South African Penguins

Expedition Briefing


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The Research

African penguins, according to reports from the 1600’s, were once abundant on Robben Island. However, by 1800 they had faced so much exploitation and disturbance—primarily for food, clothing, and oil by the early European settlers at the Cape—that they no longer bred there. Not until 1983 did African penguins begin to recolonize Robben Island, and after that, the colony grew spectacularly reaching over 8,000 breeding pairs in 2004 (Sherley et al. 2014) and was briefly the second largest African penguin colony in the world around 2007.

Unfortunately the story doesn’t end with the penguins’ recovery: since then, the population has declined once again. Human activity, such as oil spills and overfishing, continues to disturb their habitat. Not only that, changes in ocean conditions, which may be attributed to the effects of climate change, have shifted the populations of sardine and anchovy (the penguins’ primary food resources) to the southeast of the nesting colonies (Crawford et al. 2014; Weller et al. 2014; Sherley et al. 2017a).

No one fully understands why the fish have moved, but the population of penguins on Robben Island has plummeted to ~1,200 breeding pairs. The birds must now compete with local fishermen over a rapidly diminishing food supply (Sherley et al. 2018). And, because of their attachment to their nesting colonies, relocating the penguins to be closer to the fish would require a massive effort, which may or may not actually work. As a result of these collective threats and the continued decline of the penguin populations, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) now classifies the species as Endangered.

The data collected by Earthwatch teams is critical in order to conserve these seabirds and bring them back from the brink of extinction. Scientists need to understand how they’re breeding, where they’re hunting for food, whether chicks are surviving, and if methods to help protect these penguins—such as setting up nest boxes, hand rearing malnourished chicks, setting up marine protected areas and potentially relocating entire breeding colonies—were, are, or will be, effective. This research is essential to preventing the further decline of this species—and it takes time.

Research Aims

Through our research on this project, we aim to better understand the dynamics of the penguin population on Robben Island. This will help us determine the causes of the population’s rapid decline, and to develop well-informed strategies to increase their chances of survival. We already know a few important facts: African penguins are largely monogamous, and they return to the same nesting colonies year after year. Since 1989—and with the help of Earthwatch volunteers since 2001—we have collected data on the breeding success rates of the Robben Island penguins, the growth rate and overall conditions of the chicks, annual survival rates of the birds, and other features of the population (Sherley et al. 2014). We relate changes in these population features from year to year to changes in environmental conditions, such as the amount of prey available, water temperatures, etc. Thus, we hope to determine which factors contribute to the decline of the penguins, and then develop targeted conservation measures to protect them, and possibly other species of seabird as well (Sherley et al. 2017a,b, 2018). Effectively teasing out factors related to a changing climate versus fishery harvest patterns requires robust data, drawing upon external datasets (sea temperature and fish harvest metrics) as well as careful observations of the penguins.

We are also developing research techniques that can benefit penguins and other birds, some of which researchers at other South African breeding colonies have already adopted. For example, we redesigned the wing bands used to identify the penguins to make them easier to read in the field and to lower the risk of harmful effects on the penguins (Barham et al. 2008) and have recently carried out pilot studies using microchips (PIT tags) and camera traps to monitor the birds automatically (Sherley et al. 2010).

How You Will Help

As a member of our 2020 teams, you’ll help us monitor the birds that come to breed at Robben Island from March to August. We’ll then use the data you help collect for detailed analysis and submit our results to the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries to help their conservation decision-making. Your work will involve some or all of the following activities:

  • Monitoring Penguin Chicks: This involves weighing chicks and taking measurements to determine their body condition.
  • Monitoring Nests: You’ll make regular visits (every five to six days) to the nests in our study to document the resident penguins’ behavior; note the nest’s contents and the identity of adult birds present (either by band numbers, or PIT tags), and enter data into the nest-monitoring database on the project computer.
  • Track penguins at sea: Volunteers on the mid-winter teams may get the opportunity to help attach cutting-edge tracking technology to penguins to learn about where they go and how hard they work at sea to find food.
  • Taking Digital Photographs: You’ll record the spot patterns on penguins’ chests to help us develop our system of band-less individual recognition.
  • Reading Transponders: You will use a hand-held wand to check whether penguins at nests have been fitted with a PIT tag and if so, to read and record the unique number. You may also help set up and monitor our moveable ground antenna to record PIT tag numbers from birds moving in and out of the colony on “penguin highways”.
  • Reading the Numbers on Banded Penguins: You’ll read numbers on all banded penguins in the colony. This will usually be casual observations you make while involved in other activities. You’ll also help enter data in the resighting database on the project computer. Re-sightings of banded birds have already proved invaluable. For example, they show that, although birds that were oiled, cleaned, rehabilitated, and released after the oil spill have similar survival rates to that of other birds, their breeding success has not been as good.
  • Long-Term Population Monitoring of the Island's Wildlife: In addition to counting the number of molting penguins and penguin nests in a small area of the colony, you’ll research other shorebirds, game animals, and rabbits that call Robben Island “home”.
  • Clearing Accumulated Garbage: You’ll help clear garbage, especially fishing line, from the shoreline (likely, for parts of one or two days). Animals entangled in this material can become trapped and die of starvation.

