African Penguin

Scientific Name Spheniscus demersus

Native To Namibia, South Africa

Habitat Coastal waters; Sandy beaches and rocky shores

Diet Piscivore- Capelin, smelt, herring, squid

Size and Age 60-70cm

Natural History

  • African penguins are, surprisingly for many people, warm weather birds. They are found in the African countries of Namibia and South Africa. At only 60-70cm tall, they are much smaller than the famous, cold-weather Emperor penguins that can grow to 4 feet tall.
  • The classic black and white colouring of penguins is not just to make them look fancy! It is an effective form of camouflage called countershading. When they’re swimming, their black back hides them among the dark depths of the ocean waters. But from below, their white bellies blend in with the much brighter water above. Their belly spots are as unique and identifying as our fingerprints. Once a year, they go through a ‘catastrophic’ moult, where they lose all their feathers and grow new ones.
  • African penguins can dive for two and a half minutes, and regularly as deep as 30m.
  • Closest Relatives
    Magellanic penguin Spheniscus magellanicus
    Humboldt penguin Spheniscus humboldti
    Galapagos penguin Spheniscus mediculus


Conservation Status

  • The African penguin has been listed as Endangered since 2010. As of 2015, the population was estimated to be roughly 25,000 breeding pairs. The population of African penguins has decreased by more than 97% in 100 years, with more than 50% of that decline in the last three generations of birds. The main reasons for this decline is plastic in the oceans, declining fish populations, and oil spills.

  • There are a lot of things being done to help African penguins – and you can help too! Choosing sustainable seafood as described by Ocean Wise will help African penguins and other fish-eating animals have a steady food source. We can also support the efforts of organizations such as SANCCOB, the South African rescue and rehabilitation centre in Cape Town, who rehabilitates around 1500 African penguins each year. But perhaps the best thing we can all do is to reduce, reuse and recycle! Decreasing the amount of plastic in our environment, and especially our waterways, will increase the chances of survival of all our magnificent wildlife.

  • At Marine Life, we are doing our part as well. Actively encouraging breeding in our colony is helping zoos and aquariums build up a large, healthy population of African penguins so they will never be fully extinct. Since 2017, we are proud to say that more than half of our colony hatched at WEM Marine Life and our newest additions are– Neo, Charlie, and Nina.

Interesting Facts

  • When swimming, African penguins can reach a top speed close to 20km/h.
  • African penguins have a nictitating membrane - a transparent third eyelid that acts helps protect their eyes when open in salt water.
  • Their Latin name, Spheniscus demersus, comes from the Greek work spen, meaning wedge (referring to their streamlined swimming shape), and the Latin word dermersus, meaning plunging.
  • One thing that makes African penguins different from most other birds is their bone structure. While birds that fly have hollow bones, penguins have dense bones that help them dive and swim.
  • Penguins make a loud braying sound, similar to a donkey, to communicate to each other.