To boldly go… why swimming with the penguins at Boulders is so great
Penguins at Boulders: Nothing quite beats the thrill of swimming at Boulders beach with the penguins. Admittedly Sunday’s rather busy rash of visitors to the popular but small beach meant that only one little black and white resident was bold enough to brave the crowds in the main cove of Boulders. But venture a little further, through the ‘crack in the wall’, and there are penguins galore that are quite happy to share their space, provided you maintain a respectable distance.
It’s just as well that Boulders is a paying beach or it would be inundated. Even though it now costs R35 an adult and R10 a child, the beach is still one of the most popular swimming beaches on the False Bay Coast for people with children, as it’s without fail sheltered from the wind, and virtually always a calm pond-like swimming experience for bathers …
Try and avoid weekends if you can, as the crowds definitely result in fewer encounters of the waddling kind.
The beach apparently limits the number of visitors to the beach (just as well as crowds like that on Sunday must surely interfere with the penguins breeding programme), parking is pretty restricted, and car guards’ participation in locating a spot for you, virtually nonexistent.
However, the little bay is so conducive to swimming that children and adults pretty much ignore their chilling extremities for the joys of snorkelling and floating in calm, gorgeously blue waters.
Finding a spot on the beach is of the utmost importance, and if you leave your arrival time to after 11am you’ll possibly struggle. There are a couple of shady spots if you’re prepared to snuggle up to the top edge of the beach or the ‘stairway to nowhere’ towards the middle of the beach, and you’ll need an umbrella if you’re going to stay for the long haul.
However, if you’re smart and have packed strategically (which means you can simply swing your haversack onto your back and easily manoeuvre yourself up and down boulders, umbrella and all!) then slipping through a crack in the boulders on the far side of the beach to make your way to a series of other coves is well worth it. Here there are fewer people, more penguins, and a lot more peace and quiet.
The sand is perfect for sandcastles, the huge boulders for which the beach is obviously named provide wonderful scrambling opportunities, the water behaves itself impeccably – not even a rough wave to dislodge people from their towels – and the wind, well, what wind? On the whole, the wind doesn’t blow in this protected cove, which is probably why it is so popular. It’s one of very few spots in Cape Town where your umbrella actually remains upright.
As for the little black and white waddlers. They’re African penguins, also known as jackass penguins for the braying donkey noise they’re supposed to make (although there was little of that on the beach this past weekend given competition with a gang load of human beings) and this is the only place in the world where you can swim in amongst them, or rather, they can choose to swim in amongst you.
Capetonian or visitor, the appeal is no less thrilling. Simon’s Town is one of only 28 sites worldwide (you can also see them in Kommetjie and occasionally at Cape Point and Robben Island) where this particular penguin occurs at all and Boulders is especially unique because the penguins selected the spot themselves, in the early 1980s, despite its being the middle of suburbia and a public swimming beach.
Whilst local residents are not all as joyously enthusiastic about the penguins as visitors to the beach (get downwind of them and you soon discover that ‘good housekeeping’ is not one of their strengths) the birds are flourishing. What I didn’t know is that this is due in no small way to a man known as ‘Van the penguin man’ who regards himself as something of a benefactor of the little sea birds, and has played a huge part in conflict resolution between local residents and the birds.
If you want a guided tour of the penguins at Boulders with Van, contact Grete at Boulder Beach Guesthouse – phone him on 082 921 5724. Some of what you will learn from him includes the fact that penguins’ fossil records indicate that they were already well established some 50 million years ago and that some prehistoric penguins stood as tall as 1.5 metres and must have weighed around 100 kg – good thing that they’re not quite as big today!
The penguins appear to have little discrimination when it comes to where they’re prepared to set up home, and you’ll find them all over the show – under bushes, on the boardwalk, around the side of boulders – and they’ve adopted a nonchalant attitude towards humans, either ignoring us completely or snapping at our heels if we get too close for comfort; so don’t even think about touching them … but they’re pretty much laidback on the whole.
If you’re here to view the penguins, rather than enjoy the beach, then stick to the boardwalks that lead behind the beach and over the dunes as this way you’ll head to the heart of the colony. Although in this way you only see them waddling about on land, when it is the water that is their element, and watching them effortlessly dart in and out whilst gathering speed in the water is to see them where they belong.
Best time to go: during the week or very early or late (around 5pm) in the day, as the beaches are far less crowded and you feel part of the scenery, tolerated by the penguins rather than vice versa.