WATCH | 'Incredible moment' as Antarctic penguin waddles up a Cape Point beach

30 October 2019 - 18:51 By Dave Chambers
A king penguin visited Buffels Bay beach, inside Cape Point Nature Reserve, on Wednesday.
A king penguin visited Buffels Bay beach, inside Cape Point Nature Reserve, on Wednesday.
Image: Facebook/Howard Langley

Birdwatchers are in a flutter after a king penguin from at least 5,000km away waddled onto a beach at Cape Point on Wednesday.

Paddler Jasper Mocke shot a video of the bird at Buffels Bay, sparking a frenzy of flight bookings from as far away as Johannesburg and Durban.

A King Penguin swims from Antarctica and waddles right up to us! We live in a special place. #ImStaying 🇿🇦 🙏 🎥 Paddle Africa (Buffels Baai, Cape Point Nature Reserve)

Posted by Jasper Mocke on Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Mocke said he was among a group of surfski paddlers who set off from Buffels Bay on Wednesday morning to Cape Point and back.

“We saw the penguin before we left, but it was quite far away and we thought it was just an African penguin,” said Mocke.

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The king penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) is the second largest species of penguin. They are mostly found around the Sub-Antarctic, so this dude is far from home! They weigh up to 17 kg and can reach a height of 100 cm! These cool little dudes feed on small fish, squid or crustaceans and have been know to dive up to 300 m deep when hunting! Once a young penguin leaves the colony, they are unlikely to return for at least three years when it is ready to mate. Mating season for these birds is usually between September and November when they return to the beaches from their hunting grounds. They normally spend about 3 weeks on the beach with their mate and then they head back out to the hunting grounds. It's during this mating period that moulting also takes place. The pair (in this case, one lonesome little dude) would then stay on the beach with their egg, taking turns carrying it on their feet, keeping it warm and eventually care for the chick in a similar manner. Currently their population is estimated at about 4 million and these cool little tuxedoed guys can live up to 30 years old in the wild. This guy seemed quite warm but didn't look too stressed out, and the rangers had everything and everyone under control. Let's hope he or she, because these guys are sexually dimorphic, gets back to the rest of the colony safely. 🐧 PS. Today is the day I start saving for a DSLR, my videos/photos have not done this penguin justice. Keen to see your footage @jasonboswell 🤙🏼

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“When we got back, one of our party got his binoculars out to look at it and we realised it was a king penguin.

“There were about 10 of us sitting in the dunes, and it walked up and just stood there for about half an hour. It was an incredible moment.”

A full-frontal view of the king penguin at Buffels Bay, near Cape Point, on Wednesday.
A full-frontal view of the king penguin at Buffels Bay, near Cape Point, on Wednesday.
Image: Facebook/Lawson's Birding

Mocke said his brother Dawid, a four-time world surfski champion, had encountered king penguins in the Antarctic, so he knew the birds had no fear of humans.

“It was completely calm. It even followed us to the car park when we were leaving,” he said. 

In the hours that followed, the calm evaporated as birdwatchers arrived in huge numbers. “It’s chaos there now!” said Mocke.

South African National Parks said on Twitter: “This has gained a tremendous amount of interest from birders across the country. We urge the public to keep their distance from the penguin as his activity will be monitored over the next few days.”

The male bird is in excellent condition, according to Nicky Stander, rehabilitation manager at the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB).

She said it had been examined through a zoom lens by a vet and a government environmental official. “The bird has some old scars but nothing requiring our attention,” said Stander.

For now it will be left to its own devices on the beach. “We won’t move an animal if there’s no necessity,” she said.

Stander said the vet had seen signs of fish oil on the penguin, which meant it had been feeding.

The closest king penguin colony is on South Georgia, which is 4,784 km from Cape Town as the penguin swims. Stander said it was possible that it had swum all the way to Buffels Bay. “Alternatively, it could have been transported on a vessel and eventually dumped overboard. In such cases, the birds are normally fed by hand.”

The king penguin takes a backwards look at Buffels Bay near Cape Point on Wednesday.
The king penguin takes a backwards look at Buffels Bay near Cape Point on Wednesday.
Image: Twitter/Table Mountain National Park

Table Mountain National Park rangers were monitoring the bird and creating a safe space for it, she said.

A statement by Sanccob said it would only intervene if the bird needed medical attention: “SANParks will only move it if it is still on the beach after a few days. We implore members of the public to keep a safe distance and we are hopeful that the bird will re-enter the ocean and make its journey back.”

John Hishin, who was in Mocke’s group of paddlers, posted on Facebook: “So awesome to see a king penguin standing proudly on Buffels [Bay] Beach, Cape Point Nature Reserve. When we walked onto the beach for a closer look, the fellow walked straight up to us - and wanted to follow us home when we left!”

Birdwatcher Howard Langley described the encounter as “impossible".

"I photographed a king penguin in my ‘happy place’, Cape Point. Thanks to John Hishin for alerting the birding community of this mega-sighting," said Langley.

In a post addressed to members of BirdLife South Africa, David Swanepoel said: “This morning I had no idea that it would be possible to share this photograph today, but as I was settling down to get on with the day's business, word came that a king penguin came ashore at Buffels Bay.

“At just shy of 1m tall, this is a beast of a bird. According to the literature, they often dive to depths of over 250m - each dive typically lasting in the order of two minutes, but up to seven minutes has been recorded.”