Bestowing Cape Town with its sublime beauty is the proximity of its built environments to such vast swaths of natural wilderness. Plus, there’s a pristine ocean curling around craggy headlands and boulder-strewn beaches. One of the must-do day-trips out of the city is a drive around the Cape Peninsula, taking in Cape Point as well as several quaint seaside villages, each imbued with its own special charm. Simon’s Town is Cape Town’s navy enclave, full of Victorian houses now converted into quaint boutiques and lively cafés. But perhaps the biggest draw here is the African penguin colony at Boulders, a pretty rock-fringed beach enclave at the edge of the town. It’s believed to be the only place in the world where you can effortlessly swim among penguins and possibly find them flopping onto your beach towel.
The penguin colony, although these days a major attraction of around 2,000 birds, started out as recently as 1983, with a lone pair spotted on Boulders’ Foxy Beach. Two years later, they started laying their first eggs, and by 1997, there were 2,350 adults birds, many of which had immigrated from Dyer Island. The colony reached its peak in 2005, when there were 3,900 birds, but global population has been in decline since then.
Boulders is the largest mainland penguin colony in South Africa, and the easiest place to observe them. Authorities have set up boardwalks and viewing areas to make it easier for visitors to get photos of the penguins in action, and there are special nesting stations to protect their eggs. There’s a fee for entry to the boardwalk and visitor’s centre, but it’s free to access the public beaches on either side of the main colony, where swimming is permitted. When you’re in the water (which is usually extremely cold), there’s every chance you’ll be swimming among penguins; nowadays they’re reasonably habituated to humans and will let you get quite close. Touching them, however, is forbidden and—given that these are wild animals—it’s only fair to leave them in peace. Definitely do not feed them. If they approach you or show curiosity, simply enjoy a rare moment of human-animal interaction.
Note that Cape Town’s African penguins are frequently referred to as jackass penguins. This nickname comes from their unusual braying—they sound a lot like donkeys.
If you’re looking for post-penguin activities in Simon’s Town, it’s a good little town for exploring on foot. If maritime history intrigues you, visit the South African Naval Museum, which now includes a submarine stationed in the Naval Dockyard. And at the Simon’s Town Museum, you can learn about Just Nuisance, a famous and beloved beer-drinking great dane that was adopted by the Royal Navy during the Second World War (he’s even memorialised with a statue at the harbour). You can catch a boat to watch whales, or even go shark cage diving —many locals say this part of the Cape’s coast is the best place to see great white sharks breaching.
Simon’s Town is just 40km from Cape Town central, and is accessible from the city by train.
Hero photo: African Penguin Flock © AndreaWillmore/Thinkstock/iStock
Header photo: Three African (Jackass) Penguins © MarciParavia/Thinkstock/iStock
Have you been swimming with penguins in Cape Town? Let us known in the comments section below.
Written by Keith Bain
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About the author: KeithBainKeith Bain
Cape Town-based writer Keith Bain has co-authored guidebooks to India, South Africa, Eastern Europe, Kenya & Tanzania, Ireland, and Italy. He also co-wrote A Hedonist's guide to Cape Town, and is the co-founder of Best Kept (www.bestkeptshhh.com), a bespoke trip-planning company that tailors holidays in India and Africa.