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South African penguins are adorable, but they also have to deal with microplastic pollution

penguins in South Africa

The theme of this year’s Earth Day is ‘Planet vs. Plastic’, so in keeping with this we want to talk about microplastics in the ocean, specifically those impacting our wildlife. Here at Contiki we pride ourselves on our amazing MAKE TRAVEL MATTER® Experiences, especially those that bring people and nature closer together, and one of the most adorable ones we offer is paddling near penguins in South Africa

With the rise of plastic pollution around our lands and oceans, animals such as penguins are at risk of being negatively impacted. Luckily for these penguins, they have Shark Warrior, a dedicated group that offer ethical and responsible wildlife experiences and make sure to keep the animals safe and protect their environment. To get more information this Earth Day we’ve talked to Terry Corr, the educational head of Shark Warrior, to find out how he and the crew are keeping the penguins safe.

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

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

Charlie Fabre
by Charlie Fabre Jun 06, 2023

Hi Terry! Many people don’t know there are penguins in South Africa. What can you tell us about them?

“Sure! The African Penguin (whose latin name is spheniscus demersus) is the only penguin on the African continent. It’s a fast swimming predatory bird and it has a highly advanced collaborative fishing technique, as well as a system of juvenile daycare!”

“They’re all about community, and in fact these penguins are monogamous and form an unbreakable bond with their ‘partner’, and they take their work within their communities very seriously.”

“Unfortunately, this penguin is considered a critically endangered species and could disappear from our landscapes and ocean ecosystems as early as 2032.”

Can you tell us why microplastics are so damaging to sea birds, like the penguins?

“Plastic is transported around the world on massive vessels, like cargo ships, in its raw PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) plastic pellet form, or nurdle. These nurdles then spill off into the sea and float around the oceans and wash up on our beaches.”

“A common culprit is single use plastics, which break into smaller, colourful pieces of plastic, which fish, turtles, and penguins mistake for food. Birds like local kelp gulls are also affected by this as they spot the colourful item floating around, think it’s food, and then they dive down, swallow it, and eventually die a terrible death. Many seabirds, including penguins, have stomachs full of these plastics.”

“Another thing is, male penguins fish around in the sea for loose items like sticks to use to bolster their nests during wet or windy days. However, more and more they might be picking out pieces of plastic to use instead, and the baby chicks can end up in nests full of it. At that point, it’s only a matter of time before an inquisitive chick eats a piece of plastic, and chokes.”

“During beach cleanups, we often find styrofoam containers with multiple stab holes from penguins and seagulls, proving that they eat these polluting substances, and swallow harmful amounts of microplastics.”

QUIZ! How much do you know about plastic?

QUIZ! How much do you know about plastic?

Charlie Fabre
by Charlie Fabre Apr 10, 2024

What kind of work do you do with the penguins to ensure that their habitats remain untouched?

“The penguins that we take care of at Shark Warrior are lucky that they live in the Boulders Beach area, which is within reach of a coastal and residential village. This creates a relatively safe environment that we can mostly control and clean up. For example, a large boardwalk area was created for people to walk on so that the impact of visitors could be minimised and penguin nesting areas could remain safe. Though, living this close to people does carry a few challenges of its own.”

“If we really want to protect these penguins from extinction, then more needs to be done to educate the visitors of the beach on what is really going on in terms of human impact to the environment, as well as teach them about the effects of climate change, overfishing, and changes in the animal kingdom (like the disappearance of great white sharks and increases in cape fur seals).”

“There are both positive and negative impacts, and our work certainly has a positive effect on the penguins, but this continues to be a precarious situation. There needs to be a wake up call to all of us that care about the penguins, who cherish them and wish to see them protected.”

penguins in South Africa

Image source:Contiki

When travellers come and paddle with the penguins, how are they helping to support your preservation efforts?

“By visiting us and paddling with the penguins from a safe distance, travellers’ financial contributions help our longstanding non-profit organisation AfriOceans continue to focus on sustainable efforts benefitting our oceans and wildlife.”

“Our role at Shark Warrior is of an educational and activist nature, so we aim to teach travellers about seabirds, wildlife, the ocean, and conservation, and our goals are ones we hope generations to come will continue. There are a myriad of issues that seabirds, like our penguins, face. For example, the overfishing of sardines in the area has reduced the penguins natural feeding pools, and leads to fatigue, weaker and less healthy animals, and in extreme cases starvation and death.”

“The contributions of travellers, like those on Contiki, also help us to directly assist with two community based tourism projects: Red Hill Young Stars Football Team, and Swim Like a Shark – projects that create collaboration in the wider Cape Town community and teaches township kids how to swim and be water safe. So you’re not just helping the penguins, you’re helping people too.”

By harnessing the natural powers of the ocean, we can reduce carbon emissions: Meet Vesta

By harnessing the natural powers of the ocean, we can reduce carbon emissions: Meet Vesta

Charlie Fabre
by Charlie Fabre Apr 17, 2024

What are some things that travellers can be more mindful of in order to avoid polluting the seas?

“The best thing that travellers can do is avoid bringing plastic bottles with loose caps, or any single use plastics to the beach with them. Avoiding the usage of single use plastic in general, like shopping bags or shampoo bottles, etc., is also a huge help as they’ll avoid being un-recycled and dumped into the sea.”

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