Life in the Field

At the beginning of your expedition, you’ll receive an orientation of the island, meet the environmental officers at the Robben Island Museum, and visit the penguin colony to learn about research aims, methods, and data collection. You’ll also receive a thorough safety briefing on how to protect both yourself and the penguins you’ll work with.

Because of our scientists’ demanding schedules, you may receive training and guidance from different researchers for different parts of your expedition. In most cases there will be one lead researcher for each team, assisted by a fellow researcher for the first week of your stay, and a different assistant researcher for the second week. The actual daily program will vary during the season as the chicks develop and the parents leave the breeding site. March and April mark the beginning of the breeding season; you’ll likely see many nests with eggs and a few with small chicks during this time. Usually teams during these months spend much of their time assisting in selecting nests for the study group, monitoring some of these nests, and helping with the data entry associated with setting up the nests for monitoring by later teams. In May and June, when chicks start to fledge, you’ll mostly monitor nests. These months are also when we deploy most of the GPS tracking devices on penguins. In July and August, birds complete their breeding season, and many abandon their nests. During this time, we generally find the greatest number of birds that need attention because of injury or oiling (winter storms mean that oiling seems to happen most in July and August). Volunteers may get the most hands-on experiences with penguins during these months, although nothing is certain when working with wild animals. Team 7 in August generally finds fewer breeding birds and is involved in closing down the project for the year and deals with ensuring all data entry is up to date and accurate.

Scuba Policy: Please note that scuba diving is not permitted on the recreational day(s); if you would like to dive during your visit to Cape Town, please do so before or after your Earthwatch expedition.

  • Day 1: Rendezvous: The team will meet at 3:00 p.m. on Day 1. The team will share refreshments with some of the project staff and there will be a short briefing on the schedule, etc. for the team. The team will then take a ferry to Robben Island at around 5:00 p.m.
  • Days 2–5 & 8–11: Fieldwork
    • 6:00–7:00 a.m. Wake up and eat breakfast
    • 8:00–9:00 a.m. Begin morning fieldwork (monitoring nests, etc.)
    • 12:30 p.m. Return to house for lunch
    • 3:00 p.m. Afternoon fieldwork (afternoon activities tend to be fairly diverse)
    • 6:00 p.m. Prepare dinner
    • 7:00 p.m. Dinner
    • 8:00 p.m. Recap of day’s observations and briefing for following day’s work; assist with data entry
    • 9:00 p.m. Occasional evening fieldwork
    • 10:00 p.m. Suggested bedtime
  • Days 6 & 7: Recreational Days: Volunteers may leave the island to spend time in Cape Town (weather permitting) and participate in recommended tours and activities if they wish. Volunteers may also remain on the island to rest or explore the island’s natural and cultural heritage sites.
    • Please note if you intend to spend the night in Cape Town, you will need to arrange and pay for accommodations for this night separately and sign out of the project for this time period. The exact days given as recreational days may vary depending on the work requirements at the time and the weather.
  • Day 12: Departure: Volunteers will leave the island sometime on the last day, normally during the morning, depending on the ferry schedules and weather. If time allows, volunteers will clean up the house before departing.
    • Please note if you intend to spend the night in Cape Town, you will need to arrange and pay for accommodations for this night separately. The team may meet up at a restaurant in the evening; however the meal and the night’s lodging are not included in the cost of your expedition.

Accommodations and Food

* Please note that not every expedition has couples’ or single's accommodations available. Please call or email Earthwatch to check for availability prior to reserving your space(s) on the team.


The house is a small, very basic field center that contains one large bedroom and two smaller bedrooms, with a total of six single beds. There is also a lounge, which can be used as another bedroom, and an outside room with one single bed. Volunteers may be asked to share rooms depending on the number of people working on the island at any given time. The maximum number of people in any one room is normally three. Private accommodations for couples are not always possible, as rooms may be divided by gender. The house is old, not centrally heated, and nights can sometimes be cold, so bring an extra sleeping layer if you tend to get chilly at night.

