International African Penguin Awareness Day marked with 24-hour dive in Durban

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Scientists and conservationists have embarked on a 24-hour dive and walk at uShaka Marine World in Durban to raise awareness for International African Penguin Awareness Day. According to World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa, the African Penguin species, only found in southern African waters, has declined by over 90% from over a million breeding pairs estimated in the early 1900’s in South Africa to around 10 000 breeding pairs.

According to the organisation, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) first classified the African Penguin as “endangered” in 2010. They say the population has continued to decline at an alarming rate of between 5 to 10% per year.

The African Penguins live on land but forage for food in the ocean.

Over 30 divers took turns diving in the fish tank at uShaka Marine World in Durban while others chose to walk along the promenade for 24 hours raising awareness about the plight of African Penguins.

Scuba officer at Durban Undersea Club, Brian Hart, says the diving has helped create awareness and educate people about the African Penguin.

“An average diver will go out on a boat or on the shore and dive for maybe an hour but this event is just a continuous amount of dives taking place even at 2 o’clock in the morning. So, it’s very different and so, it creates awareness; and obviously, people are excited about it and putting it out on social media in that way, creating awareness because of the International Penguins Day, and obviously, allowing people to read up more as to why the African Penguin is endangered,” says Hart.

The Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment recently announced the partial closure of fishing around some African Penguin breeding colonies. This announcement acknowledges the importance of island closures in enhancing successful African Penguin breeding efforts.

The African Penguin feeds on sardines which are also on the decline.

Executive Manager at The South African Association for Marine Biological Research (SAAMBRA) in uShaka, Maryke Musson, says many factors, including climate change, play a role in the decline of the African Penguin.

“With climate change, the fish stock also move around which means the penguins – where they’ve got these nesting islands- suddenly have to swim a lot further to try and get food. So, it takes them so much longer to get back to the nest and feed the chick, and the chicks often die. But there are all sorts of other risks to penguins as well, one being excessive marine traffic and marine noise, especially near nesting islands. So, there is a combination of factors contributing to these poor birds really struggling in the wild, and the numbers continuing to drop.”

Musson says unpolluted ocean and environment play a major role in the survival of not only the African Penguins but all marine life. She has urged people to keep the environment and ocean clean to preserve all wildlife.

Assistant curator of Mammal and Birds at uShaka Marine WorldCraig Smith, says all major stakeholders need to be involved in trying to protect and preserve the African Penguin.

“We need to try and motivate the government. We need to try and motivate landowners that have a say in those areas to help us establish areas that would be suitable for them [African Penguins], but it’s not only land areas because they feed in the sea, so it’s protecting the marine areas as well,” says Smith.

He says a number of protected marine areas have been recently promulgated to try and help not only the African Penguin but also a number of other marine species.