The birds are a top attraction in Simon’s Town, but their numbers are dwindling, a worrying factor that also points to wider threats to the world’s oceans.
Lorien Pichegru of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology said: “The African Penguins have been decreasing by 60% since 2004, so that’s why we are all very worried.
“There’s 26 000 pairs left and that’s the lowest number ever recorded.
“We had more than two million birds at the beginning of the 20th century.”
Scientists call penguins an indicator species: one that is easy to monitor and can also point to unseen and wider problems in the ocean.
Africa’s nesting penguins were reclassified as endangered last year after their numbers were nearly wiped out, likely as a result of competition for food from commercial fisheries and shifting fish stocks.
The flightless birds, known for their “tuxedo” plumage and their comical walks, mainly eat anchovies and sardines and only breed in southern Namibia and South Africa.
But changing fish patterns have forced them to travel farther to find food and even establish new nesting areas such as at Simons Town’s Boulders Beach, where a pair arrived in the 1980s.
“Food is one of the biggest threats, if not the biggest threat,” said Rob Crawford of the department of environmental affairs, pointing to a 600km shift in the migration path of sardines.
“Penguins cannot swim that far to feed their chicks and then at the end of breeding they have to fatten up to moult as well,” he said.
Birdlife International has warned that the African Penguin, one of the world’s 18 penguin species, is edging closer to extinction.
To halt the slide, it has called for research into the effects of climate change and possible no-fishing zones around island colonies.
A 20km trawling ban around the world’s biggest colony on St Croix island in Algoa Bay allowed nearly three-quarters of birds there to stop having to make exhausting long-haul hunts, research showed last year.
Healthy populations of the seabird would ordinarily withstand raids by egg-stealing gulls and hunters like seals, cats, dogs or wild predators.
But the population concerns mean that every individual is now seen as critical, and oiled, injured and abandoned chicks are rescued.
Last year 49 babies were flown off an Algoa island due to threats of cold weather.