports locals across Cape Town and South Africa, not just the penguins. One of Shark Warrior’s many projects is one which aims to teach local children from disadvantaged backgrounds how to swim. “We nurture the next generation of ocean guardians and help give these children an important, and potentially life-saving, skill.”

“We’re committed to empowering our own community,” says Terry, “if we’re serious about conservation or empowering the youth and everything, we should be giving them some good life skills.” Involving their community in the work they do, by hiring and mentoring young adults, as well as teaching children, is part of Shark Warrior’s business ethos and what makes them proud to do the work they do. Sustainability revolves around human jobs and relationships as well, to keep communities and their efforts going.

kayaking in South Africa

Image source:Contiki

“It’s all about welcoming people,” says Potipher and Basanda, “welcoming them to the beach, to our town, into the penguins’ area. And the penguins welcome them back.” This organisation is a social endeavour as much as it is a conservation effort.

When asked what kind of tourists they often got visiting, Terry explained that he was surprised that many visitors were honeymooners; and there’s a very cute reason for that. “Couples are flying in from all over just to do this paddle so that they can see the penguins and their love. It sounds silly, but these penguins really love each other – they do everything together.”

Paddling out into the ocean and watching the penguins in action is an impressive and inspiring moment. Teamwork seems to be key: they swim out in packs to catch fish for themselves and eat, and while one group is hunting, another group is on the rocks surveilling them. “This kind of collaboration is something we don’t do enough as humans, I think. It’s really something we can learn from penguins!”

The kayaking journey is a unique one. It feels very immersive. You’re experiencing the penguins’ natural habitat, you get to swim near them and watch them just be, which, in the face of any animal, is just pure delight. You learn to respect nature and its various ecosystems as well, and you learn the responsibility of that care; “the education of our guests is actually fundamental to our project.”

The Shark Warrior group goes to great lengths to ensure that the beaches aren’t disturbed, that the environment isn’t damaged for the wildlife that lives in it. They keep a watchful eye on the travellers and make sure they don’t get too close to the roaming penguins either: “We don’t get too close so that we don’t affect them, the penguins act naturally when we just give them a bit of space.”

“I believe that we are all here for a purpose and it is to give back to people and to the planet,” says Lesley. Lesley founded Shark Warrior Adventure Centre because of a “very special shark” named Maxine, who she met at an aquarium in Cape Town. Maxine had been wounded at sea and captured. Upon seeing her scarred gill, Lesley set a new course for her life and dedicated herself to eco-conservation, starting with making a successful plea to free Maxine. 

group of travellers on boulders beach

Image source:Contiki

Contiki is proud to support Shark Warrior Adventure Centre and their penguin paddle experience. Not only does it promote an understanding of animal welfare, it also makes our travellers so happy. “I just love being around the penguins, and I love seeing the energy they bring to people,” Terry says.

People come running down the beach with pure excitement written all over their faces. Most people visiting will have never seen penguins in person before, so it truly is a special moment. “It’s incredible to have African penguins on our beach, and I think we’re blessed with having the responsibility to take care of them.”

At Contiki we love animals and love to see them thrive in their natural habitat, all our wildlife experiences are held to our strict Animal Welfare Policy, check out more here: Discover Our Animal Welfare Policy here.

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