Tracking Penguins

Where do African Penguins go when they're not breeding?

The answers to this question could help stop the precipitous decrease in penguin numbers. But without the answers, we're stumped; we cannot help protect them if we've no idea where they are, and what threats they're facing. Previous tracking studies have been done almost exclusively on breeding penguins, because researchers can be sure that they will return to their nests, which allows the retrieval of small but quite pricey GPS devices. With the advent of improved technology the other option of satellite devices, which can send data directly to researchers' computers, are now small enough to attach to penguins but still provide enough battery life to be useful. Satellite trackers were famously used to track the return of Peter, Pamela and Percy from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town following the Treasure oil spill in 2000. Researchers from the Animal Demography Unit have also used satellite trackers on juvenile penguins to determine where they go after fledging. Employing a mix of these two different kinds of technology, strategic timing and important research partnerships we aim to figure out where penguins go when they are not breeding.

Research Questions
  1. Where do penguins go after breeding? The period after breeding is crucial because they need to fatten up enough to survive 2 weeks of moult. During this time, they stay on land, don't eat a morsel, and replace all their feathers. If lucky they only lose 50% of their body weight.
  2. Where do penguins go after moulting? This is another crucial period, as the hungry and thin penguins must go to sea once their new feathers are waterproof and find enough food to replace the energy reserves they have lost during the moult.

By knowing if they stay close to their breeding islands during these two periods or travel away from them, we can see if they are likely to come into competition for food with the sardine and anchovy fishery and if implementing special management areas will help.

The research team

Dr Ross Wanless – Seabird Division Manager, BirdLife South Africa
Dr Taryn Morris – Coastal Seabirds Conservation Manager, BirdLife South Africa
Christina Hagen – Pamela Isdell Fellow of Penguin Conservation, BirdLife South Africa (2012-2015)
Craig Harding – Conservation Biology Masters student, Percy FitzPatrick Institute, UCT (2012)
Adri Meyer – Seabird intern and research assistant, BirdLife South Africa
Dr Lorien Pichegru – Post-doc at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute (2012-2015)
Jenni Roberts – Masters student at Percy FitzPatrick Institute at UCT (2013-2014)
Prof Peter Ryan – Associate Professor at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute

Media and Fundraising

Several initiatives have been used over the years to raise awareness for the plight of the African Penguins and the ongoing research projects. During the Save Our Seabirds Festival in 2013, we ran an awareness raising campaign, The Penguin Run, to raise the profile of this project.

  pdf African Penguin story (728 KB)

In February 2014, in partnership with GreenMatter, BirdLife South Africa launched an interactive game called PengWin Trax, where sponsors were paired with teams of high school and university students from across the country. Teams were paired with a particular penguin and, based on a range of clues (environmental factors), had to try and predict where the penguin would go to feed, how their health fares and when/where they would return to shore.

Study sites

Dassen Island
This island on the west coast, near Yzerfontein, was formerly the largest African Penguin colony in South Africa. Currently there are about 3900 pairs that breed on the island.

Bird Island
Bird Island is on the eastern side of Algoa Bay, in the Eastern Cape. This island is home to about 2600 breeding pairs of penguins and also the site of the largest Cape Gannet colony in South Africa.


During the pre- and post-moult seasons, 10 penguins from each island are fitted with either satellite transmitters (or PTTs - Platform Terminal Transmitters) or GPS data loggers. The devices weigh only 30 g and are about the size of a matchbox and only penguins that are above stringent mass and body sizes are fitted with devices.

Where they went

Data tracks are collected and analysed each year, however two maps are provided that show representative tracks from the 2012 pre-moult season from each island. Dassen Island penguins travelled relatively far from the island. One bird travelled north at 50 km/day for 10 days, almost to the border with Namibia (blue line on the map), while the others went south and then east, as far as 540 km to Mossel Bay, before returning to Dassen. On Bird Island, the penguins tended to stay closer to the island, with the furthest travelling penguin going almost as far as East London, a distance of about 170 km (orange line on the map).


Dassen Island website

Bird Island website


We would like to thank our sponsors: Charl van der Merwe Trust, Pamela Isdell, the Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, Zest for Birds, and the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology.


We would like to thank the Department of Environmental Affairs, CapeNature and SANParks for granting the permits to do this research and logistical support on the islands. We would also like to thank Marlene van Onselen, Bruce Dyer, Alister McGinnes, Dr Antje Stienfurth, Dr Richard Sherley, Kate Robinson and various student field assistants for advice and assistance on this project.