By Alix Morris
The population of African penguins on Robben Island, South Africa has declined by more than 90 percent in the last 100 years. This week, Alix Morris, Earthwatch’s Senior Science Writer, is working with researchers and volunteers on the island to study these endangered birds on the South African Penguins expedition.
After more than 20 hours in the air and a slight delay in Cape Town due to high winds and rain, I have arrived at Robben Island at last! It is a small team per usual on this project. In this case we have: two community fellows (local professionals who receive grant funding to participate on the expedition), two research staff, and me.
Because of the inclement weather, tour boats have not been running for the past few days. So our team arrived on the island aboard a boat used to transport staff and residents – the very same boat that once delivered political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, during apartheid. In fact, some of the former prisoners now live on the island – a mere stone’s throw from the building where they were once confined – and offer tours to visitors from around the world.
Upon arrival on the island, we zipped past the tourist area, hopped aboard the research truck, and made our way to the house. Within minutes, we encountered our first African penguins! Four well-clad birds scuttled across the road in front of the truck, flippers straight out at their sides as if they were preparing for takeoff. In their rush, one fell flat on its belly and another tripped over a tree branch. A perfect welcome from our graceful island hosts.
We’re now just a few days into the expedition and the experience for all of us has been, in a word, surreal. Megan, one of the Community Fellows, said to me last night, “The coolest thing for me is that no one else gets to come here and yet we just wander around like it’s nothing. Not only that, we have this insanely close access to the penguins that people can’t otherwise experience.”
Today we completed a round of nest checks to count the numbers of adults and chicks in each of the nests that are being monitored. This involves a bit of shimmying around rocks and crawling under branches to peer into the small caves the penguins have built for themselves and their chicks. Nearly every nest we visited had at least a chick or two at various stages of development – some had just hatched, others were slightly larger and covered with soft, downy feathers, and several were nearly the size of adults, about ready to fledge (when a penguin takes its first swim).
In the afternoon, I tagged along with Jenny, our lead researcher, to unhook logger tags from penguins as part of her graduate research. These tags are attached to penguins’ backs and used to record GPS measurements that map a penguin’s journey to find fish. Jenny collects the data to see where the penguins went during a single foraging trip. She also records beak measurements and weighs the penguins to help determine the sex of the bird.
We were soaked when we got back to the house, but a cup of tea, a biscuit, and a warm shower did the trick. OK, there were perhaps many biscuits.
Tomorrow, if the rain holds off, we’ll be heading back out to the field to measure penguin chicks. It’s a tough life here on Robben Island, but so far we’re managing quite well. Stay tuned for more about this research next week!