Pop in and enjoy a perky penguin chat

John Harvey

UNDERSTANDING “penguin lingo” is decidedly not for the birds alone.

Interpreted correctly, albeit with a slight proclivity for innuendo, the penguin patois reads like a veritable 50 Shades of Black and White.

There’s the macho “preening”, the “ecstatic display” to attract mates and, of course, the subservient “bowing” used in pair breeding – all rather hot and heavy stuff for birds that seem more suited to black-tie accountants’ dinners than a steamy roll in the hay.

While the cartooned board at the SA Marine Rehabilitation and Education Centre (Samrec) at Cape Recife in Nelson Mandela Bay carries absolutely no age restriction, what it does prove is that adults will have just as much fun as their children watching these waddling denizens of St Croix and Bird islands walk the road to recovery.

The rehabilitation centre, which has become a much-loved part of the Bay’s marine life identity, continues to be a drawcard for young and old alike.

It has also attracted the attention of a number of volunteers from abroad, the latest being early-to-rise early-to-bed German national Sonja Hausman, who is doing her second “tour of duty” at the centre.

Hausman begins each day at 5.30pm for the injured or ailing birds’ first feeding of the day, which is no small process in itself. With cormorants and the delightfully-named sooty shearwater among Samrec’s regular guests alongside the penguins, each species has its own dietary requirements.

With the precision of a Gordon Ramsay she either fillets the frozen sardines or cuts the tails off the fish, depending on the palate of the dining bird.

Last year Samrec treated a total of 197 birds which had washed up on city beaches due to some or other ailment.

“Most of our cases involve a bird being underweight. The ideal weight for a penguin is 2.5kg,” Hausman says.

“It is a very worrying sign when the penguin’s poo is black, because there is a chance that the penguin might start to digest itself from the inside.”

The birds usually stay some four to six weeks at the centre, depending on the injury.

What must be emphasised is that Samrec is no morbid memorial to the sick and lame, but a vibrant hive of activity where healing and learning meld in a perfect symbiosis.

Staff and volunteers greet visitors cheerily and are eager to educate the little ones on how the birds are rehabilitated. The foyer area and main room are used for displays which are constantly updated in accordance with latest environmental trends.

Children will love the small “mouse hole” in the wall at the base of the skirting. For those old enough to remember the old children’s museum that stood opposite the oceanarium, a similar attraction was a staple of any child’s visit, but the Samrec facsimile has gone one better by regularly changing the puppet mice and what they are doing.

“The tours include the life cycles of penguins, and explanations on how the staff treat the incoming penguins or other birds,” Samrec animal manager Marie-Clare Wagner says.

“We have school groups coming in throughout the year, but parents love to bring their kids as well. Families often take memberships for the entire year because they are repeat visitors, bringing family members from out of town for a look.”

Children often use the facility for their research projects as well.

Of course getting up close and personal with the penguins is the standout moment of the visit – particularly since one of the current residents, Kombi, is never one to disappoint.

Kombi, so named because a group of Volkswagen volunteers assisted in his rehabilitation, is about as likely to shun a sardine as Kenny Kunene a girl-ful of sushi (no doubt he would read the penguin lingo board like the Kama Sutra).

Having arrived at Samrec a shadow of himself with a broken wing to boot, Kombi has since grown into his role as the guaranteed showpiece, gulping down the fish on demand.

Although a relatively small operation that is highly dependent on volunteers, there is so much to see and do at Samrec that it is quite possible to spend a few hours learning about and enjoying the birds.

That the African penguin is on the endangered list makes the experience all the more poignant.

A great, living lesson to teach our kids.

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