Penguin biologist Paul Leonard is in South Africa researching African penguins in the wild. The following is a report from the field. You can learn about the time he spent nursing abandoned chicks to health at a local rescue facility here.
The Storm Petrel is a 6-person inflatable skiff, or "ducky boat." There is nothing cute and cuddly about this little craft. It has two monster outboard engines with a welded steel frame to protect them. The seats have handlebars for people to grip. Apparently, the local coast guard station asked to test-drive this little lady because they were in need of a new boat. They put her through every maneuver they could think of and could not roll her. I looked at this boat and knew that I was about to have one crazy ride.
It was about 7 a.m. We quickly loaded up our gear and drove to Yzerfontein's main harbor. The Storm Petrel was launched and we began our trek to Dassen Island. The seas had calmed down from about 12 feet to 8 to 9 feet. However, they were expected to increase in height and get nasty as the day went on. We had a very small window of time to make it to Dassen. As we made our way past the jetty and breakwater, I began to feel the excitement build. You could just barely recognize Dassen's icon lighthouse on the horizon. Between it and us was this massive, undulating sea. The best way to describe the feeling I had at that moment is for you to imagine yourself being on a rollercoaster. Remember what it's like to head up that first major climb? You're sitting there, fretting over your original decision to get on the ride. You know that in just a few moments that you're going to drop and there's no stopping it. Yeah, that's where I was. I looked ahead and said, "This is going to be awesome!"
And it was!
The skipper did a great job of navigating up and down the ocean swells. About 15 minutes into our crossing, he slowed down and began pointing to the left side of the boat. A humpback whale and its calf were surfacing roughly 100 yards away. They didn't stick around for long. Once they were gone, we continued on our crossing. The trip to Dassen took approximately 30 minutes.
Dassen's main harbor lies on the north side of the island. It is a small, protected cove with a small jetty. There are very few buildings left on the island. The majority of them are concentrated near the main dock. As we climbed on to the jetty, what's the first thing to catch my eye — the penguins!