* Earthwatch will honor each person’s assertion of gender identity, respectfully and without judgement. For both teen and adult teams, where logistics dictate single-sex accommodations or other facilities, participant placements will be made in accordance with the gender identity the participant specified on their Earthwatch Participant form and/or preferences indicated in discussions with Earthwatch.


The house has one bathroom with one flush toilet and hot and cold running water from a large-scale desalination system. Laundry facilities (a washing machine and a small air dryer) are available at the house for free. Bedding is provided and there is a small supply of towels.


Robben Island has a fairly reliable electricity supply of 240 volts and uses South African sockets (three-pin plug required). Adaptors are necessary for North American, Australian, British and European plugs. Adaptors can be purchased at stores in Cape Town and there may be a spare one at the house for general use. North American electronics (excluding laptop computers) may also require a transformer to protect the equipment from the higher voltage in South Africa.


The house does not have a broadband connection. However, volunteers may send and receive limited emails via the team leader and/or the assistant, if needed. South Africa has 3G cellular Internet (4G in major cities). Local ‘pay as you go’ SIM cards, phones (which can work as a portable hotspot) and ‘3G dongles’ can be purchased or rented on arrival in Cape Town at the airport and at some outlets at the Waterfront. You will need to show your passport to register a SIM card and phone number. If you have a quad-band phone, which can work as a portable hotspot, you may be able to use it in South Africa. To avoid roaming charges, you should buy a local SIM card and a ‘data bundle’ (SIM cards should not cost more than R10, data packages are extra). Some North American phones may not work. There is reasonable, but somewhat patchy, cell phone reception (including 3G coverage) on Robben Island.


The house is located about a 15-minute walk from the edge of the penguin colony and about 30 minutes from the main study site.


The following are examples of foods you may find in the field. Variety depends on availability. We appreciate your flexibility.

  • Breakfast: This is usually do-it-yourself and includes toast, cereal, yogurt, and fruit.
  • Lunch: Cold meats, cheese, quiche, bread, salads, and fruit.
  • Dinner: Each team normally has at least one braai (South African for barbecue) with traditional meats. Other dinners include fish, stews, and pasta dishes. Enough fresh vegetables to last a week are sent out with the team and the supply is replenished when possible.
  • Snacks: A good range of biscuits (cookies) and savory snacks are provided.
  • Beverages: Tea (leaf tea, tea bags, herbal teas, and rooibos, a South African specialty), coffee, hot chocolate, fruit juices, and other beverages will be provided. Drinking water from a desalination plant on the island will be provided.

Please alert Earthwatch to any special dietary requirements (e.g., diabetes, lactose intolerance, nut or other food allergies, vegetarian or vegan diets) as soon as possible, and note them in the space provided on your volunteer forms.

Accommodating special diets is not guaranteed and can be very difficult due to availability of food, location of field sites, and other local conditions.

Project Conditions


For weather and region-specific information, please visit and search for your project location.

Essential Eligibility Requirements

All participants must be able to:

  • Take an active role in your own safety by recognizing and avoiding hazards if and when they arise (including, but not limited to, those described in Earthwatch materials and safety briefings). Comply with project staff instructions and recommended safety measures at all times.
  • Be able to effectively communicate to the staff if you are experiencing distress or need assistance.
  • Be comfortable being surrounded by a language and/or culture that is different from your own.
  • Be able to get along with a variety of people from different backgrounds and ages, often in close proximity, for the duration of your team.
  • Follow verbal and/or visual instructions independently or with the assistance of a companion.
  • Enjoy being outdoors most of the day in variable weather in the potential presence of wild animals and insects.
  • Tolerate moderate to very hot conditions in direct sun (especially March through May teams) for long hours each day.
  • Walk between 4 km/2.5 miles and 8 km/5 miles a day on rough dirt tracks and through dense woodland to carry out nest monitoring, etc. Some volunteers also choose to walk to and from the research house to the field site a distance of 2.5 km /1.5 miles per trip.
  • Bend up and down, crouch and crawl comfortably for 2 hours per day while performing nest work.
  • Sit for up to 6 hours during the day for several days in a row while recording data.
  • Have strong eyesight to use binoculars and spotting scopes to read band numbers (contacts and glasses are OK).
  • Carry personal daily supplies such as water, notebook, and binoculars, and occasionally some field equipment, such as a spotting scope or tripod.

Health and Safety


Earthwatch has a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week emergency hotline number. Someone is always on call to respond to messages that come into our live answering service.


