Many penguins are creatures of far-away, ice-bound, and unpeopled places. The Northern Rockhopper is one example. One of the biggest revelations of our penguin quest, however, was how connected and entwined our lives are with theirs. They may live in another hemisphere, in the far south. But we are increasingly stitched to them.
This was a big discovery for Susan and me on our 10th wedding anniversary, in June 2011. We celebrated the day in South Africa. It illustrated how our own relationship was increasingly marked by our love of penguins. I was on assignment for a large U.S. magazine to write a story about African Penguins. Together we volunteered for a two-week stint with Earthwatch Expeditions on a study of African Penguins at the last best stronghold of the species — Robben Island.
The island, a low-lying hump of rock and sand, is dominated by its famous prison. For several decades, it was notorious for housing around 1,500 political prisoners whose crime was opposing apartheid. Nelson Mandela, one of the great heroes of the 20th century, spent 18 years on Robben Island.
Now the prison is a museum, a powerful symbol of both repression and the fight for freedom. In his book Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote that prisoners often “laughed at the colony of penguins,” so comical as they marched back and forth to the sea. The birds, he noted, gave the prisoners pleasure. They were a comical distraction from the harsh conditions of prison life.
The penguins still march past the prison, still make nests in its shadow. It’s one of the great, unremarked ironies of conservation: The prison, once an instrument of racism, now provides a de facto sanctuary for Africa’s only species of penguin.
Every day, Susan and I counted penguins going to sea and returning at night. We weighed and measured baby penguins. We even helped conservation biologist Richard Sherley put a satellite- tracking device on an adult penguin. By mapping the penguin’s movements in the bay, Sherley got a better understanding of the intersections of penguins and human fisheries.
The African Penguin has suffered a steady decline for more than a century, its population down by 95 percent. Guano and egg harvesting, oil spills, conflicts over fishing, and now warming seas and changing ocean currents — the pressure by humans has been unrelenting. Sherley spoke bluntly about the very real likelihood of extinction.
This beloved family of birds is paradoxically one of the most endangered. Of the 18 species of penguins, 13 are facing various degrees of threat for extinction. Dee Boersma, a well-known penguin biologist at the University of Washington, calls the birds “marine sentinels.” They speak to us of the health of the planet’s oceans.
Nevertheless, like the prison that looms over their island, African Penguins are a sad story that inspires hope.
One morning, Susan and I were helping Sherley weigh baby penguins just across the road from the prison. As people walked past us to and from the prison, we held tight to flailing penguins as we collected data. Few people noticed us or the penguins.
Sherley held up a downy chick, still little, but feisty. I measured wings and beak.
“You know,” Susan said, “this is our 10th species of penguin.”
“On our 10th anniversary,” I replied. “Ten for ten.”
It was then, in the shadow of the infamous prison, that we were inspired to see every species of penguin. And to spread the word about their conservation.
Penguins and prisons: In both epic and intimate ways, penguins are woven into the fabric of our lives. In the great historical sweep of a nation and its heroes, and in the private dedication of a married couple, penguins console us and inspire us.
Who they are charges our imaginations. What we do matters to them and their future. If we cannot save penguins — cannot save what everybody loves — what can we save?