On a small sheltered part of the Cape Peninsula coastline, surrounded on three sides by human development, lies one of Cape Town’s most popular tourist attractions: Boulders Beach. Thousands of people visit this tiny corner of the Table Mountain National Park in Simon’s Town to see the resident breeding colony of African penguins.
As one of only two land-based colonies in the world, it is also one of the only two places where people can see these penguins without having to hire a boat – not to mention have close encounters with them. With their striking black and white plumage, sweet comical nature and raucous call, these birds are an iconic part of South Africa’s wildlife heritage and a huge drawcard for tourists. It is also a relatively new one, with the first pair of penguins only arriving at Boulders in 1983.
They are remarkably unafraid of people, and will even wander the streets of Simon’s Town and nest in people’s gardens! The popularity of Boulders is a great asset not only to the local economy but also raising awareness for the plight of this endangered species.
Boulders Beach basics
Hours: 08:00 – 18:30 February to November | 08:00 – 17:00 April to September | 07:00 – 19:30 December to January
Entry fee: R39 for adult SA residents and R29 for children (with ID); R152 ($8) for internationals (adults) and R76 ($4) for children.
Location: Simons Town, between Seaforth Beach and Windmill Beach
If you’re considering the Cape Point tour (or including it in your drive) you can check out my post on the beautiful Cape Point Nature Reserve!
- It’s best to come at low tide, as there’s a lot more beach space
- Limited parking, so you may need to find a spot nearby
- Rangers patrol the beach every day, so it’s very safe
- Boulders is a no-take zone – leave with nothing you didn’t come with, except pictures and sandy feet!
- Always maintain a safe distance from the little creatures and don’t attempt to harass them or get close to take selfies with them
Exploring Boulders Beach
Visiting the African Penguins at Boulders Beach is a lovely way to spend a half-day. Stroll slowly along the walkways and keep your eyes peeled – that’s where many of the little penguins make their nests.
On a summer day, you can dip into the chilly ocean and swim around the salty, calm waters of the rocky coastline. It’s relatively rare, but you may be joined by some paddling penguins! Because they do visit this beach, Boulders is actually the only place in the world where it is possible for people to swim with African penguins (if you’re lucky).
Despite the name, the vast majority of penguins are not found on Boulders Beach itself. A boardwalk takes people from one end of the reserve to the other without trampling over the penguins’ nesting sites. The main colony and nesting areas are on Foxy Beach, just to the North of Boulders, as well as in the surrounding vegetation. There are two viewpoints at either end of Foxy Beach for visitors to observe the penguins without disturbing them. It’s a beautiful place to do some native bird-watching.
The vegetation that surrounds the beaches is indigenous thickets, made up of plants like milkwood and cape honeysuckle, that provide shelter for the penguins and their nests; as well as the resident dassies that can be seen from the boardwalks and various other birds and mammal species.
The large granite boulders are the dominant feature of the beaches (and give Boulders Beach its name) and help to create a sheltered cove here. Foxy Beach is more exposed to the South Easterly winds.
Endemic to the coasts of South Africa and Namibia, the African penguin is the only species of penguin that naturally occurs in Africa. Close relatives of the African penguin, the Magellanic and Humboldt penguins, can be found on the coastlines of Argentina and Chile respectively and are very similar in appearance.
Habitat and diet
These penguins are able to live and breed in Africa because of the cold Benguela current offshore that brings cold water and nutrients up from the deep ocean. On land, they have adapted to cope with high temperatures by digging burrows and using the pink gland above their eyes to cool the blood flow, as well as losing heat through their bare legs and feet.
They are very well adapted for life at sea, with superb underwater vision, feathers that aid with waterproofing and insulation and glands for purifying salt water. They primarily hunt baitfish like sardines, anchovies and pilchards, sometimes diving to depths of 130 metres to find prey.
With commercial fishing banned in False Bay, the penguins have access to better fishing than other parts of the coastline. When they are tied to their breeding colonies, they usually don’t go further than 20 kilometres offshore. Newly independent juveniles, however, have been recorded travelling as far as Angola and Mozambique!
African penguins form monogamous pairs, meaning that they mate for life and return each breeding season to the nest they used previously. Boulders Beach is one of the only two known sites where African penguins breed on land – the other is Stony Point at Betty’s Bay. All other breeding colonies are on small offshore islands.
The African penguins of Boulders Beach
About 2000 penguins call Boulders Beach home, and typically breed between March and May (although some do breed at other times of the year). It is quite possible for visitors to be able to see penguins taking care of their eggs and chicks when visiting Boulders.
The most sheltered nest sites are the burrows and artificial nests in amongst the indigenous vegetation that fringes the beaches. Here, the nests are protected from the sun and out of reach of kelp gulls, who patrol the colony looking for unattended eggs and chicks.
They usually lay two eggs and when the chicks hatch, they are fed by the parents for about 3 months. Nest sites are fiercely defended by the adults, who will lash out at any penguin who gets too close. The iconic and raucous call that gave the penguins their old name, the jackass penguin, is used to declare ownership of the nest site.
Threats and conservation
Unfortunately, the African penguin population has gone through a dramatic decline over the last century. In 1931, there were estimated to be 1.5 million penguins and today only about 20 000 breeding pairs remain.
In the past, their eggs were harvested and their breeding sites were degraded. Today declining fish stocks, climate change and pollution (particularly oil spills) threaten the remaining penguins more than ever. They are classified as endangered and their numbers are still declining.
Organisations like Birdlife South Africa are working to try and reverse the decline, and hopefully establish new breeding colonies. In Cape Town, SANCCOB, a non-profit organisation, works to rescue and rehabilitate injured penguins and other seabirds so they can be returned to the wild.
Things to do in the area
Founded in 1650, Simon’s Town has an incredibly rich history, from serving as an invaluable maritime trading station to serving as a naval base for two centuries. Today, many historical buildings still stand beautifully preserved and a number of museums serve to showcase the past.
There is a wide range of shops and places to eat in Simon’s Town, along with some really lovely accommodation options for people wishing to stay overnight.
This hidden beach is situated just below Boulders and is popular among Capetonians. The large granite boulders that surround offer the two sheltered inlets that meet the beach some protection from strong winds and waves, making it a safe swimming spot.
It is also popular as a spot for scuba diving and freediving, not just because it’s sheltered but because of the abundant marine life that can be found amongst the kelp forests here. A clear view of the mountains and out into the Bay also gives this beach a very picturesque atmosphere.
For a look into this underwater world, read our interview with local marine photographer Helen Walne
A number of operators conduct boat trips from the Simon’s Town Harbour, including whale watching tours, pelagic birding tours, boat diving and shark cage diving. The abundant and diverse marine life in False Bay means that there is something to see at any time of the year.
The companies that conduct these tours include Apex Expeditions, Shark Explorers, Ocean Africa, Simon’s Town Boat Company, Pisces Divers and African Shark Ecocharters. Visitors can also book guided kayak trips from Simon’s Town Harbour to Boulders Beach.