African penguins are approximately 68cm tall, females are slightly smaller than males. The upper parts are black while most of the underside is white with unique dark spot patterns. There is a pink hairless fleshy area surrounding the black eyes expanding above and onto the beak. The cheeks are black and are separated from the crown of the head and the other upper parts, by a white band running down from the top of the eyes, joining the white underside in the neck region. There is also an upside down U-shaped black band across the chest. The very powerful and hooked black beak has a lighter band in the middle. The black feet are webbed and have strong claws. Immature birds are grey blue all over and lack distinct markings.
They are found in marine and coastal habitats, predominantly on offshore islands of the cold, nutrient-rich Benguela system. They use flat sandy islands with sparse vegetation and also rocky islands with almost no vegetation to breed. Few mainland breeding sites are known. In a few areas they will even shelter and nest under alien vegetation.
Often called the Jackass Penguin, these birds feed mostly in the open sea on pelagic, shoaling (swimming in groups) fish such as pilchards and anchovies as well as small squid. Moulting occurs annually and birds remain on land and do not feed during this period. The pre-fattening moult and recovery period lasts 14 weeks. The rest of the year is dedicated to breeding and raising of young. They breed in colonies and have an extended breeding season throughout the year. A clutch of two eggs is laid in burrows, under vegetation, in the open or between rocks and the chicks hatch in about 39 days. After they leave their nests, juveniles can roam as far as 1 800km from their natal site. In adults, first breeding starts when they are about 4 years old.
African penguins can be found from southern Angola, down the southern African west coast, and around the Western Cape coast line to KwaZulu-Natal, with some strays as far as Gabon and Mozambique. Breeding, however, only occurs on the offshore islands along the central Namibian coast in the west to Algoa Bay in the east. There are two mainland breeding localities on the Western Cape coast.
Egg collecting used to be one of the major threats of the past. Furthermore guano removal caused disturbances and removed the layer of guano into which penguins would burrow to nest. Neither activity is allowed anymore. At present the following factors play a much greater role in the deteriorating conservation status of African penguins:
- Reduced food availability around breeding colonies which affects breeding success.
- Competition with seals for food and space.
- Predation of adults, juveniles and eggs by a variety of predators such as seals and Kelp Gulls and at mainland colonies by a suite of terrestrial predators.
- Oil spills either from shipping disasters, illegal cleaning of ships’ tanks and/or leaking sunken containers.
- All breeding sites along the South African coast are either protected in South African National Parks or provincial or local authority nature reserves, or by other relevant authorities.
- The African Penguin is listed under the Threatened of Protected Species Regulations of the National Biodiversity Act, elevating its protection status to a national level.
- Oiled birds are successfully rehabilitated by South African National Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB). Very little human contact is allowed within the majority of the breeding colonies.