So long and thanks for all the fish

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Africa - without its penguins? A spine tingling shiver as cold as the Atlantic ran through me when I discovered that our very own penguin could disappear within my lifetime.  The statistics are terrifying, and I had no wish to add to the doom and gloom by photographing dead penguins or dwindling colonies … I wanted to illustrate the plight of the African penguin in a way that grabs people and captures their interest. If I got this right – perhaps I could inspire people to join in and help African penguins get back on their feet.

And so it was that over the course of many weekends and days off (I was working in marine conservation at the time) that I found myself attempting to melt into inconspicuousness at the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB). Gradually, I engrained myself behind the scenes at SANCCOB; reaching beyond the obvious, I started to capture intimate images of the birds, volunteers and staff at work. We were all in it together - for the birds.

I don’t think the penguins shared the same sentiments. It was messy business, and to capture a sense of bird life here I had to get down and dirty. Lying eye level with a group of oiled birds left me wide open for target practice and more than once I had a face dripping with warm, fishy, liquid guano. Though my Nikon has finally lost all traces of penguin vomit, I did capture the twinkle in a rebellious penguin’s eye as he flung a sardine at my lens. Most of the penguins have to be force fed, and it’s no easy task. I happily bear the scars of a few penguin bites but my scratched glass filters will never be the same again. If you think penguins are cute and cuddly, I urge you to volunteer at SANCCOB.

Penguin vomit is just plain fishy – it’s somehow ok. But, getting the images of the penguins being released at sea, I wasn’t always so lucky … I had sketched the image out a hundred times: the boat captain would line the stern up with Table Mountain, the crewman knew how to hold and tilt the cargo box, my flash lighting was perfect (I had practiced on a cuddly penguin toy) and of course the penguins would jump like ballerinas in the perfect position. But, the best laid schemes o’ penguin an’ photographer…

The swell was up, I was bobbing around in Table Bay, rolling with the waves, clinging on to my camera housing, re-adjusting the flash arms (constantly) and finning like mad (in murky water) to keep up with a big drifting boat (the mountain had vanished). Enter stage above - the heaving whale-watching clients and the contents of their unsealed sick bags that splashed overboard. Meanwhile, with not so perfect timing, the penguins tumbled ungracefully into the water. Somehow I managed to capture the moment, and thanks to a wave sweeping through – it was clean.

The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) works round the clock to care, hand rear and rehabilitate sea birds of all kinds. They are probably best known for their rehabilitation of African penguins after major oil spills, but there work goes far beyond this. Looking through my notes for the story So long and thank for all the fish, the numbers are in bold black and white… the charts show that most colonies are decreasing each year.

There may be less than 5% of the original population left, but that percent still exists, and with it there is a very real possibility that these birds can recover from a century of knocks for another round on the continent. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to wish that we leave more than one third of the fish in the sea for the birds, but for the sake of the African penguin, we should be aiming a little higher?