• Nadine Clarke

Scar, Pin, Scaredy Cat and Nick return to the ocean.

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