Lions, leopards, rhinos, wildebeests, elephants and… penguins?

That’s right, penguins aren’t only found in Antarctica. South Africa is home to a veritable sanctuary of these tuxedoed birds – and it is one of the few places in the world where you can get up-close to them in their natural habitat and perhaps even join in for a swim!

Over 2000 South African penguins make Boulders Beach their home. It is a marine protected area and is part of the scenic Cape Point Peninsula near Cape Town and the Table Mountains National Park. Set in a rugged peninsula with beautiful inlets on the southernmost coast of the continent, the beach has always been a popular destination. Wooden boardwalks stretch through dense vegetation and granite boulders that are over 540 million years old.

Wandering tourists can pose for photos with the waddling penguins, who often let people approach as close to three feet. It is the only spot in Africa to see penguins like this. Just don’t try to touch them – they have sharp beaks. Sometimes called the “Jackass” penguin for its loud donkey-like bray, you may hear them before you see them as you first enter the beach. The bird differentiates itself from its Antarctic, Australian and South American cousins with a distinctive black facial mask and pink patches of skin above the eyes. They are also one of the few penguins to live in non-icy waters. Most African penguins live on the much cooler Atlantic side of the ocean. Their traditional black and white plumage – as unique to each individual as a fingerprint – is the perfect camouflaging foil for predators. A white chest and belly hides them from aquatic threats – and their black feathers protect them from any perils above.

It wasn’t until 1983 that the first pair of penguins were spotted here, thought to have migrated from one of 24 island colonies between Namibia and Algoa Bay (including the aptly-named Penguin Islands). Warmer temperatures, a reduction of nearby predators and a dwindling food supply (penguins feed primarily on squid and fish) probably first brought the penguins here, closer inland than False Bay, known for its Great White Sharks.

Still, African penguins are currently an endangered species. The numbers of their decline in the wild are staggering. Overall populations have declined by as much as 95% since pre-industrial times. At the beginning of the 19th century, roughly 4 million penguins existed. A century later, in 1910, only 1.5 million were left. In the last fifty years alone, the population’s suffered an eighty-percent loss of breeding pairs. And ‘breeding pairs’ are important because penguins are monogamous animals and pair for life with their chosen mate. Romance is alive and well in the penguin kingdom.