Please be sure your routine immunizations are up-to-date (for example: diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella and varicella) and you have the appropriate vaccinations for your travel destination. Medical decisions are the responsibility of each volunteer and his or her doctor. Visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization for guidance on immunizations.

If traveling from countries or region where yellow fever is endemic, you must have a certificate of vaccination.

Project Risks and Precautions


The ferry ride to the island takes up to 45 minutes each way. Bring appropriate medication if you are prone to seasickness. Travel to and from the island by ferry is highly dependent on weather; poor weather conditions can delay arrival on the island, or can require us to leave the island a day or more early. This is a particular risk during winter months (June—August).

On the island, you’ll ride in a bakkie (small pickup); often in the back of the truck without safety restraints. Stay seated on the floor of the truck bed and hold on to the sides at all times. Participants are not permitted to drive.


You will usually walk on dirt roads and tracks with reasonably flat surfaces. However, in other places you may have to navigate penguin burrows or loose stones. Please walk slowly and carefully over uneven terrain. If you have unsure footing, we advise you to use a walking stick or hiking pole to avoid slipping and injury.

You’ll find rusty barbed wire (remnants from the prison) throughout parts of the colony. Please pay attention to your surroundings and be sure your tetanus vaccination is up to date before you arrive. Wear long pants and appropriate footwear (e.g., hiking boots) when walking through long brush and grass to avoid scratches. Some tasks are done along the shoreline which means walking on rocks and loose stones or sand.


Project staff will instruct you on proper handling techniques to avoid injury to you or animals. Penguins can inflict painful bites, so we will provide protective gloves. Always take care and wear goggles when handling penguins; if frightened, penguins may attempt to peck your hand, arms, face, or eyes.

Mole snakes inhabit some parts of the island—while they are non-venomous and generally docile, they may bite painfully. They are large snakes, and may startle some volunteers. Under no circumstances should you disturb or attempt to handle them.

Wild African bees also live on the island. If you are allergic to stings, you must note this on your Earthwatch Participation Form and inform project staff in the field. Please also carry necessary medications and inform staff of their location.


Most project work happens outdoors, so sunburn, dehydration, and other heat-related illnesses are risks. Please wear high-factor sunscreen, dress appropriately, and wear a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses. Carry and drink plenty of water throughout the day. Take rest breaks as needed, and inform a staff member if feeling tired or ill.

Bush Fire

Vegetation on the island is very dry; especially March to May so there is a high risk of bush fire due to careless behavior, such as smoking in the veld (open areas covered with scrub and grasses). Project staff will instruct you on how to avoid this risk. Smoking is not allowed in the field or in the team house; smoking is permitted only in designated areas outside of the house.

Personal Security

If you will be traveling in urban areas in South Africa before and/or after the expedition, we advise you to stay alert and use sensible precautions. Avoid dark areas, don’t walk alone at night, and do not obviously display cash, cameras, or jewelry. It is always good practice to leave any unnecessary valuables at home.

Distance from Medical Care

As the ferry to and from Robben Island is highly dependent on weather, poor weather conditions can lead to delays in access to medical care. If you have a chronic condition which may require immediate medical care (e.g. heart conditions, kidney problems, severe asthma, etc.), or if you are pregnant, please discuss your participation on this expedition with your physician. The hospital on the mainland is approximately 10 km away; 25 minutes by helicopter (may not always be available), longer by boat (approx. 90 minutes once onboard). Both take time to arrange.

Travel Planning


Clock tower at the Nelson Mandela Gateway, Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa

* Additional information will be provided by Earthwatch to meet your team. Please do not book travel arrangements such as flights until you have received additional information from Earthwatch.


Earthwatch strongly recommends that travelers investigate their destination prior to departure. Familiarity with the destination’s entry/exit requirements, visas, local laws, and customs can go a long way to ensuring smooth travel. The U.S. Department of State's Traveler’s Checklist and Destination Guides are helpful resources. For LGBTI travelers, the U.S. Department of State's LGBTI Travelers page contains many useful tips and links.


Entry visa requirements differ by country of origin, layover, and destination, and do change unexpectedly. For this reason, please confirm your visa requirements at the time of booking and, again, 90 days prior to travel. Please apply early for your visa (we recommend starting 6 months prior to the start of your expedition). Refunds will not be made for volunteers cancelling due to not obtaining their visa in time to meet the team at the rendezvous. You can find up to date visa requirements at the following website:

If a visa is required, participants should apply for a TOURIST visa. Please note that obtaining a visa can take weeks or even months. We strongly recommend using a visa agency, which can both expedite and simplify the process.

