Bay penguin project first of its kind in SA

PIONEER'S BADGE: Samrec volunteer Keith Brewerton and Agro, one of the permanent residents, show off one of the 'pingers' which will be attached to some of the penguins to be released. Picture: MIKE HOLMES
PIONEER’S BADGE: Samrec volunteer Keith Brewerton and Agro, one of the permanent residents, show off one of the ‘pingers’ which will be attached to some of the penguins to be released. Picture: MIKE HOLMES

FOR the first time in South African waters, researchers will be monitoring penguin movement in Algoa Bay using technology similar to that used for tracking shark activity along the coast.

A small group of penguins will soon be released from the South African Marine Rehabilitation and Education Centre (Samrec), in Port Elizabeth, fitted with “pingers” – small devices that send radio frequencies to receivers around the Bay.

“These receivers can then be visited to retrieve vital data about our penguins’ movements, and we can see how far they have to travel for food,” Samrec volunteer Keith Brewerton said.

The “pingers”, as Brewerton calls them, are attached to the penguins in such a way that they do not compromise the waterproofing of their feathers. These devices, manufactured in Canada, cost C$380 each (about R3700).

Penguins that had worn the devices for some time at Samrec showed no signs of discomfort at having what Brewerton refers to as the “little badges on their chests”. During the first phase, three penguins will be released later this week to test the device’s effectiveness.

According to Samrec environmental education manager Eddy Molekoa this research is vital due to increasing food shortages for penguins in the Bay.

Adult penguins have to travel further away from their home on the St Croix islands looking for their staple diet of pilchards and anchovies, and upon returning home they need more energy. This forces them to digest the food they would normally regurgitate to feed their chicks.

“In some cases adults can supply only one chick with half the food it needs, instead of feeding two chicks completely. This is why more and more juvenile penguins wash up onshore – they just don’t have the strength they are supposed to have.”

This causes more concern about the dwindling penguin population at the St Croix islands, where the largest colony of African penguins has shrunk from about 80000 in 2002 to only a little more than 7000. It is believed there are only 28000 African penguins left in the world.

“We urge people to contact us if they ever see penguins on the beaches or rocks around Port Elizabeth. The only reason they would come ashore is if they are too weak to swim back to St Croix, and this puts them in danger. We will help them as best we can.”

For more information or if anyone has information about stranded penguins, please contact Samrec at (041)583-1830, or e- mail them on info@samrec.org.za. – Riaan Marais

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