It was a very hot day with temperatures reaching well over 34 degrees. The ocean was calm and cool and Fransmanshoek Nature Reserve was ready to welcome our three penguins to be released. The penguins had all arrived at the SAPREC centre 12 weeks ago with an arrested moult. This means that they had been disturbed whilst they were in their moulting process. Penguins moult once a year replacing their worn-out feathers with a brand new set of waterproof feathers. A state of arrested moult means that this important process has been interrupted , and without waterproof feathers, the bird is neither able to survive cold waters nor hunt for fish. The three musketeers as we fondly called them were reluctant to swim into the big ocean once again. They stood on the shore surveying their surroundings. Finally they plucked up the courage to slowly swim into the waves and suddenly the realization that they were free again and back in the sea took hold. They stretched and flapped and wagged their tails as they set off into the deep blue ocean. Thanks once again to all the stakeholders that makes a day like this so precious. The concerned citizens that call into the centre to make us aware of a bird in distress, the volunteers that give so readily of their time to look after and care for the birds, our wonderful vets who assist us -Dr De Graaf, Dr Cilliers and Dr Basson and all our sponsors and supporters. Today we can say that collectively we did good!

Photographs Rene Hodges

It’s a foggy Monday morning in Vleesbaai, the waters of the Indian Ocean crashing against the shore is the only thing to be heard. The Fransmanshoek sand is left untouched until printed with a tiny flipper. Eight, to be exact. These, of course, belong to the indigenous African penguins. But not just any old penguins: these four are arriving back home after weeks or even months of recovery.

The Seabird and Penguin Rehabilitation Centre (SAPREC) in Mossel Bay have taken on the task of nursing seabirds back to health and have successfully helped over a thousand so far.

Today was Scar, Pin Scaredy Cat and Nick’s turn to go back to their roots. With mixed emotions from the group (from both human and bird) they soon enough dove straight into the water, taking their time to get used to the waves again.

With a range of different problems from malaria to a broken fin, four have been treated, fed and are well enough to return to their natural habitat. However, they are not yet out of harm’s way. Penguins face so many dangers in the ocean, including seal bites and human-induced risks like plastic pollution. Carol Walton and her team take it upon themselves to save the endangered species to the best of their ability.

Carol has been working with penguins and seabirds since the 1990s. When she moved to the Mossel Bay area, locals turned to her for her experience and knowledge. People began bringing her the injured or sick penguins and seabirds they found on beaches, more and more of them seeming to wash out each day. So, she started taking care of penguins again in her garage in 2004.

SAPREC opened a year later when business got busy and her garage too small. Since then, the team of volunteers have been able to do many releases of successfully rehabilitated birds. Today, I was lucky enough to join them.

“I feel in two minds [about their release],” Carol tells me. I feel fantastic and yet I feel a bit sad because it's a big ocean. They’ve got so many problems with overfishing, with plastic. So it feels good that we let them go in the best possible conditions that we could. But it's a big ocean.”

With there only being 14,000 breeding pairs of African penguins left and this number steadily dropping, the centre is a literal lifesaver for these flightless beauties. Although, being a registered non-profit organisation, funding is a mission. The centre relies heavily on donations since the government pulled back.

With the state of the global marine habitat becoming more and more deadly, the number of penguins in trouble are increasing. Currently, it is expected that there will be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050. This is heavily due to single-use plastics and the way we discard of it when we do not need it anymore. The material is so durable that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports “every piece of plastic ever made still exists today”.

SAPREC and similar conservation organisations in the area, like SMART (Stranded Marine Animal Rescue Team), do their bit to help by hosting events like beach clean-ups. However, because they are so busy, it is hard to find the time outside of the day to day responsibilities to host more events.

The problem in our oceans is alarming on a global scale. Despite the work that SAPREC does, they’re a tiny solution to a grand problem.

You can donate to SAPREC here:

Written by Becky Toogood for Africa Media

Photographs by Rene Hodges

When you head to Mossdustria, the industrial estate in Mossel Bay, the last thing you'd expect to find is a waddle of African penguins and Cape Gannets guzzling fish and squawking happily. However, hidden deep in its recesses on a small, unassuming plot of land, two conservationists fight to save these highly endangered seabirds from various injuries and, ultimately, extinction.

Seabird and Penguin Rehabilitation Centre (SAPREC) was founded in March 2005 by penguin lover and experienced rehabilitator, Carol Walton. She has been working with the birds for over 30 years, starting out as a member of SANCCOB (South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) in Cape Town.

After moving to Mossel Bay, Carol became the first point of call for people who found the injured seabirds as they knew of her previous experience. She began housing the injured birds in her garage. However, as more calls came in, she saw the need for a bigger centre. SAPREC’s current facility is what Carol calls ‘core rehabilitation’, where penguin release is the priority. Although there are around fifteen birds that cannot be released, the centre receives birds in various states, with some birds suffering deformities from seal bites and others the victims of human carelessness, like plastic pollution or boat propellers. Once the birds reach the centre, they are checked, given the necessary medication or physical rehabilitation, and are then released at Fransmanshoek beach near Vleesbaai. Carol has helped thousands of birds through this process, which is crucial for the survival of their species.

But why, in Mossel Bay, does penguin rehabilitation matter? As Carol explains, ‘Penguins are an indicator of the health of our oceans. With the population going down so fast, we can see that there is something drastically wrong.’ She predicts that these birds will be extinct within a decade, as breeding pairs worldwide stand at only 16,000. A shocking drop from the 1 million in the early 1900s.

The major threats to African penguins, Cape Gannets and other highly endangered seabird species are exploitation of fish stocks, degradation of the ocean environment and the alarming rise in microplastics. ‘It is overfishing, oil and plastic pollution,' says Carol. "They are eating the fish which are eating the microplastics. There were some post-mortems done in Cape Town recently and found microplastics in their stomachs.’

Penguins are also being hunted by seals, which are thriving in the area due to a decrease in shark populations. As seals take over, they prey on penguins disproportionately. The fine-tuned balance of the ecosystem has been upset and seabirds are paying the price. These factors have led to 70% of seabird species being endangered, and a growing number of penguins ending up in rehabilitation centers like SAPREC.

As wild populations dwindle, conservationists have begun to take action to re-establish colonies in the Western Cape area. In fact, Bird Life South Africa is currently directing its efforts towards Plettenberg Bay and is using puppets and penguin noises to encourage natural migration and colonization. The area currently poses some management issues, but they have conducted surveys assessing potential food sources and predators for the colony. Carol says she will be helping later in the project, once the penguins move past the initial stages of re-introduction.

In addition to conservationists’ efforts to re-establish wild penguin colonies in the area, everyday citizens also have a responsibility to protect penguin populations. As Carol laments, single-use plastics are a major culprit in the downfall of penguins. Carol says she cannot imagine a world without these seabirds, however if change does not happen now, she may have to.

‘Please recycle and don’t use single-use plastic. I think we need to educate people.’ She passionately believes that these actions, as well as spreading the message, are the most important steps to bringing these penguins back from the brink of extinction. ‘It is so sad, and humanity has a lot to answer for.’