Generally, passports must be valid for at least six months from the date of entry and a return ticket is required.


  • Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom. New York: Little Brown and Co., 1995.
  • Garcia Borboroglu, Pablo and Boersma, P Dee. Penguins: Natural History and Conservation; University of Washington Press, 2013
  • Whittington, Phil. Peter the Penguin. Cape Town: Animal Demography Unit, 2001.
  • Spencer David, Lloyd. Penguins: The Ultimate Question and Answer Book. New York: Harper Collins, 2007.
  • Bergman, Charles. Every Penguin in the World. Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2020.
  • Sinclair, Ian, Phil Hockey, Warwick Tarboton, and Ryan, Peter. Sasol Birds of Southern Africa. Cape Town: Struik Publishers, 2011.
  • Branch, George, Griffiths, Charles, Branch, Margo, and Beckley, Lynnath. Two Oceans: A Guide to the Marine Life of Southern Africa (4th Edition). Cape Town: Struik Publishers, 2017.
  • Penguins: Spy in the Huddle. BBC Home Entertainment, 2014. Note: a documentary using 50 ‘spy cams’ to capture unique footage of emperor, rockhopper and Humboldt penguins; available at
  • City Slickers. Note: This is not the Billy Crystal movie, but “a wonderful wildlife film with a very humorous twist”; available at
  • Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Director: Justin Chadwick). Anchor Bay, 2014. Note: Based on Nelson Mandela’ 1995 autobiography of the same name. Includes some scenes filmed on Robben Island; available at
  • Goodbye Bafana (Director: Billie August). Image Entertainment, 2008. Note: Based on a book of the same name, it tells the story of an unlikely friendship that developed between a former prison guard at Robben Island and Pollsmoor Prison—James Gregory— and one of his prisoners, Nelson Mandela; available at Amazon. com and renamed The Color of Freedom in the U.S.A.
  • Invictus (Director: Clint Eastwood). Warner Home Video, 2010. Note: Based on newly post-Apartied South Africa’s famous victory on home soil in the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the interactions between then Springbok captain Francois Pienaar and Nelson Mandela. Includes some scenes filmed on Robben Island; available at
  • Barham PJ, Underhill LG, Crawford RJM, Leshoro TM, and Bolton DA. 2008. Impact of flipper-banding on breeding success of African penguins Spheniscus demersus at Robben Island: comparisons among silicone rubber bands, stainless-steel bands and no bands. African Journal of Marine Science. Vol. 30, Issue 3
  • Crawford RJM, Makhado AB, Waller LJ and Whittington PA. 2014. Winners and losers -responses to recent environmental change by South African seabirds that compete with purse-seine fisheries for food. Ostrich 85: 111-117.
  • Sherley RB, Burghardt T, Barham PJ, Campbell N, and Cuthill IC. 2010. Spotting the difference: towards fully-automated population monitoring of African penguins Spheniscus demersus. Endangered Species Research 11: 101-111.
  • Sherley RB, Barham PJ, Barham BJ, Crawford RJM, Dyer BM, Leshoro TM, Makhado AB, Upfold L and Underhill LG. 2014. Growth and decline of a penguin colony and the influence on nesting density and reproductive success. Population Ecology 56: 119–128.
  • Sherley RB, Ludynia K, Dyer BM, Lamont T, Makhado AB, Roux J-P, Scales KL, Underhill LG and Votier SC. 2017a. Metapopulation tracking juvenile penguins reveals an ecosystem-wide ecological trap. Current Biology 27: 563–568.
  • Sherley RB, Botha P, Underhill LG, Ryan PG, van Zyl D, Cockcroft AC, Crawford RJM, Dyer BM and Cook TR. 2017b. Defining ecologically relevant scales for spatial protection with long-term data on an endangered seabird and local prey availability. Conservation Biology 31: 1312–1321.
  • Sherley RB, Barham BJ, Barham PJ, Campbell KJ, Crawford RJM, Grigg J, Horswill C, McInnes A, Morris TL, Pichegru L, Steinfurth A, Weller F, Winker H and Votier SC. 2018. Bayesian inference reveals positive but subtle effects of experimental fishery closures on marine predator demographics. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 285: 20172443.
  • Weller F, Cecchini L-A, Shannon L, Sherley RB, Crawford RJM, Altwegg R, Scott L, Stewart T and Jarre A. 2014. A system dynamics approach to modelling multiple drivers of the African penguin population on Robben Island, South Africa. Ecological Modelling 277: 38–56.